With a stacked season ahead, Barça Universal takes a look at three Barcelona B players who are most likely to break into the first team this season.
Barcelona have one of the best youth academies in world football in the form of La Masia. The club’s philosophy is to promote homegrown players from the academy and progress from within.
In recent years, due to administrative mismanagement, among other reasons, fewer and fewer players have made it to the first team. After Sergi Roberto, Ansu Fati is the only one to have completely established himself in the squad. However, there is never a lack of impressive players to pick from the academy.
Factors to be considered
To consider the three players most likely to break into the first team this season, we need to consider some important factors. First, we need to recognize that debuting is not the same as breaking into the first team. We might see players debut but eventually, fall back down the pecking order.
Second, squad depth. Although there are some excellent players such as Ilaix Moriba, Nico Gonzales, and Jandro Orellana in midfield, the first-team midfield is just too stacked for any of them to get a whiff of being a first-team regular.
What these factors do is show us the difference between the players who have the talent to make it into the first team and those who have the talent but are also likely to get a chance to display the talent.
At 17, Balde can follow into Fati’s footsteps. (Photo via Imago)
Alejandro Balde is one of La Masia’s best prospects. He is a swift left-back, who is very unpredictable, great at 1v1s and technically sound. Born on 18 October 2003, he was initially great at athletics before starting football. Apparently, he used to be allowed to leave the starting line a second or two after the other kids, and he would still reach the finishing line first.
His pace has translated excellently into football, which was visible when he was at Espanyol. Initially playing at Sant Gabriel, he attracted interest from Barcelona but joined their rivals.
Balde was initially deployed as a striker, but the left-back position was later decided to be his best position. This is no surprise, as Balde is an impressive left-back, even without his speed. His positioning is incredible, but it’s his tackles which are even more so. Always measured and clean, the 17-year-old is well-versed in pressing as well.
In the case of Balde, it’s his attacking characteristics which are the highlight. The Spaniard is a very good dribbler, maintaining close-control while having pace as well. He often looks to cut inside in the final third, even driving into the penalty area at times.
Unpredictable and direct, his crossing is the cherry on top. For the Juvenil teams as well as for the Spanish youth sides, his whipped, pinpoint crosses are essentially a tap-in waiting for the striker.
Recently, Spanish media outlets reported that after Junior Firpo’s sale, the club will be counting on Alejandro Balde to be the second-choice left-back. This is great news as he is someone who has shown that the sky is the limit for him.
📰 — Barcelona will promote the 17-year-old La Masia left-back, Alejandro Balde, if Firpo leaves in January. [sport] pic.twitter.com/TOY7AVTPOw— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 12, 2020
However, it’s also too much pressure for a 17-year-old who hasn’t even made his Barca B debut. Regardless of this, it seems he will be in the first-team plans this season, and should he be able to handle the pressure, the Blaugrana have a real diamond in their hands.
Konrad de la Fuente
Konrad De la Fuente has already debuted, albeit unofficially, under Koeman and has been in the first-team squad-lists for a while now. He even made his US Men’s National Team debut as recently as on the 12th November 2020 and looked very comfortable playing at a higher level.
Konrad is a winger who has also been deployed through the middle. Though he is comfortable on both wings, he is right-footed and prefers to cut inside from the left. His 1v1s are visible as his strongest asset here. The American is explosive and spontaneous, and at times it seems as if even he is unsure what his next move is going to be an instant before he executes it.
If tames correctly, Konrad’s talent will skyrocket. (Photo via Imago)
When deployed down the right, Konrad proves that his crossing is often overlooked down the left. His crosses are very accurate, and he tends to cross from the byline, rather than from deep. He is a different type of player depending on the wing he is deployed on, as is to be expected. What’s impressive is how he has adapted both positions to make the most out of his skillset.
With Ansu Fati injured, Konrad is the player chosen to cover for him according to Spanish media outlets. That would be a great decision if it’s true. Konrad is someone for whom the talent and the opportunities are slowly coinciding into a player who knows how to make the most of every chance he is givens.
As Barcelona B’s season goes underway, there have been some early star performers as usual. Generally, the attackers or midfielders, or at most the full-backs are the ones who look the most influential. However, this season Arnau Comas has arguably been their best player.
Comes spent last season at Olot, but his loan proved to be different than the reputation they have received lately. It turned out to be a booster for Comas. Born in Cassa de la Selva on 11 April 2000, Comas was initially at Girona where he established himself as a very promising young central defender. He was recruited by Barcelona in 2010.
