masia | 2015-09-28
The challenges that La Masia players must overcome to reach the top
Trying to make sense of why Samper continues with the B team while Gumbau is with the first team, and the obstacles the canteranos face to establish themselves at Barcelona
Many culés had their heads in their hands last summer when they found out that the club was selling two of its most promising and valuable youngsters – Adama Traoré and Gerard Deulofeu. The same thing happens when those who follow the youth teams closely witness how, week after week, Luis Enrique still refuses to call up a midfielder as talented as Sergi Samper, even putting someone like the visibly less talented Gerard Gumbau ahead of him in the pecking order. Beyond discussions about how well the club has been managing the youth system in recent years, there are purely sporting questions which can help to explain it.
In an excellent recent article, Iñaki García began with the meeting between Roberto Trashorras’ Rayo Vallecano and Fernando Navarro’s Deportivo La Coruña at the former’s stadium to tell us the story of a generation of players who shared a dressing room with both of them at Barça B in the 2000/2001 season. An inspection of the post-Barça careers of what was then a group of young, promising players shows how difficult it is not only to establish yourself as a member of a team as demanding as Barcelona (only Valdés and Iniesta made it), but to make it at the highest level of professional football (only Pepe Reina, Thiago Motta, Arteta and the previously mentioned Trashorras and Fernando Navarro).
Apart from having the necessary talent to play at the highest level of the football universe, a monumental feat in itself, the canterano needs to meet a long list of requirements if he wants to make his dream come true: you must have enough strength and maturity to correctly adapt to pressure without giving in (as was the case with Sergio Santamaria in this generation of players), and, at the same time, manage expectations and praise without letting them go to your head (as was the case with Babangida); you must be lucky with injuries; have enough ability to provide you with opportunities and be able to take advantage of them with good performances; be persistent enough to keep working hard without throwing in the towel; and more.
Even after ticking all of these boxes, the promising youngster must then overcome two remaining obstacles in order to finally establish himself in the first team: the Wall and the Space.
The Wall is nothing less than the already established player with whom the canterano is sharing a position and competing for playing time. The higher the quality of this first-team starter, the more important he is for the team and the closer he is to his physical peak, the greater the size of the wall. In order to climb it, all that the canterano has at his disposal are his talent as a first-team rookie and his patience as a pole vault which will catapult him up and over failure. Cases like that of Sergio Busquets, who managed to win a place in the starting XI from Yaya Touré himself during his debut season in the first team, are the exceptions that prove the rule. From Xavi to Iniesta, from Puyol to Piqué, all of them needed several seasons to establish themselves in the first team, with seasons where they spent the majority of their time on the bench or on loan at other clubs.
The problem is that, frequently, talent is inversely proportional to patience. The greater the expectations heaped on a promising youngster – the more they talk about their great potential – the less patience they tend to have. Inevitably, they end up asking themselves if their continued hard work in the background is worth it, as they await an opportunity that nobody can guarantee will ever come; or, on the other hand, whether a change of scenery might be better, as it could end up being a shortcut toward success without having to waste precious time on the bench. If these questions are asked by a person who lives in the shadow of an immense Wall, it is no surprise that they look for a way out.
This could have been one of the main reasons that Thiago Alcántara left Barça. Thiago had fulfilled all of the aforementioned criteria and had established himself in the first team, but he constantly found himself banging his head against the insurmountable wall posed by the partnership of Xavi and Iniesta, both of whom were at the peak of their considerable powers. The Spanish-Brazilian got a good amount of playing time in the first team, but winning an undisputed starting position still seemed a long way away, as did the spotlight that came with it which would have opened the door for a spot in Del Bosque’s squad for the World Cup in Brazil. The call from Guardiola’s Bayern meant the possibility of finding himself in a much more favorable environment, of facing a smaller Wall which he could definitely overcome. He was not wrong, since Thiago would have achieved it that same year, had it not been for injuries.
The Wall can also explain the recent departures of Pedro, Adama and Deulofeu. The boy from Canaria had achieved what seemed like the most difficult task of all: becoming an established starter in the first XI and winning absolutely everything there was to win, both at international level and for his club, but despite his characteristic tenacity and sacrifice, the Wall represented by MSN and the fact that the European Championships are just around the corner contributed to his decision to move to Chelsea in search of playing time. As for Adama and Deulofeu, Messi’s return to the right wing condemned them to a bit-part role which their genuine ambition would not allow them to accept, so leaving also seemed to them to be the least difficult path to follow.
As if the Wall on its own was not already hard enough to overcome, while they are attempting to do so, each canterano must also attempt to resolve the other big issue that separates them from success: their Space in the team.
