As a result of his unforgivably poor planning, former president José Maria Bartomeu turned the proverbial anthill that would have been the replenishment of Barcelona’s squad into a mountain eclipsing the heights of Everest. Blinded by his desire to achieve immediate success, he left the club in complete disarray, utterly defenceless to the cruel mistress of age and how big a toll she would take on the squad.
Now in a transition year, and with many of the core players in the squad gradually hanging their boots, the Blaugrana have steadily reverted to the use of youth. Given the sheer potential that the Catalans’ new blood possess, the prospect of them turning into future world-beaters is not all that far fetched.
Barça Universal categorically explores Barça’s next generation of youngsters, position by position as well as the quality each individual possesses.
The Next Generation: The Defence
Ronald Araújo, Óscar Mingueza, Eric García, and Sergiño Dest
Conversations surrounding the defence follow much of the same script, with a pre-existing and long-established archetype of what the ideal Barça defender should look like.
The Garnet and Blue’s centre-backs should ideally be excellent passers of the ball, with a pristine understanding of how best to play the ball out the back, and when attacked, they are expected to display the utmost positional dexterity. As for the fullbacks, given how often Barcelona marauds the opposition’s half with wave after wave of attack, they must without question be capable of complementing their wingers and delivering accurate crosses into the box.
Starting with the centre-back position, the Azulgranas are spoilt for choice, owing to the sheer strength in depth of the defensive talent they have.
Ronald Araújo is the first name that springs to mind and with reason. In this campaign, he has been one of La Liga’s breakthrough players, delivering masterclass after defensive masterclass in Gerard Piqué’s absence. While he doesn’t stand out for being the most dextrous of passers, it is his immaculate understanding of positional play that makes him such a pain to play against.
Such is the lever of the Uruguayan’s positioning that the once went thirteen successive games without being dribbled past. Much like Piqué, thanks to testimonials from the likes of Graham Hunter, we know that he is a commanding presence on the pitch, acting as an organiser from the back whose commands his teammates follow without question.
Second, to him, the Catalans flaunt the ever-surprising Oscar Mingueza. Once nothing more than a third choice centre-back for Garcia Pimienta’s side, the Barça number 28 has taken La Liga by storm. In large part, thanks to the academic years spent in Barcelona’s esteemed academy, Mingueza developed a serene understanding of everything “Barça.”
Like Araújo before him, he stands out for his impressive positional attributes, compounding it with his seemingly innate ballplaying ability and ever-reliable versatility in the fullback role. He offers a different dynamic to each of his positions and is easily one of the best in his age group.
Transcending borders and heading to the blue half of Manchester, a former academy player in Eric García lies in wait for a call from his beloved Barcelona. While not yet a first-team regular for Pep Guardiola’s Cityzens, he has earned quite a name for himself in the eyes of his manager, and to receive such recognition from arguably the best manager in the world speaks volumes of just the sort of player the Garnet and Blue are soon to acquire.
He offers much of the same skillset as the two aforementioned players, though with the added benefit of having been under Pep’s tutelage for so long. With his contract ending in the summer and Guardiola admitting himself the player’s desires to return to the place he once called home, this is in every way, shape and form, a match made in heaven.
Finally, with Sergiño Dest, Barcelona has an absolute monster in the making. The first American ever to don Barcelona’s iconic colours, there is no reason why the 20-year old wouldn’t mark an era of his own in a Barça shirt. With probably the keenest — though overbearing — self-critical pair of eyes in the entirety of the squad, Dest has an obsession with always bettering himself, taking every single opportunity granted to him as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.
Thanks to his extensive learning in Ajax’s de Toekomst as well as his experiences in street football, he acquired an exceptional ability to play through the most minute of spaces, as well as the equanimity to both pass and dribble with limited time to think. This, to Barça, was a heaven-sent and given his astronomical rise to prominence at such a tender age, none could challenge the idea that he is just years away from achieving world-class status.
