La Masia has recently been criticized for the lack of first-team contributors and the inability to replicate the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. While the general consensus is slowly understanding the true once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck that meant many all-time greats were produced at the same club in the same generation, some still argue that Barcelona must do a better job transitioning players from the youth set-up into the first team.
The Camp Nou board have recently been selling players on the cusp of the first team, trying to maximize their profits in the case that the players don’t make the grade elsewhere either. However, they have slipped a buy-back clause into a number of deals, and as is the case with Denis Suarez, in the hope of getting some of them back.
The hardest thing for any club to do in regards to youth is look into its crystal ball and try to guess which players will rise to the top and which won’t make the desired impact for the first team. Each case is different, and here are some examples of some of the recent players who were on the cusp of the first team:
After dazzling at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Deulofeu was the prized jewel of La Masia and, at 17 years of age then, it was only a matter of time before he would join Messi on the wing. However, Luis Enrique was not impressed with his defensive pressure and felt that he didn’t fit with Barcelona's high-pressing system. At Everton now, he is still criticized for his defensive lapses, but his contributions of two goals and eight assists in 22 appearances have carved him a nice role as a spark of energy either as a 60-minute starter or as a substitute. He has much more to show if Barcelona are to activate his buy-back clause.
Sergi Roberto has been the shining example this season of how much Luis Enrique values versatility off the bench. Thus, it should be no surprise that Barcelona are looking to activate the buy-back clause to bring him back to the Camp Nou. While the 22-year-old attacking player had his ups and downs at Sevilla, he has fit nicely in at Villarreal. With the Yellow Submarine, he has played left midfield in 21 of his 33 appearances, all the while scoring four goals, providing eight assists and completing 74% of his passes. This kind of production is exactly what Luis Enrique hopes he would be able to replicate in fewer opportunities but with more talented teammates next season.
Injuries have put a damper on the first season in the Premier League for the 20-year-old winger. Aston Villa have needed all the help they could get in their relegation battle, but Adama has only managed to be healthy enough to make nine substitute appearances, providing one assist. If the young winger were to be brought back to Catalonia, it would be next year after a quite miraculous season with a team most likely no longer in the top level of English football.
The arrival of Aleix Vidal definitely nailed the coffin shut on Montoya’s Barcelona career. The right-back struggled to get into the team in the first half of the year with Inter Milan, but he has already made four appearances for Real Betis in the new year. The 24-year-old may never make the grade at the Camp Nou, but this loanee should be able to help the right team fight for a spot in the Champions League if he can continue to progress.
After carving out a bit-time role after being promoted from the youth set-up, Tello should be seen as a player who could have an impact on some Champions League favorites off the bench or he could play a major role for a yearly Champions League caliber team. The 24-year-old may not have been the best signing for Porto, but he has fit like a glove with Fiorentina. Since moving to Italy in the transfer window, the winger has five starts and one substitute appearance for Fiorentina and most importantly, a goal and two assists. He had just a goal and one assist for the entire first half of the season in Portugal. Tello is clearly a bright player who can thrive in the right situation, but it is unlikely that he will be a Barcelona player ever again.
Of all of Barcelona’s players who are loaned out or have a buy-back clause, the young Croatian and his development is the one that Cules are watching the closest. Of every major young prospect that other world giants have collected, Halilovic was the player that Barcelona acquired with the idea that he could someday replace the outgoing generation.
Already in 21 appearances and almost 1900 minutes with Sporting Gijon, he seems to be on track. His three goals and five assists are impressive, but his 80% passing on a team that regularly concedes possession might be the statistic that could make him a member of the first team either next year or definitely the following.