Barça look to youth for squad depth
As FC Barcelona kicked off the season with two more trophies, it became apparent that the current champions do not rely wholly on a star-studded squad, but also on their home-grown talent that adds to their winning recipe.
The main worry for coach Pep Guardiola this season is to live up to the tremendous expectations created last campaign. Having won the League, Spanish Cup and Champions League - a deed never accomplished before in the history of Spanish football - the secret to success this season lies in keeping their feet on the ground and that is where the home-grown players take up an important role in a team that oozes talent.
No less than 22 of the 24 goals scored since Barcelona started back at work this summer have been netted by youth-scheme players. Lionel Messi, one of the best players in the world but nonetheless a Barça youth product, leads the list alongside Bojan Krkic with six goals, followed by Pedro with five, Jeffren with three, while Xavi and Rueda scored one each.
Scoring goals does not seem to be a problem for the Catalan club. Last season led to a triumphant triplet of silverware and, despite the pressure, this campaign has started with another two titles standing proudly in the club museum's display cabinets: a Spanish Super Cup and European Super Cup which were lifted thanks to six goals from 'local' players.
While rival giants Real Madrid end up selling or loaning their youth players to other clubs, either in Spain or outside the country, Barcelona's policy is radically different. Pep Guardiola's predecessors were already familiar with the well-nourished nursery at the club - the senior squad's backbone being built around it with the likes of Víctor Valdés, Xavi, Carles Puyol or Messi - and the appointment of Nou Camp legend Guardiola as head coach last season was a clear indication of what an important role the Catalans would play from then on.
If Sergio Busquets was part of last season's heroics, by the end of the term Pedro, Oier Olazábal, Jeffren, Xavi Torres, Víctor Vázquez, Víctor Sánchez, Botía, Abraham González and Marc Muniesa were also given a chance to prove themselves at senior level. Although some of those players have been sold during the summer, Guardiola sees the youth team as a permanent back-up source for his plan to succeed this season.
And not just to act as a back-up, but a source of fresher blood, if required, too. For the European Super Cup final the head coach substituted icons Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Bojan and Pedro to make the difference against Shakhtar Donetsk on their way towards the title in Monaco.
It was that final which ended with eight home-grown players on the field. Only Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Eric Abidal were on the pitch representing foreign talent for the final whistle. "If most of our goals are being scored by the locals it is just because there are quite a few of them", explained Guardiola, toning down the bewilderment in the press room. Risky decisions which would have condemned any other coach, added freshness and speed to Barcelona's game in Montecarlo.
There is little doubt that those decisions will not be exclusive to the Super Cup final and will be a constant feature throughout the new season. With up to seven departures during the summer transfer window and only three first-team arrivals (Ibrahimovic, Maxwell and Dmytro Chygrynskiy), the current squad does fall short, especially covering some positions in the midfield and defence, but the head coach is optimistic: "It may be a very tight squad but as it happens, I have a lot of trust in the youth team players", admitted Guardiola.
In fact, Barça did intend to sign Cesc Fàbregas as a substitute for Xavi but the deal fell through, and, after the departure of Eidur Gudjohnsen to AS Monaco, it would be safe to say that the club will be taking an active part in the winter transfer window in the hope of bringing in reinforcements.
However, sporting director Txiki Begiristain pointed out that "one of the reasons why we only managed to sign three players is because the prices were outrageous this summer, so we have had to turn to the youth team. But we are really happy with the squad we have now".
With the League, Cup and Champions League titles to defend, in addition to the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December, plus the fact that the club will lose players to the African Cup of Nations in January, it will be no surprise to see Pedro, Thiago, Jonathan Dos Santos and Jeffren taking up a regular role for the Azulgranas this season.
Fortunately for Guardiola, those youngsters are fully aware that they are not simply back-ups, but possibly the key to success in a season where expectation is higher than ever before.