The next generation of defenders is far from complete, as Barça are still much in need of a left-back who to be Jordi Alba’s successor, but given what they have and are soon to acquire, Barcelona could soon have one of, if not the, best central defences in all of Europe.
The Next Generation: The Midfield
Pedri Gonzales, Riqui Puig, Ilaix Moriba, and Frenkie de Jong
Having painfully endured the final years of the Rakitić-Vidal era, Barcelona have finally returned to their cultural norm when it comes to midfielders. Football, as the great Johan Cruyff described it, is a game played by the mind, with the feet serving only as guides to help the player walk the extra mile. As such, despite a majority of European giants opting for tall and physically imposing midfielders to assert dominance over their rivals, Barcelona have in the past and will continue to rely on their small-framed but technically adept midfielders.
The midfield at Barcelona is where all the magic happens. It is in this area of the pitch that the manager’s tactical nous is put to the test. Why so? Well, a functioning midfield is both the heart and soul of the team. As such, for the forward line to stand any chance of scoring, and the defence one of being stable, then it is imperative that the core of the team perform to its utmost best.
Starting with the youngest lad of the lot, we have Pedro Gonzales, or as he is more colloquially known, Pedri. The 18-year-old midfielder is a man of precocious dexterity, such exemplified by the endless comparisons to legend and player Andrés Iniesta. The comparisons are very much justified, as, despite his relatively tender age, Pedri plays football far beyond his years, with a commitment to the badge that made him an instant favourite to Ronald Koeman.
There is next to nothing about him that one wouldn’t want to love. One of the more proactive players in the squad, Pedri’s impeccable ability to involve himself in ball circulation coupled with his technical presence make him an absolute joy to watch. Where his football is put to the test, primarily in his capacity to play a limitedly spaced and fast-paced brand of football, he excels with flying colours.
His defensive work has often left Culés aghast and agape, as, despite his small frame, he has not a worry in his mind about punching above his weight. Whilst pressing, he often manipulates the movements of his opponents, cleverly closing down passing lanes until eventually pouncing on them. This is evidence of a true football mind and one to be enjoyed for at least a decade.
Riqui Puig and Pedri are easily comparable to fraternal twins. In multifarious ways, their footballing genius bears resemblances to one another with similarities stretching from their offensive approach to games as well as their build-up play, though with a few fundamental differences in functioning. When playing out the back, Riqui has a tendency to drop deep, essentially as a third centre-back, and for his explosive nature and minuscule frame, his technicality and physical agility take centre stage in making him a threat to the opposition.
The 21-year-old has gained his fair share of plaudits for his excellence in the three core aspects of any midfielder’s play. His passing is possibly his greatest attribute, as his time at La Masia taught him the indispensable skill of looking up and scanning his environment both before making and receiving passes.
His impeccable positioning is a heaven-sent for Barça, as he knows precisely where and when to be to create positional superiorities endlessly. His pressing, while perhaps not as good as Pedri’s, still is some of the best in the team as his ability to shift gears wears down his opponents, leaving them no time to breathe, let alone think.
Ilaix Moriba has started to make a case for himself in Barcelona’s first team, as well. Within the space of two months, Ilaix has received his debut, assisted two goals, scored his first goal in the form of a screamer for the senior team, and got the opportunity to play at the highest level, coming on as a substitute against Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League.
In fact, as it stands, it looks like the Spaniard has already overtaken Puig in the ladder rung for a place in the first team for Barcelona. Koeman prefers his midfielders with a hint of physical presence, and Ilaix brings exactly that to the table, along with his astute technicality and flair on the ball. He has been touted as one of the best players of his generations by several academy coaches, and fans can’t help but notice the similarity to Paul Pogba.
Last but certainly not least, we have Frenkie de Jong. Brought from Ajax to add to Barcelona’s then dull midfield, the Dutchman has seen a quite remarkable change in fortunes in the Barcelona camp. Much criticised for being inexpressive compared to his Ajax days, de Jong’s tactical rebirth under Ronald Koeman has revitalized hope that was seemingly lost among Culés.
