By 90Min
July 25, 2018

In the height of Barcelona’s golden era which saw an unprecedented period of domination under the management of Pep Guardiola, it was the academy products of La Masia who shone brightest in the first team at the Camp Nou.

The all-conquering trio of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta led the way as Barcelona won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011 in remarkable and ground-breaking style.

The core of Barcelona’s team was of their own making. Whilst the likes of domestic rivals Real Madrid spent tens and hundreds of millions trying to mechanically assemble a team of Galacticos, Barcelona produced a side of home grown superstars.

For many, the self-sustaining, organically generated nature of Barcelona’s triumphs was the most admirable aspect of their success. This was not victory based on financial investment, but on the traditions and core values of a super club which set the benchmark for player development across Europe.

Even manager Pep Guardiola was one of their own, having come through Barca’s youth academy himself as a player before going to spend 11 years of his senior career in the first team at Camp Nou.

This clear identity bred success through club unity under the management of Guardiola, as the Catalan side won three consecutive La Liga titles between the 2008/09 and 2010/11 seasons.

Of the starting XI which beat Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley in the Champions League final in 2011, seven of the Barcelona team were academy graduates at the club.

That is not to say money has not consistently been spent at the Camp Nou, even across this golden era of success. Vast sums were splashed to recruit the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Dani Alves and David Villa from outside the club.

Tellingly, however, it was not the expensive recruits from beyond the club’s production line which proved central to the club or the team’s success.

Barcelona’s operations were greatly simplified and conducted with clear direction, with the team makeup dictated fundamentally by the breakthrough stars of their own making. Big name signings from outside were made simply to fill the gaps.

That clarity in direction, identity and operations has, however, waned somewhat over the period of time since Guardiola’s departure as manager in 2012.

Luis Enrique was able to ride of the wave of what had been created as an indomitable force under Guardiola, again winning the Champions League in 2015 with Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta still very much central to the Barca winning machine.

The departure of Xavi in 2015 was, however, the beginning of a changing of times at the Camp Nou. The Spanish maestro was a figure of considerable weight to the Catalan side, both in terms of being the heartbeat of the midfield and a figurehead of the golden generation of home-grown stars.

With a lack of faith in any modern graduates from La Masia to succeed Xavi in his role, Barca turned to Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic as the answer to their creative needs. Whilst the Croatian has since performed adequately in the Xavi void, he has not come close to replicating the era-defining brilliance of his Spanish predecessor.

The signings of Neymar and Luis Suarez were expensive financial outlays on players tasked with easing the attacking burden on Lionel Messi. Though they were atypical of Barcelona in terms of bringing in reinforcements from outside to assume heavier responsibilities in the team, they both seemed to fit with the Barcelona ethos of style in their gelling with Messi.

What became noticeable during this period under Enrique’s management, however, was a greater reliance upon the attacking potential of the Barcelona front three, and a lesser prominence of the controlling verve with which their midfield trio had previously come to the fore under Guardiola.

It was not so much a game of ‘tiki-taka’ brilliance in build-up and possession-based play as had previously defined the greatness of the Xavi-influenced side under Guardiola, but a game based on explosive pace, power and star quality of the attack.

The midfield was no longer essential, and this was the biggest sign of a changing of times at the Camp Nou. The loss of Iniesta this summer is only likely to further this evolution, though with the Spaniard leaving a void in the side comparable to that of Xavi, the changes may bring more a sense of decline.

The onus is evermore on Messi, with only the Argentine, Busquets and Pique remaining of the core which had served the Catalans so well, and Ernesto Valverde’s reign does not seem to be one which is set to breed similar waves of revolution and renewed inspiration to that of Guardiola to give fresh definition to the Barcelona traditions and identity.

The signing of Ousmane Dembele last summer indicated this, as the Frenchman was recruited for over £100m to replace Neymar following the Brazilian’s departure to PSG. Dembele’s integration into the team was awkward and ultimately unsuccessful.

This summer, the Spanish champions have turned to the signing of Malcom from Bordeaux. Following a succession of rejected bids at around the £60m mark for 29-year-old Willian of Chelsea, Barca switched their attentions to hijacking the signing of the 'other' Brazilian from under the noses of Roma, for a player who had nearly joined Everton earlier this summer.

The move for the Brazilian winger as Barcelona’s third major summer signing, following the signings of Clement Lenglet from Sevilla and Arthur from Gremio, suggests that there is no longer a clear direction in Barca’s transfer operations, nor in their promotion of a core basis of academy graduates as the spine of the Barcelona team and club identity.

Malcom spent just two seasons at Bordeaux, scoring 20 goals, and there is a real sense that he is essentially Barcelona’s ‘plan B’ this summer, if that. Willian was a surprise priority target, given his age and inflated price tag. A late move for Malcom seems even less convincing.

It is a far cry from the dealings which fuelled the successes of the Guardiola era in Catalonia, and a sign that Barcelona’s unique brand of unparalleled and uncompromised club identity may be in decline.

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