Not so long ago, Barcelona made history by fielding an entire team of players who had graduated through the club’s famed ‘La Masia’ youth system.
It was November 25, 2012 and Barca ran out comfortable winners at Levante, with goals from Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas securing a straightforward 4-0 triumph for a team also containing Victor Valdes, Martin Montoya, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Pedro.
Back then, less than five years ago, La Masia was at the height of its fame and Barça were the global benchmark for youth development.
How times have changed. The Nou Camp club have now become a buying club rather than self-sustaining, with many of the players who appeared in that game at Levante departing and being replaced by costly imports.
When they finished last season by winning the Copa del Rey with a 3-1 victory over Alaves, the Catalan club’s 18-man squad featured just five players from La Masia, and their reputation for developing and promoting homegrown talent is in danger of being well and truly lost.
Indeed, that worrying trend has been continuing apace this summer, with two of the youth team’s brightest prospects deciding their futures would be better served elsewhere.
The rapid departures of Jordi Mboula to Monaco and now Eric Garcia to Manchester City is a devastating indictment, suggesting that even the best players within La Masia are losing faith in Barça’s ability to develop young talent.
You can understand why. Since that victory at Levante in 2012, only Sergi Roberto and Rafinha have made the leap from the youth ranks to the first team, while Mboula and Garcia have joined the likes of Sandro (recently signed by Everton), Marc Bartra (Borussia Dortmund), Alex Grimaldo (Benfica) and Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich) in heading through the exit door.
The club is clearly aware of the issue, and understandably concerned. The imminent recruitment of Gerard Deulofeu, in fact, is the first step at attempting to reverse the process.
As a youngster, flamboyant winger Deulofeu was a major star in Barça’s youth ranks, regularly shining for the club’s B team and making a handful of appearances for the senior eleven.
But was not given a real chance to progress any further, joined Everton, Sevilla, Everton again and then AC Milan in an attempt to spark his career, and is now close to being brought back to Camp Nou in a bid to prove that the values of La Masia have not been abandoned and that young players can find a route, however tortuous, to the first team.
Deulofeu’s return may be a largely cosmetic measure, attempting to reassure disgruntled fans that locally reared boys can still make it. But the appointment of Ernesto Valverde is a far more fundamental and significant step, with the former Athletic Bilbao coach getting picked for the job of succeeding Luis Enrique partly because he has an excellent record of developing young players.
Inaki Williams, Aymeric Laporte and Yeray Alvarez were among the youngsters who flourished in Bilbao under the command of Valverde, who will now be expected to achieve similar feats with Barça’s most promising youth performers.
It helps that Barça’s B team has just earned promotion back to the Segunda Division, meaning their rising stars will be testing themselves and improving at a strong level of competition.
It should be noted, however, that Valverde has been working in an extremely different environment at Athletic, whose long-held policy of only recruiting Basque players effectively forces them to give youth a chance.
Barça, of course, are not burdened by that restriction, and have the financial resources to snap up more or less anyone they want.
Their recent forays into the transfer market have rarely been successful, though, with expensive signings such as Arda Turan, Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes faring badly and leading an increasing number of fans to question why La Masia graduates were not given a chance instead.
Perhaps it’s time to turn back towards La Masia, trust Valverde to develop the players he is given and put away the cheque book. If they don’t take that step, a significant part of the club’s essence will continue to decay.