Too often, when analyzing a player in detail, the public seems to forget that football is a team sport. The team he plays for, his teammates, the system, its context – all of these require specific qualities which may or may not match those of the player. At a club with an idiosyncrasy and footballing culture as particular as Barça’s, this is even more important and it explains the problems that many players recruited from elsewhere have in adapting. Ibrahimovic is a prime example, a footballer whose quality is beyond doubt but who, personal quarrels with the manager and with certain teammates aside, was unable to find his Space in the team to the point of losing his starting position to Bojan, a less talented player but who understood much better what was being asked of him at that time. Cesc is another example: despite being brought up through La Masia – which a priori should make things a lot easier since he has acquired the so-called “Barça DNA” – his time playing in England shaped him in such a way that, afterwards, he never ended up finding his Space in the team and he was unable to meet the expectations generated by his return to the blaugrana.
Among these promising youngsters, Adama and Deulofeu were victims not only of the Wall that competing for the same position as Messi represents, but also of problems with their Space within the playing system built around the Argentine star. Coming in from the right, Messi is a de facto complete footballer who is, at once, the creator and the finisher of play, who is much more likely to line up a diagonal ball infield than to get chalk on his boots. Adama and Deulofeu, however, are good, old-fashioned wingers who like to hug the touchline and make the difference on the wing. This means that even during the few minutes when the guy from Rosario let them play, their inclusion in the team forces a change in system which is not necessary when the person occupying Messi’s place is someone like Rafinha, whose characteristics are more similar to that of a traditional number 10. In other words, Adama and Deulofeu have suffered from the double-edged sword of being in Messi’s shadow and being used just as a tactical plan B.
Another jewel who could end up being a victim of Space is Sergi Samper. Although many people consider him a possible successor to Busquets, the truth is that his style of football is more like that of Guardiola himself in his heyday, or like what Pirlo represented while at Juventus: an organizer of play who converts midfield position into a watchtower from which he can direct the team’s operations, combining short passing with long, pinpoint passes capable of overcoming opposition lines on their own. The problem with Samper is that, ever since Rijkaard moved Xavi closer to the goal, Barcelona’s play isn’t organized by the midfielder, but the interiores, or, in their absence, by Messi himself when he moves deeper.
This implies that one of the main requirements from a midfielder continues to be good passing ability and a high technical capability, but this is not his main task, rather it is to be the team’s focal point in transitions from attack to defense. If Busquets, who came from the third division and, in his first year in the footballing elite, was able to climb the wall represented by Touré, it is because he fit into this Space perfectly. The guy from Badia is a player who stands out for his tactical intelligence and reading of the game, something which enables him to always be in the right place at the right time in order to gather up any loose balls or to anticipate the opponent’s first pass and cut it out as they attempt to counterattack. Samper’s ability makes it easier for him to carry the team’s baton and he is better at long-range passing, but his defensive ability is not his strong point, and that is something that is required in Barça’s midfield nowadays. Hence why Luis Enrique has called Gumbau up to the first team much more regularly, although he is not as technically or tactically gifted as Samper, his physique enables him to deal with the situation more effectively when it comes to defending.
The other side of the coin is Sergi Roberto. A canterano who has been patient enough to wait for his opportunity and who seems to have found it in the right-back slot, after not fitting in where he had previously been expected to (an interior who specialized in late runs into the box) and having taken his first steps as a midfielder. The moral of the story is that a piece may not necessarily fit in where we had originally intended to place it, but it could end up doing so in another position. In this case, Sergi Roberto has benefitted from one of the most common scenarios that can be faced at Barcelona; the fact that the right and left backs spend more time attacking than defending, so that his defensive ability (or lack thereof) is not badly exposed.
In attack, his tactical knowledge has allowed him to expertly choose when to break forward to join the attack and when not to, his individual ability allows him to be a player with whom the others can link up to keep possession, and he has even been able to make use of his physical prowess which was somewhat wasted when he was starting in more advanced positions with less space in front of him to run into. All of these will help him win more playing time even now that Dani Alves has returned and even more so when we consider Rafinha’s unfortunate injury, since these qualities are essentially those that are required to join the Messi-Alves society on the right wing.
Ultimately, the Wall and the Space do nothing more than make abundantly clear just how important luck is in the development of a career in football. Beyond whether or not a player has the talent, personality, character, spirit of sacrifice or humility necessary to succeed, luck will intervene at some stage, averting injuries at key moments (or not) or enabling the player to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves (or not). It is very likely that Thiago would be starting as an interior in the current Barça side if he had burst on to the scene a year later, when the Wall represented by Xavi had been a little smaller in size. Would Adama and Deulofeu have been more likely to continue at Barça if the Messi Wall had been on the left wing rather than the right? Or would Samper have had problems with his Space if Barça had continued to use the playmaker as the brains of the team, rather than moving it forward to where the interiores play? The Wall and the Space are the last obstacles to be overcome by any canterano chasing success, but luck is what inevitably ends up determining whether the two cross over or not on the path to success.
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WRITTEN BY: Xavier Codina
Die hard Barça fan and football lover specially interested in tactical analysis, Xavier also writes for Perarnau Magazine and Banquilleros.
TRANSLATED BY: Mark Coyle
Mark is a 26-year-old Irishman, a Language Graduate (QUB), freelance translator, and interpreter. Huge fan of Barça and diminutive Argentine playmakers.