21 years ago, a shy 12-year-old named Andrés Iniesta made his debut for Barcelona’s U14 side. Today, 30 trophies and nearly 700 senior appearances later, the midfield maestro signed a lifetime contract with the club.
Iniesta was part of a golden generation of graduates from Barcelona’s storied youth academy, La Masia. That generation won 14 out of a possible 19 trophies during Pep Guardiola’s reign and has added to that since. Today, there is a real threat that “the farmhouse” will never reclaim that success.
Andres Iniesta at @FCBarcelona:
? 6th Oct 1996: Debut U14 side?
639 Games & 30 Trophies later…
? 6th Oct 2017: Signs lifetime contract? pic.twitter.com/IiZ6OZ7fun
— SPORF (@Sporf) October 6, 2017
Guardiola’s reign epitomised La Masia’s success. A man who had both played and coached through the ranks coaching a team of players who had come up through that same system. It was the perfect model, all pupils of the same school, all thinkers of the same philosophy.
It was in 2010 that the success of this model reached its highest peak. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, all graduates of La Masia, were named as the three best players in the world at the Ballon d’Or ceremony. This had never happened before and will probably never happen again.
When Guardiola left in 2012, Barcelona made history under Tito Vilanova as 11 academy players all played at the same time in a 4-0 win over Levante. Since then though, less and less La Masia graduates have broke through to the first team, and the model has changed both on and off the pitch.
“Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer,” Iniesta once said of La Masia’s education. Although Luis Enrique has since left the club, his comments last year showed how the Barca philosophy has been forced to adapt.
“Rivals press us high up the pitch and if we can score a goal from just two passes, why should we reject that possibility?”
– Luis Enrique
While the club have made a hot start this season under new manager Ernesto Valverde, they struggled to break down deep-lying teams at times last season. Even worse, this left them watching on as arch-rivals Real Madrid became league and European champions. Speaking of Madrid, it is in comparison to their old foe that La Masia’s recent failings become even clearer.
It has often been the narrative that Barcelona’s youth products take on Real’s galacticos. However, graduates from Real Madrid’s La Fabrica who made their club debut since 2012 have started nearly six times more games than players who have broken through at Barcelona in that period, due mainly to the successes of Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vázquez. Last season, Marca reported that there were 42 La Fabrica products playing in La Liga compared to just 27 from La Masia.
The likes of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Pique all progressed from La Masia to Barcelona B and then on to the full team. Last season, just two of the six players who made more than 30 appearances for Barcelona B were La Masia graduates. Only three La Masia graduates started in Barcelona B’s 1-1 draw with Alcorcón last month.
— marilichat (@marilichat) September 7, 2017
This model of bringing players in from elsewhere rather than through the system has been echoed in the senior side. Under Enrique, highly regarded talents Sergi Samper and Munir were loaned out and replaced with big money signings in Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer, neither of which have been particularly successful.
While things look to have changed for the better under Valverde (seven La Masia graduates started Sunday’s win over Las Palmas), signings like €40 million Paulinho suggest the change in model may be permanent, not temporary.
We may never see another golden generation of La Masia graduates.