As expected, Comas is a Barcelona DNA defender. A very calm and composed player, he is positionally excellent as well.
Rather than always relying on tackles or strength, the 20-year-old is someone who prefers to position himself in a way that a tackle is always the secondary option. Always very calm under pressure, the Spaniard is a ball-playing-defender. As all Barcelona sides build-up from the back, the defenders have to be comfortable with the ball at their feet.
Arnau Comas is very capable of dribbling out of defence and driving forwards similar to the way Pique does. Though he can be conservative at times, and maybe too cautious, he does have this ability. Under Garcia Pimienta, Comas looks to be becoming a complete defender. He has looked solid against dribblers as well this season, demonstrating his adequate pace. At 180cm, his height is relatively average, but he still manages to perform very well aerially, even scoring the winner against Gimnastic de Tarragona.
The thrill of a match winner. (Photo via Imago)
The main issue with Comas’ progression to the first team is that he has the more experienced Oscar Mingueza ahead of him.
Even Santiago Ramos Mingo is a capable defender but out of those three, Comas is the most in-form and is showing his growing leadership, intelligence and defensive prowess. As Barcelona lack depth at center-back, Comas could very well make his debut this season, after which it is very possible that he could establish himself within the first team dynamics.
Alex Collado is someone who very likely could have been in the three who could make their first-team breakthroughs. Especially since he would do very well in the mediapunta role Koeman deploys in his 4-2-3-1.
Collado is a very graceful attacking-midfielder who can also play on the wings. Still just 21 years of age, he has superb technique, good vision and awareness, and can launch an incredible shot as well. The main problem for him is the fact that he has Coutinho, Pedri and even Messi when paired up with Griezmann in that role, making his spot next to impossible right now.
Jandro Orellana is one of the personifications of everything La Masia strives for. A very humble, hardworking person and a very smart player with a lot of talent. He can play as a pivot or as an interior.
The Spaniard is a metronomic midfielder, and keeps things ticking for his team. His passing range and awareness are some of his strongest attributes. Always as calm as possible, Orellana has the talent, but it seems he won’t get the chance to display it this season given the overloaded midfield
When Barcelona played Celta in October, towards the end of the match a foul was given against a Barcelona player. Everyone saw it was clearly the wrong decision but since they were already comfortably leading nobody bothered to protest. Except the 19-year-old goalkeeper Tenas. And he wasn’t even on the pitch.
These examples of his passion for the club, his vocal nature and his leadership are plenty. To cap it off, he has been training with the first team for almost a year, is great with the ball at his feet and his reflexes are beyond impressive. Tenas is someone who can definitely make it in the first team, but this season it isn’t likely as he has two– even three if we include Inaki Pena – goalkeepers ahead of him.
Best starting XI of ex-La Masía players
With the once-glorious academy ignored in the last few years, Barça Universal attempts to put together a starting XI of the best ex-La Masia players in the world, based on their ability and form.
FC Barcelona’s fabled La Masía is often regarded as one of the best academies in world football. Having produced players like Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi Hernández, to name a few, it’s no question why.
The Blaugrana are in a fortunate spot where they can integrate promising youngsters from their youth teams into their senior squad; however, in recent years, there has been a divergence from this approach. Consequently, Barça have seen their fair share of homegrown starlets slip through the cracks.
In this piece, we at Barça Universal will be forming a starting eleven of the best active ex-La Masía players in the world. Based on their quality and recent performances, these are the best eleven players who either left the Catalan club at a young age or never cemented a place in the first team. We have decided to go through with a 4-2-3-1 formation for the team.
GK: André Onana
Between the sticks, there are few better than André Onana. The Cameroonian international left Barça at 19, and has not looked back since. He’s developed into a premier goalkeeper and has been linked with a move to big clubs all across Europe.
“I think André [Onana] is fantastic. He came to Ajax aged 18 or 19 and the way he developed, and the natural attributes that he already had, his speed, his reaction… I think he set himself as a great goalkeeper.”Edwin van der Sar, 2018
Onana has decisive command of his box, quick reflexes, and is a great shot-stopper. Across 31 appearances last season, he had 11 clean sheets and a formidable 75.5% save percentage. He has also led the Champions League in the last two campaigns with post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed, a stat that measures how well a keeper fares against shots that are expected to go in. He achieved a mark of +4.5, meaning he prevented Ajax from conceding almost five extra goals.
The Catalans would surely regret letting him go if they did not have Marc-André ter Stegen taking charge of the gloves.
