Barcelona's Sisyphean task:
Updated: Feb 18
Why is developing the perfect football team so damn hard?
by Daniel Petersen
Photograph: Times Newspapers LTD
It has been said that the perfect football team would play scintillating football, win trophies on a regular basis, and consist mostly or entirely of academy graduates. Sounds fanciful, doesn’t it?
In the hyperinflated world of £70 million goalkeepers, it is difficult to imagine such a thing happening. Manchester City concede a few goals and two days later splash out another £60 million on a defender, while Juventus have called upon the 33-year-old-but-somehow-still-good Cristiano Ronaldo to give them one final, all-or-nothing crack at the Champion’s League. It sounds like a pipe dream.
Except it is not. Manchester United managed it with the famous Class of ’92 and Liverpool won a treble in 2001 with a team containing Carragher, Gerrard, McManaman, Owen and Fowler.
Photograph: Manchester United Class of '92, courtesy of Manchester Evening News
Most famously of all, Barcelona won absolutely everything from 2008 to 2011. They were, by the criteria described above, the perfect football team. Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets making opponents run in circles chasing shadows; Dani Alves rampaging forth from right-back about ten years before it was sexy; Carles Puyol putting his face where most people would not put their mother-in-law’s face. That is all before you mention Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry in the same front line. They were even managed by academy graduate Pep Guardiola, the man who captained Barcelona’s original “Dream Team.”
All of this begs the question: if everyone knows what makes the perfect football team, why do so few manage it?
Now, that is a big question to ask and an even bigger one to answer, but part of it is simple, and also quite pertinent to Barcelona today, specifically to their famous academy La Masia.
There is a common line of thought that La Masia has dried up. At face value that would appear to be the case; it has gone from producing Lio Messis to producing Gerard Deulofeus. While that is certainly not the biggest of Barcelona’s problems right now, it is still a concern. Or is it?
Let’s clear something up: a top-flight-footballer is an exceptionally rare being. At any one time, only about 500 can exist in England. When you think of how many boys grow up dreaming of playing professionally, you start to understand just how unlikely it is.
In 2017, the chance of a person living in England being a Premier League footballer was roughly 1 in 111,240. For context, the chance of them being a doctor was 1 in 2,800. That is not taking into account the fact that a lot of those players are foreign; the number of Englishmen playing in the Premier League is even smaller.
To produce any top-flight player is difficult even for a top-flight club. To produce multiple at the same time is statistically next to impossible. There is nothing you can do to make it happen. After Steven Gerrard, the next truly excellent player Liverpool produced is Trent Alexander-Arnold, over 15 years on.
Photograph: Liverpool FC official website
Manchester United like to trumpet the fact that they have gone over 4000 games with an academy graduate in the squad, but how many of those players were regulars once the Class of ’92 retired? Barcelona themselves are now actively trying to get rid of their own academy graduates, such as Riqui Puig.
The fact that La Masia once produced a full XI of Barcelona players at all beggars belief: it is just not reasonable to expect it to happen regularly.
There is another problem with youth development which is a bit more counter-intuitive: being good at it means you lose more players. If you field a full XI of academy graduates, they will probably all be in the 19-22 age range, which is when you tend to see players dropped into the first team. However, assuming all those players stay in the club, by the time the next batch of youngsters comes through that first XI will still only be 24-25 at the most.
For teams like Monaco or Borussia Dortmund, that is actually desirable because they can sell those players to bigger teams and reinvest; indeed, that is exactly how those two clubs have constructed their business models.
Barcelona, with their ironclad “mythology” of La Masia and Cruyff, find this model difficult to swallow and they cannot always bring themselves to sell up. So you see promising youngsters, like Bojan and Delofeu once were, stagnate.
It is fair to say that there is scant reason to feel sorry for Barcelona at the moment – watching the club tear itself to shreds is better than any soap opera – but let’s for a moment have a little bit of sympathy for them: they have given themselves an impossible task.