Clash of the talent schools: How top clubs are following Barcelona's brilliant blueprint
29 December 2011
When Barcelona outclassed the South American champions Santos to lift the Club World Cup in Japan earlier this month, it showcased a remarkable achievement. Not so much Pep Guardiola’s 13th trophy in three years or his side’s fifth of the calendar year. Barca won with nine homegrown players in their starting XI and two more coming off the bench.
It is little wonder every club are scrambling for the blueprint of the blaugrana, the secret of their success. Indeed, when Barcelona’s B team play in Spain’s Segunda Liga it is the norm to have 18 scouts or more watching, all hoping to discover a gem of a player who Barca don’t need. Jordi Mestre is the Barcelona board’s director of youth, one of the key personalities behind the most successful modern football machine.
‘People talk of Barcelona as a sort of phenomenon because of our success but they don’t always realise that this has been 25 to 30 years in the making,’ said Mestre.
‘It is the product of a lot of hard work from the days of Rinus Michels before Johan Cruyff, to what we have now. The model has been shaped and developed so that everyone is taught what is required to become a Barcelona player.
‘Everyone from the age of 10 is taught to play the same way. Even our women’s teams play the same style.’
Mestre rarely gives interviews. At Barcelona it is not their way to boast or gloat. As the adage goes, they let their football do the talking. But Mestre has been excited by the development of the flagship NextGen Series, the Champions League-style tournament developed for Under 19s in which Barca, unsurprisingly, are through to the quarter-finals against another great exponent of youth development, Ajax.
‘The NextGen Series has been a very important experience for the players and coaches to match themselves tactically and competitively against other great clubs at this level,’ said Mestre.
‘It has broken the routine, bringing European competition to our younger players. It’s another challenge, another step in experience. It gives the coaches another insight into their development.’
But what is the Barcelona prototype for a player?
‘Above all it is about the talent,’ is Mestre’s answer. ‘At Barcelona 75 or 80 per cent has to be about control of the ball, technique, because we play a style that keeps possession. Only a small percentage is emphasised on physical. We have athletes, too, but the physical side comes later for us. It’s not about the size. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Pedro weren’t big physically and even Gerard Pique was not strong when he came to us. It was all about their ability on the ball.’
So does Mestre expect the next Messi or Iniesta to show soon?
‘It’s too early to say how many of this squad will make it to the first team but they are making good progress.
‘Our philosophy is that we invest a little money, yes, but more so our time. We have a structure that teaches players not only to become Barcelona players, but to grow as good men.
‘It is a model of principles for sport and life. Education; we teach not only football.’
Indeed, eight of Barcelona’s B team go to university.
‘We are very proud of our first team. We have nine players in a world championship team and two on the bench who came through our system, and our B team finished third in the second division last season with an average age of 20.’
Guardiola showed his faith in the club’s latest fledglings by playing nine of the B team in the Champions League against Bate Borisov on December 6. They won 4-0. However, taking that step to the first team is not easy. The frustrations of some helped Barcelona recoup an impressive £20million last summer as players such as Bojan Krkic and Oriol Romeu left.
‘It’s very difficult if you want to progress but see Lionel Messi or Sergio Busquets in front of you,’ said Mestre. ‘But we work on that. Their motivation may not always come easy but we teach them to be realistic.
‘What happened in Japan is our dream turning to reality. We have to perpetuate that dream.’
World be warned. Mestre and his colleagues are making global domination seem like child’s play.