RB: Héctor Bellerín
Héctor Bellerín is a clear choice at right-back, edging out the only other realistic option, Real Betis’ Martín Montoya. The Spaniard left Barça in 2011 for Arsenal, after spending 8 years at the club. Although injuries have derailed his recent progress, he’s become a key asset for the Gunners.
Bellerín is quite talented, consistently blistering down the right-hand side with his pace and influencing all aspects of the game. He’s finding his footing after being in and out of the lineup for the last few seasons but already has two assists this campaign. He also earned his first national team call-up since 2016; a positive sign of things to come, maybe.
CB: Eric García
Whether due to his ability or the fact that he left La Masía for a Manchester club, Eric García has been dubbed by some to be the next Gerard Piqué. He spent nine successful years in Barcelona’s academy before joining Manchester City in 2017.
Pep Guardiola wooed Eric Garcia away from Barcelona, and the teenager has proved him right. (Photo via Getty)
Despite being only 19 years old, García plays with poise and composure beyond his years. As a ball-playing defender, he’s comfortable in possession and sharp with his passing, averaging a 96% completion rate last season and 93.8% this season. His high tactical awareness and high-grade positioning make up for lack of aerial prowess.
“He’s so smart, so intelligent. His physicality is not so, so strong, but he resolves the situation by thinking. I like to work with smart people, intelligent people. He is one of them. I can count on him.”Pep Guardiola, 2019
In recent months, García has been linked with a move back to his boyhood club, a testament to his abilities and a sign that Barça repent letting him go. His quality and high-ceiling make him an unquestioned choice at centre-back for this list.
CB: Marc Bartra
The other player in the heart of the defence is Marc Bartra. The 29-year-old could never quite cement a spot in Barça’s first team and was often a backup for Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Javier Mascherano. Consequently, he left the club in 2016 for Borussia Dortmund, after making over 100 appearances for the first team and winning 13 trophies.
Like most La Masía-bred defenders, Bartra is lauded for his passing ability. He adds to that with his top-notch aerial ability and solid tackling.
He now finds himself playing in the La Liga with Real Betis, where he’s a key member of their squad, and one of the first names in the list for the Seville outfit. Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of centre-backs to choose from, but Bartra still deserves his spot on this list.
LB: Álex Grimaldo
Rounding out the defence is Álex Grimaldo. He was revered as a youngster, making over 100 appearances for Barça’s B-team, but ended up leaving for Benfica in 2016 in search of more playing time, when that spot became Jordi Alba’s to lose.
Grimaldo is quick, intelligent, a great dribbler, and is a persistent threat going forward, fitting perfectly into Benfica’s expansive, attacking side. Since the 2018-19 season, he has 23 assists and eight goals across all competitions.
“For me, Grimaldo is one of the best five left-backs in Europe. Many Benfica players are ready to, someday, play in a world-class team. Grimaldo is good enough to play for any side right now.”Tiago Pinto (Benfica Sporting Director), 2020
The left-back has quietly developed into one of the best in the world at his position and is certainly someone Barça should wish they could have right now. He’s one of the best players in this list, and his inclusion goes with little to no fuss.
CM: Thiago Alcântara
Thiago: the one that got away. Despite his immense talent, he was unlucky in his first few years at Barça having to find a spot in the first team midfield that was dominated by the likes of prime Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. A certain Cesc Fabregas was left as an outcast in this team; there was only so much Thiago could do. As a result, he left the Catalan giants in the summer of 2013 for Bayern Munich, where he would cement his status as one of the best midfielders in the world.
One that keeps the Barça administration and fans up at night all the same. (Photo via Imago)
The Spanish international is lauded for his technical prowess and intelligence. He’s a great passer, averaging over 89% completion rate for the past four seasons, has fantastic vision and is a treat to the eyes on the ball. He’s not only an ideal Barça midfielder but a world-beater by any metric.
Thiago was a key part of Bayern’s treble-winning side last season and now finds himself at the heart of Liverpool’s midfield. He’s a player Barça should have tried to sign back and will be remembered as one of the best La Masia graduates of the last decade.
CM: Oriol Romeu
Oriol Romeu may not be a familiar name to most, nor is he someone fans are clamouring to have back, but his performances this season for an impressive Southampton have earned him a spot in this XI.
Romeu left the Catalan side in 2011 for Chelsea but struggled to settle anywhere before moving to Southampton in 2015.
