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The making of the Premier League's Barcelona academy graduates
Last Updated: 21/10/15 3:24pm
With the likes of Bojan Krkic, Hector Bellerin and Gerard Deulofeu impressing in the Premier League, Nick Wright caught up with former Barcelona youth coach Andres Carrasco to find out about their formative years in the fabled La Masia youth academy…
There was a time when Barcelona were the sole beneficiaries of their La Masia talent factory, but these days their youth products are spread far and wide.
In the Premier League, the steady stream of talent from Catalonia began when a 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas walked out on his boyhood club to sign for Arsenal in 2003, and this weekend Hector Bellerin's eye-catching display for Arsenal against Watford and Bojan Krkic's match-winning exploits for Stoke against Swansea were reminders of how Premier League clubs have benefited.
Back in Barcelona, the days when Pep Guardiola would routinely field eight starters who had come through the youth ranks are long gone. The strength of their starting line-up ensures that only a tiny percentage of La Masia players make it as far as the first team, and when an experienced international like Pedro can't nail down a spot, what hope is there for a rookie from the academy?
But while many canteranos are looking elsewhere to further their careers, Barcelona's academy still produces more top-level players than any other. Their transfer ban for breaching FIFA's international youth recruitment rules and the relegation of their B team last season were heavy blows, but the talent has not dried up.
There were seven academy players in Luis Enrique's squad to face Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, and in the Premier League the list also includes Gerard Deulofeu at Everton, Adama Traore at Aston Villa, Marc Muniesa at Stoke and Oriol Romeu at Southampton. Elsewhere, there is Thiago Alcantara at Bayern Munich and Martin Montoya at Inter Milan.
So what makes La Masia so special? Few people are better equipped to answer that question than Andres Carrasco, a former Barcelona youth coach who spent 13 years nurturing young talent in their academy from U8 to U15 level between 1998 and 2011.
Barcelona academy graduates in the Premier League
Hector Bellerin, Mikel Arteta (both Arsenal), Cesc Fabregas, Pedro (both Chelsea), Jordi Gomez (Sunderland), Gerard Deulofeu (Everton), Adama Traore (Aston Villa), Bojan Krkic, Marc Muniesa, Moha El Ouriachi (all Stoke), Oriol Romeu (Southampton)
"The boys have passed through many filters," says Carrasco, who is now assistant coach at Western Sydney Wanderers in the Australian A-League. "To stay at Barcelona the following year, you have to have competed and worked a lot. The standard is very high in every team, every year. Staying there is difficult."
Barcelona's footballing philosophy runs right through the club. "The boys grow up around the ball," adds Carrasco. "Always with the ball at their feet. Pass. Touch. When you have a player like Hector Bellerin, who has gone through all the different age groups until 16, he is going to be of a very high standard both technically and tactically."
Carrasco was the man responsible for enrolling Bellerin in La Masia at the age of eight, and he still has a close relationship with the player and his family. Is he proud to see the 20-year-old shining for Arsenal? "Of course," he says. "When you coach Barcelona, you have the opportunity to work with very good players. And when you're there for many years, like me, of course you see a lot of them make it."
Like all those who have come through Barcelona's academy, Bellerin was brought up with a strict set of values. "Barcelona is a club closely identified with the region of Catalonia," says Carrasco. "They take a lot of care over their image and their principles. They teach you to be respectful of opponents, respectful to the referees. This is very important.
"For example, the boys can't cut their hair in certain ways. They are little things that in other clubs they don't care about. But at Barcelona they want the boys to grow up with humility. If they are as humble as possible, they don't let it get to their heads and they don't think they are footballers before their time."
The levels of expectation can be tough, according to Carrasco. "All these boys they are all over the internet," he says. "Everyone knows them from very young ages, and it's difficult for them to manage the success they have that early. It's not easy."
Bellerin is a fine exponent of the level-headedness Barcelona want from their canteranos. The 20-year-old right-back has shown mental fortitude as well as technical guile to become a key player for Arsenal in the space of a year. "The psychological aspect is very important," says Carrasco. "Bellerin was a boy who seemed 20 when he was 15."
While the likes of Bellerin, Adama, Deulofeu and Bojan are making their way in the Premier League, others are still waiting for their chance at Barcelona. Carrasco coached midfielder Sergi Samper in the same age group as Bellerin, but despite being regarded as a brilliant talent, the 20-year-old has still only made a handful of appearances for the first team.
"Generationally, it's very difficult," says Carrasco. "Sergi Samper is very well placed to be able to replace Sergio Busquets. Busquets is now 27 years old, so when Sergi is three or four years older, he will replace him. That's the idea."
The wait has been too long for many before Samper, and he could be excused for considering his future as his former La Masia team-mates enjoy regular action elsewhere. If past examples are anything to go by, Barcelona's loss could be the Premier League's gain.