La Liga | Barcelona and the Masia Exodus

FC Barcelona's new signing coach Ernesto Valverde poses to the media during his official presentation at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, June 1, 2017. Former player Valverde was hired as the new coach, the club confirmed on Monday. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Manu Fernandez/AP photo

Alarm bells sounded around the Barca-verse earlier this week when reports came out that 16-year-old Eric Garcia, one of La Masia’s highest-rated defenders, will take his talents to Manchester City.

On the surface,  this was enough of a blow to spread whiplash from Les Corts to the outskirts of Twitter, but the move itself was only part of the story for Barcelona. The scope blurs beyond recognition when one discovers that Garcia is represented by Blaugrana captain-turned-agent Carles Puyol, making the conclusion all the more regrettable. So, what exactly is going on here? And more importantly, why? And how?

Well, the Occam’s Razor answer to the “why” is simply that Garcia saw no route to Barcelona’s first team. It wouldn’t even be the first time this summer such a decision was made. Less than two weeks ago, exciting 18-year-old Masia winger Jordi Mboula moved to Monaco on a five-year deal for largely the same reason.

Of course, in Mboula’s case, the prospect of displacing any of the three “MSN” triumvirate ahead of him in Barcelona’s attack is obviously too narrow to risk. Conversely, Monaco can offer Mboula immediate first-team minutes in a top-flight, Champions League side, making his choice a relative no-brainer.

But Garcia’s path to senior pitch-time wouldn’t appear nearly as daunting. Yes, players such as Samuel Umtiti and Marlon Santos look set to inherit a central defense owned for the last decade by Gerard Pique and others. But after those two, you’re basically just looking at Colombian big man Yerry Mina, who hasn’t even officially signed with the club yet, as competition. Surely, Garcia stands within a shout of being a Blaugrana centre-half of the future. Yet, here we are.

The discussion then turns to Puyol, Garcia’s main confidant, and figures like him. But first, let’s be clear here: the biggest current threat to La Masia isn’t the production of quality footballers. Because, as we’re seeing with every passing year, the academy talent is still being churned out with considerable regularity.

Players such as Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Sergi Gómez and Martin Montoya consistently feature in La Liga, while the likes of Marc Bartra, Cristian Tello, and Gerard Deulofeu have had varying degrees of success abroad. So, La Masia is still creating value, it’s just that the best-case scenario of funneling that cultivated value to the senior team is becoming a road less traveled.

This has resulted in something nobody in or around the La Masia foresaw or desires going forward: rejection by its very forebearers. When a Farmhouse legend such as Puyol ushers one of his chief clients towards the door in favor of a different academy, in a different city, in a different country, and leading to a different first team, then the toxicity of the air might be worth checking. This is unlike the case of the aforementioned Bartra, another Puyol client, who chose to skedaddle to Dortmund at age 25 after failing to make a mark at the senior level.

Bartra was a project who was given a healthy number of opportunities without ever truly convincing. Garcia, on the other hand — and Mboula, for that matter — took a view of the path ahead, as well as the scenery around, and said, “adéu.”

The latest tug-of-war is happening over 17-year-old full-back Mateu Morey, who was reported on Wednesday to have left Barca for Bayern Munich, only for the Bavarians to abruptly put the kibosh to the story. Morey stays, for now, but others are still either leaving or mulling it over, by their own volition or not. Regardless of who’s to blame between Josep Maria Bartomeu, Luis Enrique, Gerard Lopez, and any other decision-maker at the club in recent years, there’s inarguably a fractured link between La Masia and Barca’s first team, causing certain ambitious youngsters to seek those final stages of development elsewhere. Alejandro Grimaldo is the primest example of this in recent memory.

After struggling to find promotion to Barca’s senior side, Grimaldo, a promising young left-back and then-Barca B skipper, unceremoniously hightailed it to Benfica in 2016. His parting words for the club were sharp, and have been echoed by many: “It is always difficult to get into the Barcelona first team, but now the club does not look to use their academy.

“There are players who leave, but were good enough to stay.”

Even Pedro, one of the linchpins of Pep Guardiola’s Masia-headed dream team from 2008 to 2012, voiced a similar concern earlier on Friday, lamenting that Barca is “losing a bit of that academy philosophy.”

“If you look back a few years, a lot of players have unfortunately had to leave, players like Bartra, Thiago, myself, Tello … I think that these players specifically had the level to be there,” he said.

“ … maybe that’s being lost a bit, maybe confidence is being given more to players from outside when you can have a homegrown player that’s good for the role. This is the feeling that I think is being transmitted by Barca.”

There’s still hope at the Farmhouse, however. Just 24 hours after Garcia’s imminent departure was reported, the club announced that they had agreed to a contract extension with Carles Aleña, Barcelona B’s 19-year-old midfield maestro. The deal is for three years with a two-year option, and a €75 million release clause should he make the first team, which he will. You see, Aleña is the actual jewel of the “cantera.” His signing was the most important deal Barcelona could have made this summer, and they did it.

So while bureaucracy may be muddying some of the affairs at Camp Nou, this isn’t exactly what brokenness looks like.

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