The Saints are currently sitting fourth in the Premier League heading into the international break, in no small part thanks to Romeu. He’s played in all eight league games this season and is third in total minutes played for his side. The Spaniard is an anchor in the midfield, aggressive in tackles and inept at stopping plays. He’s leading the Premier League in tackles this season, averaging 4.42 tackles plus interceptions per game.
He’s not what you could call the idea player for Barça or one the club necessarily laments selling, but he has been truly incredible this season and deserves recognition all the same.
RW: Adama Traoré
Adama Traoré followed the path of many before him, leaving the Camp Nou for greener grass. He made his first-team debut at only 17 years old and managed to grab one goal in four appearances, but the front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez would see him get little-to-no playing time.
Culés still remember Adama Traore’s fantastic solo goal in the Copa del Rey. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP)
Traoré settled in at Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2018 and has realised his potential there. He had a breakout season last year, with 6 goals and 10 assists, as well as an astounding 5.22 successful dribbles per game — one of the highest in Europe. This season, the Spanish International is leading the Premier League in terms of the number of players dribbled past — 30 in eight matches.
The 24-year-old is a magnificent player. His physical attributes stand out, being one of the strongest and fastest players in the world, and unstoppable at his best; but he’s much more than that. His technical ability and close control are excellent, and that coupled with his physical gifts make him a sight to behold on the pitch.
The Spaniard’s inclusion in this list is fairly straightforward. He’s on a meteoric rise and is the type of squad option Barça wish they could have right now.
CAM: Dani Olmo
Filling in behind the striker is Dani Olmo, yet another starlet Barça that slipped through the cracks. He spent seven years at La Masía before a shocking move to Dinamo Zagreb in 2014, but the decision has fared well for him. He dominated his spell with the Croatian side, tallying 34 goals and 28 assists in 124 appearances.
The 22-year-old is now a squad member at RB Leipzig, where he’s dazzling the Bundesliga with his dribbling, creativity, and vision. He has three assists in seven Bundesliga appearances this season and is only getting better.
Olmo is one of the brightest young Spaniards in the world and is currently in their squad for the international break.
LW: Marc Cucurella
Marc Cucurella never had a chance to prove himself at Barça, and he’s now excelling at Getafe. He was developed as a left-back but has now been successfully converted into a wide midfielder, playing on the left of a 4-4-2, since making a permanent move to the Madrid outfit in July this year.
Cucurella is a work-horse on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he’s a pest who consistently tracks the ball and fights for it, making up for any lack of physical prowess. He’s also great at pressing and tackling for a physical Getafe side, averaging 3.38 tackles and interceptions per game last season.
Offensively, he darts down the left-hand side and utilizes his pace and stamina along with his noteworthy off the ball movement. He had five assists last campaign and will be looking to improve upon that.
Cucurella may not be the flashiest name here, but much like Oriel Romeu, his recent performances are commendable, thus earning him this spot at left-mid.
ST: Mauro Icardi
Rounding out the team is Mauro Icardi, a name some might not recognize as an ex-La Masía player. Although he has off-the-field issues, his sheer talent alone sanctions his spot in this draft. Not to mention, his prolific goalscoring record as well.
The Argentine left the Catalans in 2011 after a brief 3-year stint. After a few seasons in Sampdoria, he moved to Internazionale Milan, where he broke out, gathering 124 goals and 28 assists in 219 appearances. In his current club PSG, the goals have continued raining in as he has scored 22 times in only 38 appearances.
The 2018 Serie A Player of the Year is a classic #9 who prefers to do all his damage in the penalty box. As a forward, he’s lethal in front of goal and always makes the right movements to get into scoring positions.
“In my opinion, Icardi is the second-best striker in the penalty box who I’ve ever marked.”Giorgio Chiellini, 2018
Icardi may not be a player Barça would desperately want to return, give his multiple tantrums or one that fits their style, but he’s the best ex-La Masía striker in the world, and that stands almost without question.
If this starting eleven indicates anything, it’s that Barça should be diverting more attention to La Masía and the gems they produce. Promising youngsters like Grimaldo, Olmo, and Traoré should have never departed without being given ample time to prove themselves, and the club should hope that history doesn’t repeat itself with prospects like Riqui Puig.
There are plenty of good players – Munir El Haddadi, Rafinha Alcântara, Cristian Tello, for instance –who didn’t make this list due to positional constraints or being edged-out by better options, and they serve as a further example of how much talent Barça has let slip through the cracks in recent memory. This is not to say that all La Masía graduates will grow up to reach the heights of Messi or Xavi, but they should all at least have the chance to stake their claim in the first team.