Everyone has got that one family member that makes the best pumpkin pie, prize-winning salsa, or signature casserole. Above being a family tradition, the blueprint is top secret. It’s what makes their productions unique and unreplicable. To unhand its recipe is to forfeit its authenticity. Much in the same way the directors of the world’s best youth academies don’t go fleeing to the streets like town criers of old in order to blurt out their schematics for molding the future’s top players. There’s competition at stake, and more importantly for some, money involved.
Certain educations of football have their traits. The Bayern Munich product is efficient yet innovative, just as the Southampton graduate is crisp and well-rounded. But to speak of Barcelona’s la masia is to call forth what many consider to be the champagne of football apprenticeship. Having churned out the likes Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi to name a few, the complete canterano of the Barcelona fábrica is methodical and agile, precise and creative. Boasting an unmatched crop of professionals who consider la masia to be their alma mater, can we assume that the Barcelona education is the most complete schooling in football? Or is it missing one or two nuts and bolts?
The once Barcelona youth team member and now formidable Arsenal right back, Hector Bellerín, has recently poked a hole in the Barca development plan. The Catalán weighed in on a weakness in his game.
“I didn’t know how to defend until I arrived at Arsenal,” admitted Bellerín. The full back credits his defensive education to one of Arsene Wenger’s assistants, Steve Bould, the sizable bald figure typically sat next to Wenger on any given match day.
In the case of Barcelona, a club that rediscovered its ‘total football’ lineage to become a tiki-taka monster under Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2012, attack was the best defense. By designing a way to almost always be in possession, instances of defending were few and far between. If the club, and by extension the academy, stayed true to that philosophy, then this phenomena of rarely defending would be true for the next generation of Barcelona first teamers. In other words, make dominance a tradition.
Nevertheless, this raises several concerns. Football tactics are always evolving and even Barcelona have begun to hybrid their approach to certain matches and adapt a more direct style, which will theoretically leave them more vulnerable defensively at times. But secondly and perhaps more of the point, not all la masia attendees, like Hector Bellerín, forge a career at the Camp Nou.
So to highlight the question again: Does Barcelona develop the most complete footballer on the globe? Or do they develop footballers to fit a certain brand?