Barcelona still need La Masia academy success amid big signings
The first new player arrived on July 4; the last on Aug. 30. In between, another four were ushered in through the Camp Nou gates this summer, taking the total number of new signings to six. It was the first summer transfer window Barcelona had been allowed to participate in since the conclusion of their transfer ban. The last one they'd taken part in, two years ago, witnessed seven incomings.
As those players have been checking in, others have been checking out. This summer alone saw 13 players leave Barca either permanently or on loan deals, with Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Sandro Ramirez (all on permanent deals) and Cristian Tello, Sergi Samper and Munir El Haddadi (on loan) among the departures. The one thing those six have in common? They're all graduates of the La Masia academy.
Not much time has passed since Barca fielded a side made up entirely of players to have progressed from their famed youth academy in a La Liga match against Levante in 2012. La Masia was held up as a reference around the world of football. It was one of the most important pillars of the club's 'Mes que un Club' [More than a club] motto. Why spend millions on Galacticos like Real Madrid when you can grow your own Andres Iniestas and Lionel Messis in the back yard?
However, that has not been the case over the last four years. Barca spent big on Neymar in 2013, Luis Suarez in 2014, and this summer's €122.4 million worth of business has further enhanced the view that the club's ideals have shifted. They're now outsourcing players before placing faith in their own. The club's director of professional sports Albert Soler maintains that their philosophy has not been forgotten, though.
"Our objective is to have the maximum number of players possible formed in the academy," he insisted at a news conference reviewing the club's transfer activity. "At the moment we have nine, 10 if you count Denis [Suarez]. We don't think our model has become distorted. We don't doubt that we are following the same line we've always followed."
It is, of course, worth pointing out that the talent, perhaps, simply hasn't been there. Look at the players that the club have been criticised for letting leave -- Gerard Deulofeu, Adama Traore, Alejandro Grimaldo, etc -- and ask yourself how many would find a place in Luis Enrique's current squad?
And not only might the new generation of young players at the Catalan club not be good enough, but the modern game has radically changed in the last five years, too. It's become more difficult for a side like Barcelona -- who are expected to win everything all the time, as expectation levels have soared at Europe's elite clubs in the 21st Century -- to offer minutes to younger professionals. The demands are so high and football is so unforgiving. That's the reality in 2016.
Therefore, it makes sense for players, as Munir and Samper will do this season, to seek games on loan. Denis Suarez went to Sevilla on loan, then signed for Villarreal and returned to the club this summer thanks to a buyback clause inserted in his contract.
Sergi Roberto is the most recent player to establish himself in the first-team without having left, but all the time it's looking increasingly like the spine of the Pep Guardiola side -- Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi -- was an exception rather than a rule. A one-off generation of players to be enjoyed but not to be expected to become the norm. Even Barca's European Cup winning sides of 1992 and 2006 only had two La Masia alumni in their starting lineups.
All of that shouldn't allow some obvious problems to be ignored, though. While a team made up of La Masia pearls is unlikely to be repeated, it doesn't mean there shouldn't be players progressing from the academy into the first-team.
Barca B's 2015 relegation from the second to the third tier was the culmination of mis-management beyond first team level and it removed a vital stepping stone between the reserves and the first-team. Once in the third division, the nucleus of the side was ripped out and players were brought in from outside, which hasn't always been viewed as a good thing.
Pep Segura is the man in charge of righting the wrongs and helping La Masia re-find direction. That may take some time, although sporting director Robert Fernandez anticipates we won't have to wait long to see players breaching the first-team once again.
"This year we've not seen the possibility to promote any players from Barça B, although I think in the next two to four years we'll have two or three players breaking into the first-team," he said on Thursday.
"Of course it worries us [that no players were promoted this season], but we shouldn't forget [Barca B] were relegated recently and that's a problem when it comes to moving between the two teams. We want the B team to be in the second division again as soon as possible. We're convinced we can reach that objective and get promoted."
Promotion, though, will not lead to another homegrown XI all of a sudden. The club will continue to practice the philosophy that they preach and work towards maintaining La Masia's status and developing players. But while the summer of signings we've just witnessed may not be an active change in ideals, it's unlikely to be a one off.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.