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There’s light at the end of the tunnel for Barcelona

Lewis Shankie

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Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, Josep Maria Bartomeu announced his resignation as the president of Barcelona along with the entire board of directors. Under his leadership, the club has seen a continuous decline, hidden for years by the magic of Lionel Messi.


Under growing pressure and scrutiny, the hierarchy at Barcelona finally realised they could no longer stay in power. The club was rocked by scandals, dubious transfers, financial troubles and failings on the pitch under Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure.

However, this eventually caught up with the former president as Socios flocked in their thousands to vote against his regime. With Bartomeu gone, Barça must look to the future and rebuild their identity under a new board.

It is crucial that the next president understands the club’s principles. The Catalan giants have a unique footballing philosophy that, when implemented properly, has seen them dominate world football. Several candidates are ideal for this role but there are others that run the risk of continuing Bartomeu’s legacy.

A recurring theme for top European clubs

AC Milan were once the dominant force in Europe. Between 2005 and 2007, the Italian side were at their peak, reaching the final of the UEFA Champions League twice in three seasons, winning it on their second attempt. The team had a clear identity and players that understood the system.

Their squad was filled with superstars and the football was perfectly balanced with fantastic defenders, such as Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta, and creativity from Andrea Pirlo and Kaká.

The success did not last long for the Rossoneri after that. Within a couple of seasons, the team was almost unrecognisable as many of the stars either retired or were sold, due to financial issues at the club. Their world-class players were never properly replaced, and the capital outfit have suffered over the last decade.

This can be seen at other top European clubs, particularly Manchester United. After legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, left the Red Devils, they have never been the same. The club is now being run by former investment banker, Ed Woodward, who has failed to build a team even close to the Ferguson era, though spending a fortune in the process.

Ed Woodward is not a well respected figure among the fanbase. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images )

It has been the same for other top teams in Europe. Liverpool went 30 years without winning the Premier League after being so dominant for decades. Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Real Madrid have all struggled to maintain their best levels over recent years for a variety of reasons. In truth, none of the usual top teams look at their best this season, except maybe Bayern Munich.

Barcelona, too, have been following this trajectory for some time under Bartomeu. The change was desperately needed at the Camp Nou to stop Barça from sinking any lower, and while it comes late, the fans must rejoice that it has.

The importance of the vote

Due to the Barcelona’s unique structure, there is a chance to improve the situation. While most clubs are owned by a super-wealthy individual or an exclusive group, the Blaugrana are owned by over 144,000 members. This allows them to vote for and against the administration at the club.

The coming months will be some of the most vital in FC Barcelona’s 120 years of existence. Choosing the correct president and regime is vital if trophies are to return to the Nou Camp.

There are still those running to be the next president of Barcelona with links to the Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu administration. Furthermore, they disagree with the ideas of Barça legend Johan Cruyff and look to remove his legacy from the club. Former legends such as Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, and Carles Puyol have distanced themselves from the club government and refused to return to the club and be associated with it.

It is imperative that those that look to removed Cruyff’s philosophy from the club do not return.

How can Barcelona get back to their best?

One candidate that is a favourite, and offers a very promising plan, is Victor Font with his ‘Sí al Futur’ or ‘yes to the future’ project. Font is a successful businessman and the co-founder and CEO of Delta Partners. The business is an investment firm and consultancy. He has recently been named as one of the top CEOs in the consultancy industry.

Victor Font may have the winning formula with him. (Photo by Marta Prez)

The Sí al Futur project has a few eye-catching headlines that should excite every Culé. Firstly, Font wants to fix the economic crisis with the club facing crippling debt. Nobody seems more suited to this task than the Delta Partners CEO, who has over 20 years of experience.

However, Font does not want to fix the situation by selling out; instead, he wants to keep the morals of the club. An example he has used is returning the UNICEF logo to the Barcelona shirt after it was dismissed for a sponsor offering a lot of money.

Secondly, Font wishes to bring back legends to the club to reinstate the club’s identity and principles on the pitch. Barça have gradually strayed from these in recent years and the performances have deteriorated because of this.

Finally, La Masia is a key issue for Font. The academy has been brutally neglected over the last decade. Under the Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu era, only Sergi Roberto and, more recently, Ansu Fati have managed to secure a regular starting role in the first team. Font wants to stop the absurd spending on big names that do not fit the system and trust the academy again.

Font’s idea is to handle the business side of the club and allow those that fully understand the football — more than him anyway — parts to return to the club and manage that aspect.

Conclusion

As Arturo Vidal departed Barcelona in the summer, the Chilean had a few stinging words about the club. He criticised Barça’s reliance on their DNA and that they cannot always win using this method. The Inter Milan midfielder stated that they must change a lot of things.

In a way, Vidal was correct, the Garnet and the Blue do need to change a lot of things. During his time at the club, Barcelona had not been further from their DNA in years. They had drifted from their footballing philosophy and seen their performances on the pitch suffer immensely.

As La Masia was overlooked for expensive signings, the club entered serious debt. A negative environment surrounded the Nou Camp and players had to speak out to try and save the club.

Where the tough-tackling midfielder was wrong though was that Barcelona should not rely on their DNA. Now, more than ever, the Spanish side need to rebuild themselves with their philosophy in mind. Glimpses of the same can be seen this season, even though the team struggles to find consistent ground.

There’s light at end of the tunnel; it may be bleak, but it’s visible, which is all that matters. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

The Blaugrana were in danger of following AC Milan into over ten years of footballing pain. With this election, there is an opportunity to avoid this disaster and restore Barcelona to their glorious best. It is not about creating an identical treble-winning Pep Guardiola team but finding that same philosophy and identity that is FC Barcelona. And with Bartomeu gone, they may well be on their way.

Football is the greatest sport in the world. There is no sporting event that is watched more and is as passionately followed. Any football fan should try and watch Barcelona to understand how football should be played. At Barcelona, football is all about keeping the ball, movement, passing and playing great football above all else. I am a Barça fan from Scotland and have been following the team for over a decade now. I have been lucky enough to watch possibly the greatest era on football ever, and hope it continues.

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The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers

Anurag Agate

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Photos via Imago

“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”

At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.

He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.

Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.

An incomplete dream. (Photo via Imago)

It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.

There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.

Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.

The prototype of a Barcelona number nine

Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.

To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.

The next striker carrying the La Masia dream. (Photo via Imago)

Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.

Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.

La Masia strikers and their progression

Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.

Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.

Ruiz, too, failed to carry the mantle. (Photo via Imago)

But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?

Possible problems and solutions

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.

In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.

This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.

Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.

As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.

Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.

Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.

Luis Suarez often caught the solo boat ride, which worked for him. (Photo via Imago)

Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.

One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.

This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.

Fan’s opinions

We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.

They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.

Navid

“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”

Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.

Can Ansu Fati be the no. 9 from La Masia? (Photo via Imago)

“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”

“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”

“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”

Single Pivot

“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.

All eyes on Peque. (Photo via Imago)

I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”

Sam

“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”

“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”

“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”

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