Barcelona transfer dealings under microscope as La Masia impact runs dry
Pep Guardiola was the Barcelona manager who brought Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez into the first team when they had just helped the Catalan club's second team out of the fourth tier of Spanish football. During his time in charge at Camp Nou, he also gave chances to Thiago Alcantara, Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca, while bringing former academy products like Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas back to the club.
What would he have done, though, if he'd seen one of his best players stripped from his team just weeks before the season started? That is the situation Ernesto Valverde found himself in when Neymar joined Paris Saint-Germain for €222 million in August.
Based on Guardiola's comments this week, he wouldn't have gone out and spent €300m on two players, that's for sure. That's what Barca did, effectively replacing the Brazilian with Ousmane Dembele (potentially €140m) and Philippe Coutinho (potentially €160m).
Defending his own spending since taking over at Manchester City (€500m and counting), Guardiola said: "Some clubs spend £300m, £400m on two players. We spend it on six players. We had a problem last summer with six players out of contract. When you want to compete at the highest level, you need to spend.
"Maybe one day this club will spend £100m or £130m on one player, but we decide not to do it. We understand the inflation of the market. It is what it is. We accept criticism, but what matters is our signings perform well and fit in at this club."
The main recipient of Guardiola's not-so-thinly-veiled dig may have been PSG, but his former club, regardless of the circumstances, also fit the criticism.
It certainly struck a nerve back in Catalonia.
Santi Nolla, the editor of Mundo Deportivo, one of two Barcelona-based sports dailies, called Guardiola "the rival". He then proceeded to list the charges against the club's best-ever coach: he took Thiago to Bayern from Barca; on his own, Benjamin Mendy (€58m), cost the same as Barca´s entire back five (Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba); Aymeric Laporte (€65m) cost more; and he also signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Barca in an astronomical deal by 2009's standards.
But Guardiola is not the one in the dock in Spain. In England, he may be, but it's Barcelona's dealings which are increasingly under the microscope.
In general terms, January was actually a good month for them. They landed Coutinho, a player they've been chasing for a long time, and also signed promising Colombian defender Yerry Mina. Meanwhile, they managed to shift Javier Mascherano, Arda Turan, Rafinha and Gerard Deulofeu from the wage bill, lightening Valverde's squad in the process.
A deeper analysis of their month suggests a continuing trend, though: that they have lost the art of the deal. They sign big, they can't sell and there are limited chances for players coming through La Masia.
It's a myth that Barca signing the world's best players is a new thing: Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Hristo Stoichkov, Thierry Henry and Ibrahimovic are among the big stars they have signed in the past. They've not always been as reliant on their academy as might be suggested, either. In the early noughties, there was a heavy Dutch contingent, for example. But they have put themselves on that pedestal so now they have to be prepared for the fall if they sneak away from one of the principles which feed into their "More Than a Club" motto.
In an ideal world, Neymar's replacement would have been ready and waiting in the B team. Dembele and Coutinho would not have been needed. At least not both of them. Mascherano's move to China would have been the chance for a youth teamer to step up, too. After all, Mina arrives as Valverde's third or fourth choice centre-back.
Going back to last summer, Paulinho arrived for €40m (and has done very well) and Nelson Semedo was bought for €30m (and looks to have bags of potential), but again: was there no one at the club ready for first team duty?
Meanwhile, while money has been spent on outsourcing talent, players have left on the cheap. Tello joined Real Betis for €4m last summer, while Sandro Ramirez was allowed to leave for free the year before. In the last two windows, Munir El Haddadi, Douglas, Sergi Samper, Arda Turan, Rafinha and Gerard Deulofeu have all been loaned out because the club were unable to bring in money for them.
The trend continues with the B team. Arsenal's Marcus McGuane is one of five players to be signed this month while other teenagers tipped for the top continue to leave because they think their careers are better served elsewhere. Sergio Gomez is the latest, moving to Borussia Dortmund. Before him, it was Eric Garcia and Jordi Mboula.
Not that it's necessarily wrong what Barca are doing. It is what it is. The demands of modern football are that high. You have to win game after game and trophy after trophy at the top. There is little room for development, progression and certainly not patience. And there are the haves and the have-nots. It's not rocket science: those with the most money have the most chance of success. At a time it looked like Barca might be different -- not quite Athletic Bilbao different, but not quite adopting the full Galactico model -- but it seems the modern game has forced even their hand
And it's serving them well. They're clear at the top of La Liga, in the Copa del Rey semifinal and are heavy favourites to beat Chelsea in the Champions League. Coutinho looks at home, Paulinho's doing well and Dembele and Semedo look like they will have bright future. If a Carles Alena or someone else can come through in the future and establish themselves, then even better. But would they swap all their current success for a more in-house, universally heralded model?
That's a debate which will probably rage on among Barca's supporters, but for the club's answer, you only need to look at their strategy in the transfer market.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.