The Barça number 21 shares many of the same attributes as his fellow interiors when it comes to pressing and passing, but in addition to that, he offers an entirely different dynamic to the Barça midfield. In what would otherwise be a monotonous middle of the park, Frenkie injects that extra dash of venom to add to the potency of the midfield.
He shows the courage and valour to run at defences, creating positional and situational advantages where there initially were none He is also evolving into quite the complete footballer, with him going from strength to strength in terms of his influence in all thirds of the pitch.
In such a rapidly growing midfield, perhaps all what is lacking is someone to take up the role of the positional pivot from Sergio Busquets. The Spaniard is one of a kind when it comes to his understanding of the role, but with Garcia Pimienta still at the helm of the B team, no one can discount La Masia just yet.
The Next Generation: The forwards
Francisco Trincão, Ousmane Dembélé, and Ansu Fati
The final third is the single area that grabs the most attention in games. From the tenacious dribbles from the wingers to the unparalleled joy that comes from the ball hitting the back of the net, the forwards simply take all the headlines.
With the minutes ticking down to Lionel Messi’s eventual departure, Barça need a good enough attacking trio to take the reigns from him. Fortunately for them, they have a versatile and promising trio of youngsters, each capable of marking an era of their own for at least a decade.
Injured for what has now been four months, Ansu Fati’s layoff has been a big miss for the Catalans. Initially, a striker up until his arrival into the first team, Ansu’s transformation into a winger has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of Barcelona’s most pivotal of revelations this past year. Despite the incessant comparisons to Lionel Messi simply on the basis that he plays for Barcelona, Ansu bears far more similarities to a mid-twenties Cristiano Ronaldo than he does anyone else.
Much like the Portuguese, the Spaniard spends large portions of the game hugging the touchline, and with the fearlessness brimming in him that so often comes with youth, he takes on defenders with relative ease. Once he cuts inside and moves into the half-space, he times his runs and shots to pristine perfection. In the penalty area, the 18-year-old is as clinical a finisher as they come, exemplified by his 28% finishing rate. Perhaps the biggest shock is that he still is Barca’s third top goal scorer even half a season since his injury.
On the opposite flank, Francisco Trincão is a mixed bag. While it is true that he possesses immense potential to become a world-class footballer, the confidence Fati has in abundance is perhaps what is lacking most in him. His decision-making is atrocious and reflective of this, as, on numerous occasions, he takes one touch too many, wasting valuable seconds that send up hurting both him and the collective.
At only 20 years of age, he still has a long way to go, and judging him off some few lacklustre displays wouldn’t be all that reasonable. Of late, he has been getting more minutes, and with the additional confidence bestowed upon him by his manager, his sense of self-belief seemingly shot up too. With this boost in self-esteem, he has taken more and more chances at goal and depending on how his evolution as a player goes, he might have quite a future at the club. His integration has been anything but smooth, but all we can hope now is that the troubled waters have finally settled and that he can finally have his day in the sun.
Finally, with Ousmane Dembélé, Barcelona have possibly one of the best up and coming wingers in the world. Renowned for his uncanny ability to create danger and chaos through his quick feet, El Mosquito, as some call him, is one of the best in this sphere. Dominating both the right and left wings given his rare gift as an ambidextrous footballer, Dembélé is ideally a threat for all opposition to beware of. Why wouldn’t he be when he can cause the opposition peril from virtually anywhere and in any way he pleases?
There are facets within his game to bet improved upon, such as his end product which oftentimes is lacking in quality, but the more chances he gets to do so, the better he’ll get. He has the confidence of Ronald Koeman and the support of both frontrunners in the presidential elections, so an extension of his contract will only take a matter of time.
Unlike in previous years, this is one that Barcelona can well and truly gloat about having a young squad. Riddled with potentially world-class talent all throughout the squad, it is only a matter of time until Barca’s next wave of European dominance kicks in. This is easily one of, if not the best generations of young footballers in the world, and while a number are still diamonds in the rough, should their progress be managed with tender arms, there is next to no reason why they won’t mark an era of their own in this side.