Out of the Champions League and with a transfer ban until 2015, who do Barcelona turn to next? FourFourTwo's Jonathan Fadugba looks at five academy graduates who could make the grade....
“La Masia no es toca” read the banner at Camp Nou before Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Real Betis last weekend. The message was simple, both from the fans who unfurled the banner and the club who funded it, in light of the recent transfer ban for breaking rules on signing international players under 18: "La Masia is not to be touched" - in other words, keep your mitts off our academy.
La Masia has been elevated to almost sacred status, such is the converted farmhouse’s mythical reputation for churning out golden eggs. That makes FIFA's punishment of Barcelona's youth recruitment methods a sensitive issue, but unless overturned the ruling means the Catalan giants cannot buy any players until the summer of 2015.
Barça lodged an appeal but in the meantime they’ll have to think on their feet. With an ageing squad, players in key positions leaving and a transfer ban, they may have to look within for solutions next season. So who from La Masia is ready to make the step up?
Age: 18 • Position: Defensive/Deep-Lying Midfielder
Sergi Samper is yet to make a first-team appearance for Barcelona, but as the highly-rated teenage midfielder continues to grow and mature it seems unthinkable that this will remain the case for too much longer. A deep-lying playmaker in the mould of a Pirlo or Xavi, Samper has impressed in every youth category he’s been tested in to date.
Samper was outstanding in Barcelona’s NextGen Series campaign last season. Anyone who witnessed the 18-year-old’s exquisite touch, vision, tactical maturity and outstanding eye for a pass in a 2-0 win against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in 2012 could not fail to have left the ground feeling inspired. His passing in particular, over short and long range, stands him out and within the club there exists the feeling that he has all the attributes required to make the first team.
Captain at various youth levels, Samper rejected an offer from Arsenal when he was 16 and the then-Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas went to scout him at Barça B last October; however, Samper is unusual even for La Masia in that he's never worn any other shirt except Barça’s, having joined as a schoolboy. His dream is to make it at Camp Nou, and the transfer embargo may mean he does so a little sooner than expected.
Jean Marie Dongou
Age: 18 • Position: Striker
If you’re ever at La Masia and you happen to see a room illuminated by the bright lights of a blaring TV screen late at night, the chances are it’ll be Jean Marie Dongou parked up on the couch watching. For Dongou, it’s not enough to spend his professional life playing football at one of the world’s most renowned finishing schools; the kid from Cameroon is a complete football addict, and spends his evenings glued to the TV watching games.
Suitably for a striker who arrived at Barcelona via the Samuel Eto’o Foundation, Dongou has more than a hint of Eto’o about him: an explosive finisher with a one-track mind. A pure No.9, Dongou is a predatory penalty-box player; despite modelling his game on Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, he revels in the simple pleasure of getting on the end of chances.
Tata Martino has been hugely impressed by the Cameroonian, taking Dongou on the club’s pre-season Asian tour and offering him minutes in the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey, where he scored his first senior goal against Cartagena on his debut last December. In January he signed a contract extension until 2017. There’s nothing false about this nine, and if Barca need a poacher next season the 18-year-old could be an option.
Age: 18 • Position: Winger
Barcelona are hardly struggling for nifty wide men, what with the likes of Pedro, Cuenca, Tello and Alexis Sanchez already on board. But if they fancy cashing in on one or two to save up for a post-transfer ban splurge, Adama Traore is one academy product who could be an able replacement.
Born just a few miles away from the Camp Nou to a father who works in a shop changing wheel rims and a housemaid mother, 18-year-old Traore – or Adama, as he is often known – played for Spain’s youth teams up to U19 level but is currently in the midst of a possible international allegiance switch to Mali.
A brilliantly rapid right winger, he's something of a throwback in the modern game, in that his primary focus is on beating his man down the byline and getting the cross in for others to prosper: there's none of this cutting inside malarkey for Traore, who could combine well with finisher Dongou to offer Barça a more direct alternative to their traditional style.
His pace and directness have been destroying full backs for the B team this season, and his healthy tally of goals and assists have already earned him first-team call-ups: he made his league debut against Granada back in November and was then rewarded with a Champions League debut against Ajax. More may follow.
Age: 20 • Position: Attacking midfielder
You need only watch Gerard Deulofeu’s performances for Everton this season, including a special goal against Arsenal at the Emirates in a 1-1 draw, to realise what a talent Barcelona have on their hands. A strong runner with a rapid change of pace, excellent technique and the trickery to trouble any defender in a one-on-one situation, the 20-year-old has shown enough in his Premier League loan campaign to suggest he has all the credentials required to succeed at the highest level.
Though there are weaknesses in Deulofeu’s game, including an occasional tendency to neglect the defensive side of things, the quick-witted Spaniard’s raw potential is frightening. A season in England has also strengthened him physically, and the attacking midfielder, who can also operate as a wide forward, now looks better equipped to deal with the rigours of first-team football. With a €35m release clause it appears Barça aren’t planning on letting Deulofeu leave anytime soon, and the player himself has admitted his first choice would be to return to Camp Nou next season.
Age: 18 • Position: Centre-back
If one area will suffer more than most should Barcelona fail to overturn their transfer ban, it's defence. With club legend Carles Puyol on his way out, Gerard Pique continuing to enjoy the company of his wife Shakira (and who can blame him?) and Javier Mascherano continuing to be Javier Mascherano, the need for a centre-back is becoming increasingly urgent. In fact it’s long been a Barcelona blind spot, and arguably their undoing in the Champions League for the last few seasons.
Frank Bagnack, therefore, could be one to benefit. Another Cameroonian who joined the club from the same foundation and at the same time as Dongou in 2008, Bagnack is not just your typically athletic, powerful centre-back. (For a start, he can also play at right-back, as he did for Barça’s Infantil A team in 2008/9.) He is aggressive in the challenge and pressures his man well, but he also has a bit of class about him – technically sound, elegant in possession and plays with his head up: Bagnack’s passing is crisp and he tends to pick the right pass.
To his surprise, Bagnack was heavily involved in Barça’s pre-season and has earned call-ups to recent Cameroon squads, albeit without appearing yet. Given Barcelona’s ongoing defensive woes, Bagnack may end up getting fast-tracked.