Barça’s prestigious academy has produced countless first-team players and many club legends over the years. However, there are several world-class footballers who have come out of La Masía and are now thriving outside Barcelona at other clubs. Let’s have a look at some of the ones that got away.
For years, La Masía has been considered to be in decline. The relationship between the academy and Barcelona’s first team has deteriorated, and many have hinted at the lack of quality in a youth system that once produced the likes of Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez and, of course, Lionel Messi.
That said, the main issue has not been a lack of gifted prospects at La Masía, but the lack of visibility and opportunities these have received in Barcelona’s senior side. As we will see in this article, the academy has continued to produce many excellent footballers, but, unfortunately, they have had to find chances elsewhere. In this report, we present five of the former La Masía players who have shone the most around Europe in the 2019/20 season.
Thiago Alcântara is the most high-profile player on this list, and for good reason. Back in 2005, Thiago joined La Masía at just fourteen years of age. He rose up the ranks, showing great promise and earned his first-team debut when he was still only eighteen. He looked set to become the next in the line of Barça’s homegrown midfield maestros.
However, in 2013, Thiago left on a bargain deal to Bayern Munich, due to the now-infamous release clause in his contract that could be triggered should he not receive enough minutes. Since then, the Spaniard has consistently been one of the most well-rounded central midfielders in Europe, and the 2019/20 was arguably his best season yet.
His goals and assists in the Bundesliga did drop from 8 to 3 as he moved into a slightly deeper role this past campaign. But outside of that, Thiago’s numbers were simply sublime. He can advance the ball with passing, he can advance the ball with dribbling – both with extreme efficiency – and he can win the ball in defence. There is not much more you could ask for out of a midfielder than that which Thiago offers.
As a key piece in Bayern’s treble-winning side, it’s now even more clear how costly it was for Barça to let him go. Available for 30 million euros and linked with a move to Liverpool, maybe Barcelona should consider bringing their golden boy back.
From a technical central midfielder to an explosive winger, we now go to Adama Traoré. While he isn’t the typical La Masía product, his immense quality is undeniable. Although to Malian parents, Adama was born in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Barcelona, and joined the youth set-up at just eight years old.
As a UEFA Youth League winner and a first-team debutant at the age of seventeen, the potential was always there. Nonetheless, Adama was sold in 2015 to Aston Villa, with Barça electing to take the risk with a three-year buy-back clause in his contract. While he had a slow start and some ups and downs in England, his 2019/20 campaign with Wolves established him as one of Europe’s best wide players.
Despite some parts of his game are lacking, particularly goalscoring, for the areas in which Adama excels almost nobody matches his production. He is close to unstoppable with his dribbling, constantly beating his defender out wide before putting a pinpoint cross into the box.
With 9 Premier League assists this past course, Wolves in European football again for this coming campaign, and a recent call-up to the Spanish national team, everything is looking up for Adama. He may not be the typical Barcelona winger, but it is hard to imagine any side in football wouldn’t benefit from having someone with Adama Traoré’s skillset.
Moving into defence, we now have the Manchester City youngster, Eric García. Unlike Adama and Thiago, García left the club before even playing a minute for the first team. After being in La Masia from 2008 to 2017, the centre-back was persuaded to leave and join Pep Guardiola‘s project in Manchester.
This past season, Eric García earned his first senior minutes and played in many of City’s big matches late after the coronavirus break. To be trusted that much by Guardiola as a teenager is quite remarkable and indicative of the potential the 19-year-old has.
His stats certainly reflect his La Masía development, as his ball-playing numbers range from above-average to world-class. He’s good at anticipating and intercepting passes, as well as containing dribblers. However, García’s weaknesses are found in what we will call “assertive” defending. When pressing opponents on the ball, he very rarely wins it, and his aerial numbers are abysmal.
Still, with Eric García the good still undoubtedly outweighs the bad. If he can improve in those areas to reach even an average level, his brilliant technique and reading of the game will make him one of the world’s best. As he has rejected contract renewals from City, Barcelona fans have plenty to be optimistic about if the rumours of a return are true.
While he may not be as established as those first three names, Dani Olmo is certainly one to watch for the future. After seven years in La Masía, Olmo decided to leave in 2014, once again before a first-team debut. He went to Croatia, joining Dinamo Zagreb. Even if it was a surprising move at the time, it certainly looks like it has paid off for him.
At Zagreb, Olmo gained multiple seasons of top-flight experience as a teenager, in addition to Europa League and Champions League football. Finally, in January 2020, Olmo made his big move to RB Leipzig, who are notorious for their brilliant scouting. While it has been a tough time to settle in at a new club, Dani Olmo showed promising signs.
The 22-year-old midfielder did well to chip in with a few goals in his limited Bundesliga minutes. Although, based on his much-lower expected goals tally, he will have to work on getting in better shooting positions to keep that up.
There are definitely some signs of growing pains and adapting to a new league. His creative passing stats are very low, and his dribbling numbers are awful, possibly showing that he hasn’t quite adapted to the Bundesliga’s intensity yet. Notwithstanding, his elite performance in through balls, as well as pressing volume and efficiency, shows that he fits Julian Nagelsmann’s system well. With more time do adapt, plus some more confidence from his goal in the Champions League quarterfinals, the 2020/21 term could be a big one for Olmo.
Alejandro Grimaldo is the only player here who is currently playing outside of the big five European Leagues, but he by no means lacks the quality to do so. Back in 2011, he played his first match for Barça B at just fifteen, becoming the youngest player ever in the Segunda División. He continued with the B team all the way through 2015, yet he could never break into Luis Enrique’s senior side.
With his contract, and his patience, expiring, Grimaldo left to join Portugal’s Benfica. For years now, he has been one of Europe’s highest-rated young left-backs. While he hasn’t made his big transfer yet, the stats suggest it’s only a matter of time.
No full-back in Portugal was better at supplying chances to their teammates, with Grimaldo leading the league in expected assists and key passes. He excels at getting deep into the attacking third and picking out the right option, an essential skill for any full-back at a big club in today’s game.
He also is very tidy at progressing the ball with his passing, above average with his dribbling, and very efficient in duels with attackers. He’s been linked multiple times with a return to Barça over the years, and with Jordi Alba ageing, Grimaldo certainly seems like a great potential replacement.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.