Clash of the talent schools: How top clubs are following Barcelona”s brilliant blueprint
When Barcelona outclassed the South American champions Santos to lift the Club World Cup in Japan earlier this month, it showcased a remarkable achievement.
Not so much Pep Guardiola’s 13th trophy in three years or his side’s fifth of the calendar year. Barca won with nine homegrown players in their starting XI and two more coming off the bench.
It is little wonder every club are scrambling for the blueprint of the blaugrana, the secret of their success. Indeed, when Barcelona’s B team play in Spain’s Segunda Liga it is the norm to have 18 scouts or more watching, all hoping to discover a gem of a player who Barca don’t need.
Setting the standard: Barcelona won the Club World Cup with nine homegrown players
QUARTER FINAL DRAW
Aston Villa v Marseille
Barcelona v Ajax
Sporting v Inter
Spurs v Liverpool
Ties to be played over one leg, dates TBC
Jordi Mestre is the Barcelona board’s director of youth, one of the key personalities behind the most successful modern football machine.
‘People talk of Barcelona as a sort of phenomenon because of our success but they don’t always realise that this has been 25 to 30 years in the making,’ said Mestre.
‘It is the product of a lot of hard work from the days of Rinus Michels before Johan Cruyff, to what we have now. The model has been shaped and developed so that everyone is taught what is required to become a Barcelona player.
‘Everyone from the age of 10 is taught to play the same way. Even our women’s teams play the same style.’
Mestre rarely gives interviews. At Barcelona it is not their way to boast or gloat. As the adage goes, they let their football do the talking.
But Mestre has been excited by the development of the flagship NextGen Series, the Champions League-style tournament developed for Under 19s in which Barca, unsurprisingly, are through to the quarter-finals against another great exponent of youth development, Ajax.
Stars of the future: Barcelona have also made easy work of their fixtures in the NextGen series
‘The NextGen Series has been a very important experience for the players and coaches to match themselves tactically and competitively against other great clubs at this level,’ said Mestre.
‘It has broken the routine, bringing European competition to our younger players. It’s another challenge, another step in experience. It gives the coaches another insight into their development.’
But what is the Barcelona prototype for a player
‘Above all it is about the talent,’ is Mestre’s answer. ‘At Barcelona 75 or 80 per cent has to be about control of the ball, technique, because we play a style that keeps possession. Only a small percentage is emphasised on physical. We have athletes, too, but the physical side comes later for us. It’s not about the size. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Pedro weren’t big physically and even Gerard Pique was not strong when he came to us. It was all about their ability on the ball.’
So does Mestre expect the next Messi or Iniesta to show soon
‘It’s too early to say how many of this squad will make it to the first team but they are making good progress.
‘Our philosophy is that we invest a little money, yes, but more so our time. We have a structure that teaches players not only to become Barcelona players, but to grow as good men.
No room: Oriol Romeu (right) left Barcelona in the summer to join Premier League club Chelsea
‘It is a model of principles for sport and life. Education; we teach not only football.’
Indeed, eight of Barcelona’s B team go to university.
‘We are very proud of our first team. We have nine players in a world championship team and two on the bench who came through our system, and our B team finished third in the second division last season with an average age of 20.’
Guardiola showed his faith in the club’s latest fledglings by playing nine of the B team in the Champions League against Bate Borisov on December 6. They won 4-0.
However, taking that step to the first team is not easy. The frustrations of some helped Barcelona recoup an impressive 20million last summer as players such as Bojan Krkic and Oriol Romeu left.
‘It’s very difficult if you want to progress but see Lionel Messi or Sergio Busquets in front of you,’ said Mestre. ‘But we work on that. Their motivation may not always come easy but we teach them to be realistic.
‘What happened in Japan is our dream turning to reality. We have to perpetuate that dream.’
World be warned. Mestre and his colleagues are making global domination seem like child’s play.
CASE STUDY 1: ASTON VILLA
‘We are ready. If the rules were enforced across Europe we’d be ready.’
Like the trust that has been placed in him, Kevin MacDonald has unswerving faith in Aston Villa’s development of players.
‘Prepared’ is the motto on the club’s traditional crest and with the financial climate biting, Villa, like most clubs, are having to look to youth rather than their cheque books.
Premier League clubs must have eight ‘homegrown’ players in their 25-man squad, with no restriction on Under 21s.
The move was made despite FIFA scrapping plans for clubs to field a minimum of six homegrown players in their starting line-ups. But now UEFA president Michel Platini wants to push through a plan of nine homegrown players in each 18-man playing squad.
Villa have a much-lauded set-up which has seen Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Chris Herd come to the fore and first-team coach MacDonald says there is more to come.
‘Due to financial constraints the players have to develop more quickly rather than the club pay top dollar,’ he said. ‘Players get a chance here and that can help when you are trying to attract young talent to the club.
