FC Barcelona secured success in the inaugural UEFA Youth League on Monday, winning the competition introduced to build upon (to put it politely) the successes of the NextGen Series courtesy of a 3-0 victory over Benfica. The tournament could still be better organised and promoted than it has been, but for most involved it has been a fine learning experience, pitting 32 of Europe’s best Under-19 sides in direct competition in a format based upon the Champions League proper.
The Catalan side’s academy is lauded for its successes over the past 20 years, with a large proportion of the club’s first-team having emerged from within their own youth system. In two years of NextGen Series participation, though, they flattered to deceive, as promising early showings eventually gave way to early exits, despite boasting some of the best-known players on show. In the first such UEFA-backed event, though, they made no mistake.
Success at youth level does not always correlate to players making the step up to first-team level at all, but there are several within the Barcelona side whom the Catalans hold in extremely high regard. At the same time, there are undoubtedly others who are destined never to play at a particularly high level. It is the same with any youth squad, no matter how productive the academy.
Much of the press attention in the aftermath of Monday's encounter has rightfully fallen upon forward Munir El Haddadi, with the 18-year-old Spaniard having rounded off the game in spectacular style. With just two minutes left, El Haddadi struck his second goal of the afternoon from inside his own half, lobbing helpless goalkeeper Thierry Graca to take his tally to 11 for the tournament and finish as top scorer. It was a fitting end to a game that Barcelona had bossed from the opening minutes, highlighting the teenager's obvious individual ability.
El Haddadi’s potential has been known for some time, with the Catalans having fought off competition from Real Madrid and English clubs to seal his signature in 2011. He has already made four substitute appearances in the Spanish second tier with Barca’s B-side and now holds the outstanding record of having scored in every knockout game as Barcelona swept to their latest triumph. With a sweet left foot, impressive balance and an eye for goal, he is certainly one to watch out for in the years to come.
He is not alone in having played at B-team level this campaign. Indeed, so embedded at that level are 18-year-olds Jean-Marie Dongou, Sandro and Macky Bagnack that none were included for the final. Of those in the squad in Nyon, Adama Traore, Xavi Quintilla, Fabrice Ondoa and Joel Huertas have all also been called up to the second string this campaign. That they lie fourth in the Segunda Division, then, is some testament to the talent still emerging at Camp Nou.
The international scope of their youth recruitment, which recently prompted FIFA to issue a much-contested transfer ban, is also clear for all to see, with four Cameroonians, an Argentine and a Nigerian all involved on Monday afternoon. Arguments over the rights and wrongs of such recruitment will continue to rage, but there certainly will be few complaints in Cameroon. Ondoa, Dongou and Bagnack have already received senior international calls and it would appear that more will follow, with wide-forward Alain Ebwelle also particularly promising.
It is in the context of this transfer ban that much has been read into Monday's triumph. It is clear that if Barcelona are unable to overturn or delay the ban, there will be gaps within their squad next campaign. Meanwhile, there are also some doubts over whether the likes of Bojan and Gerard Deulofeu, currently on international loans, could be re-registered. Expecting admittedly talented 18-year-olds to step up, though, is too much of an ask. A slow introduction to the first team for some of the most talented is to be expected, but those already in regular B-team action are currently deservedly ahead in the queue.
Some players are capable of handling the pressure of first-team football from an early age, but such prodigious talents are few and far between. For every Lionel Messi or Neymar, there are dozens of much-vaunted youngsters who have crumbled under the pressure of first-team football arriving before they were ready. While delaying promotion to first-team football too long is also an issue, Barcelona at least have the luxury of having a B-side in which they can obtain regular playing time at a high level before making the big step into regular first-team action.
Promoting youth talent from within is a wonderful thing for any club that can produce players on a consistent basis. Fans like the idea of supporting players who have been "raised" by the club and are understandably keen to see them introduced at the earliest opportunity, but such players need careful management to ensure the mental side of their game can progress to match their talent. Those managers best-known for developing talents into first-team stars are masters of reading these situations, even if supporters may on occasion disagree.
Fortunately for Barcelona, there is a middle generation also ready for more involvement. Sergi Roberto is already a fixture in the squad, and Rafinha has excelled on loan at Celta Vigo, while the likes of Javier Espinosa and Sergi Samper are also further along in their development. Add in the likes of Bagnack, Dongou and potentially Deulofeu, and there is more than enough talent to cover any gaps without rushing through players from the under-18 level.
For El-Haddadi, Ondoa and Traore, next season should be a year of adaptation to the demands of senior football in the Second Division. It is a tried and tested method and if successful, they will be in line to receive opportunities at first-team level towards the end of the campaign. With a system as productive as La Masia, it is easy to get swept away with the hype and look to replicate the success of former graduates at an early age. The Catalans, though, have been good at resisting such an urge.
Barcelona have lost players in recent seasons due to a lack of first-team opportunities but have ensured most have left the club in good condition to succeed elsewhere. Patience isn't always the answer but can be an underappreciated virtue when there is such desire to see youth succeed. Whoever takes the reins at Camp Nou this summer has a wealth of options, but also important decisions to make.
For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout’s Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can be found at TheElastico.com.