Reaction after teenager Ansu Fati stole the show as Barcelona posted a convincing win over Valencia at Camp Nou on Saturday.
The 16-year-old became Barcelona’s youngest ever scorer when he netted against Osasuna prior to the international break and, pushed into the starting line-up, he needed less than two minutes to find the net again.
Fati then set up Frenkie De Jong for the second only four minutes later and, although defensively they were shaky again, Barcelona went on to claim a 5-2 win.
Watch head coach Ernesto Valverde’s reaction above:
These have been a rough few years for La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy programme.
Not so long ago, Barca were winning title after title while regularly fielding entire teams consisting of homegrown products, basking in the glory of a group of superstars such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi ably complemented by a valuable backbone of players like Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro.
Barca’s ability to churn out brilliant youngsters dripping with the club’s DNA was the envy of the world, with jealous clubs from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and far beyond routinely sending their youth development staff on spying missions with the task of discovering just how they did it.
More recently, however, a series of setbacks have seen much of that lustre lost, and La Masia’s status as the undoubted industry leader come under heavy questioning.
Most seriously, the club was hit by a transfer ban from FIFA after being found guilty of breaking regulations on the signing of junior players from overseas. Were Barca, the question was whispered, only so good at bringing through youngsters because they had been cheating?
At the same time, the production line started to dry up. Whereas once Camp Nou coaches had been able to replace outgoing players by calling upon the latest recruits from their academy, now they were forced into splurging vast sums on exports such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.
Even worse, many of the most promising prospects to emerge through the system decided they didn’t want to play for Barca after all, with Eric Garcia (to Manchester City), Jordi Mboula (to Monaco) and Xavi Simons (to Paris St Germain) among those to quit the club for pastures new when they were on the verge of challenging for first team football.
Perhaps, however, the main problem wasn’t that La Masia’s standards had dropped; maybe instead Barca were simply a victim of their own success.
Bringing through players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi at more or less the same time is a freakish, once-in-a-lifetime achievement, which can never be replicated and set unrealistically high expectations. Similarly, the quality of that batch of players – and the long list of trophies they secured – meant that the club’s standards had been raised up a notch or five, making it much, much harder for young players to break into the first team than it ever had been before.
La Masia’s standards, it could be argued, had not slipped to below par. They had merely reverted to the norm, dropping from a fantastically high level to a more reasonable rate of production.
Just looking around La Liga’s squad lists, which are peppered with players who came through La Masia, makes it clear that Barca hadn’t stopped producing top-quality professionals. From Marc Cucurella (Getafe) and Munir El Haddadi (Sevilla) to Xavi Quintilla (Villarreal) and Rodrigo Tarin (Leganes), the club’s youth graduates are scattered liberally across the country, and it’s very rare indeed to watch any La Liga game that doesn’t feature at least one former Barca trainee.
And now, in a startling reassertion of its powers, La Masia appears to have struck genuine 24-carat gold with the emergence of the man (or boy) of the moment: Ansu Fati.
The freakishly gifted 16 year-old winger isn’t alone. Many Barca fans, for example, are desperate to see more playing time for another starlet, Riqui Puig, whose ability to control the midfield is uncannily similar to the skillset previously displayed by Xavi.
Then there’s Carles Perez, who has burst onto the scene this season to serve as a more than capable deputy for Lionel Messi, and looks likely to become a very valuable member of the squad for years to come – as does Carles Alenya, despite falling out of favour in recent weeks.
So we should probably conclude that reports of La Masia’s demise were grossly exaggerated…and if Fati continues like he has started, Barca’s status as the world’s greatest producer of youth talent will surely be regained.
Ernesto Valverde insists he will not rush Lionel Messi back before he is ready as Barcelona face up to the prospect of being without their talisman for another week.
Messi has yet to play this campaign after suffering a calf strain during pre-season and is definitely sidelined for Saturday’s visit of Valencia and may also miss Tuesday’s Champions League opener against Borussia Dortmund.
Without their record-breaking forward, Barca have only managed to win one of their opening three La Liga matches, with a 5-2 home victory over Real Betis coming in-between a defeat at Athletic Bilbao and draw with Osasuna.
However, Barca coach Valverde is adamant he will only bring Messi back when he is fit and ready, and says the Argentinian’s absence gives other players in his star-studded squad a chance to shine.
He told a press conference: “Of course Messi’s a very important player for us, I’m not going to deny it, but the team have responded well in other games which he hasn’t played in.
“But he’s a decisive player. He can change games because of how he affects our team and the opposition. He’s the best player in the world.
“We want him back as soon as possible but we want him back at full fitness.
“I don’t know if he will be ready for Tuesday. I don’t want to create any expectations. It’s difficult.”
He added “Missing Leo Messi is always going to be noticed but it means chances and opportunities for other players to step forward. We saw that against Betis.”
The good news for Valverde is that striker Luis Suarez is available again after being absent since the opening-day defeat to Athletic.
The Spanish champions will come up against a familiar face in the Valencia dugout this weekend, with their former midfielder Albert Celades having been appointed Los Che coach on Wednesday.
Barcelona-born Celades, who spent almost a decade on the books of his hometown club before leaving in 1999, took over the reins following the shock sacking of Marcelino.
Like Barca, Valencia have also picked up four points from their opening three games and Celades is hoping they can add to that tally on his return to the Camp Nou.
He said on his club’s website: “Barcelona are a great side. No more needs to be said about Messi, but Barca always give you difficulties, whatever starting XI they field or the changes they make.
“They cause even more problems at their home ground. We know how difficult the game will be, but we are focused on the plan that we have worked on in our two training sessions together. We’ll see if we are capable of competing in the best way possible.
“We will go out there tomorrow in Barcelona with the best mentality, and try to compete against a magnificent side.”