A star is born: Gary Gardener has emerged as one to watch at Aston Villa
‘We had young Danny Johnson on the bench against Liverpool and Derrick Williams against Arsenal. There’s pressure on managers to get results so you have to be careful when you introduce them but they’re doing well.’
Villa have used the NextGen Series to accelerate their players’ development. After an inauspicious start, they won their group ahead of Ajax, Fenerbahce and Rosenborg and face Marseille in the quarter-finals. ‘We’ve looked at the NextGen Series more as our reserve side this year and it’s been very beneficial,’ said MacDonald.
‘At various stages we’ve had to match together 16-year-olds and a schoolboy such as 15-year-old Jordan Graham with players like Gary Gardner, who has just been called back from a loan at Coventry because we need him in the first team. It’s helped the lads become more streetwise.
‘In terms of attributes we base a lot on the technical side but our players have to have more physical ability due to the nature of the English game. Yet we’ve seen players grow and develop quickly because of this experience. We lost away to Ajax and you could see they were intimidated by the whole Ajax aura but by the end of the group stage they’ve played Ajax at home and beaten them.
‘There are different physical demands. They couldn’t fly back the night of the Ajax game so stayed over and trained the following day. When they went to Turkey for Fenerbahce they had to spend three or four hours on a coach going through the city before they got to their drop-off point. It’s all part of their development into young professionals so when the manager needs them they are ready.’
With reinforcements needed, Villa manager Alex McLeish may be glad of that.
Conveyor belt: Nani at Sporting Lisbon
CASE STUDY 2: SPORTING LISBON
The mantra at Sporting Lisbon is to catch them young. Finance dictates the club can’t compete with more wealthy rivals Benfica and Porto.
‘We recruit players between the ages of seven and 14,’ said Diogo Matos, director of the club’s famed academy. ‘Sure we make some mistakes, but we try to accumulate enough of the best raw material and then give them the benefit of seven years of coaching. At 14 to 19 it is difficult for us to scout players and compete because we don’t have the funds of other clubs.’
As a result, Sporting often recruit from the streets where youngsters strive for football success as a necessity, to provide for their families. Manchester United’s Nani is one such graduate who followed in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma, Luis Figo and Paulo Futre.
‘Imagine if we had been able to keep all those players What a team we would have had,’ said Matos, himself a former Sporting midfielder.
‘When Portugal played Bosnia in the European Championship play-off, seven players in the national team had come from Sporting’s academy.’
The coaching is obviously still working as Sporting’s sparkling Under 19s swept aside Liverpool in the NextGen Series, winning 3-0 at Anfield and 5-1 at home, ahead of finishing top of their group.
‘For us, potential is more important than performance,’ said Matos. ‘We encourage them to express themselves because the bigger prize is the player we have in the long term. Having them young means there is a greater emotional connection with the coaches and they listen, meaning we can educate them quicker.
‘That way, when the coach needs to turn to the reserves or academy he knows the player is ready.’
SIX TO WATCH
Raheem Sterling (England) Liverpool
Sterling, 17, is lightning quick and plays mainly as a winger. He joined QPR aged 10 but was bought by Liverpool for 600,000 — a fee that could rise to 5million depending on first-team appearances. Has been hailed as the next Theo Walcott and Sporting Lisbon’s Diogo Matos says he would get in any team.
Destined to shine: Raheem Sterling has impressed as Liverpool qualified for the quarter-finals
Gary Gardner (England) Aston Villa
Younger brother of Sunderland’s Craig, Gary, 19, is an attacking central midfielder who has played
for England at all youth levels. Scored for Coventry while on loan in November.
Dutch of class: Davy Klaassen could be the next star to emerge from Ajax”s famed academy
Davy Klaassen (Holland) Ajax
The 18-year-old striker played in two group-stage Champions League matches this season.
He scored his first league goal on his debut last month, one minute after coming on as a substitute.
Jean Marie Dongou (Cameroon) Barcelona
The 16-year-old, scouted for Barcelona by the Samuel Eto’o Foundation in his homeland, is a prolific
scorerfor the club’s youth teams and fired a hat-trick against Celtic earlierthis year. His coach Oscar Garcia said: ‘There is no limit to what he can achieve.’ No pressure, then.
Souleymane Coulibaly (Ivory Coast) Tottenham
TheSpurs centre forward, 16, won the golden boot at the FIFA Under 17 World Cup with Ivory Coast after scoring nine goals in four matches. Hasbeen linked with moves to Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Oumar Diop (Senegal) Marseille
The17-year-old has a good first touch, is quick and strong and likes to take people on. Marseille coach Jean-Luc Cassini says he is the prototype of the new attacking midfield player.