The fall of La Masia – is Barcelona’s dominance in Spain coming to an end?

La Masia is the former home of the legendary FC Barcelona youth academy, where the club’s future prodigies would live together, and develop their budding football abilities under the beating fury of the Catalonian sun.

From the outside, one of the most prestigious schools of football seems to be a typically quaint farmhouse, made out of stone worn away during the building’s historic existence. It was built in 1702, but it wasn’t until 1979 that it was first used by the club to house its young footballers who lived far away from Barcelona. And from that year, until the relocation of the academy in 2011, La Masia steadily built the foundations and philosophies that the Catalonian based club still follow to the present day.

Barcelona’s game against Levante in 2012 saw the team reach a significant milestone – as for the first time in the club’s rich history, every member of the first team on that day had graduated through La Masia. The club went on to win the league title that season, and it would be their 22nd.

The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta have gone on to become typical household names, and cemented themselves in their positions as some of the best players to grace a football pitch.

But one name from that team sheet against Levante stands above the rest, and that is, of course, Lionel Messi. There is no doubt the diminutive Argentinian has gone on to become one of the world’s greatest footballers; and could very well be the best despite his constant rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo.

As recent seasons have gone by, Barcelona’s arguably biggest rivals, Real Madrid, have secured themselves three Champions League trophies in their last four attempts, and they also wrestled La Liga away from Catalonia last season. Despite the big name departures of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria, Los Blancos appear to have adequately replaced them through their Galactico policy, securing the signings of Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos.

In stark contrast, Barcelona’s transfer policy has been severely questioned over their last few campaigns. The 2013-14 transfer window proved to bring about radical change for the club, as the emphasis on La Masia youth products slowly started to be eased away. The naturally gifted Thiago, seen as the natural heir to Xavi and Iniesta, followed the outgoing Pep Guardiola to Bayern Munich for just shy of 30m euros. Despite the expected decline of Barcelona’s senior midfield pairing, Thiago incredibly still had concerns about a lack of playing time.

The drama surrounding Neymar’s switch to Barcelona saw the Blaugrana’s summer get even worse, as they found themselves hit with a transfer ban that prevented them from registering or fielding new transfers until early 2016. To counter this, Barcelona thought ahead, and brought in the likes of Luis Suarez, Rakitic, Mathieu and shot-stopper Claudio Bravo.

These transfers saw more La Masia products being moved on. Cesc Fabregas made the switch to Chelsea, and other talented first-teamers such as Denis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu also moved away from the Spanish club. The further departures of long-standing servants Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol surely added to the instability surrounding the Catalan giants.

The increasing pressure to follow the free-spending precedent set by Real Madrid may be proving too much for Barcelona’s famed academy, and Los Blancos’ domestic and Champions League successes last season will have shaken the very foundations of FC Barcelona.

The succession of club president Joan Laporta by Sandro Rosell in 2010 may be a key factor in this eventual decline of La Masia. It would be a valid argument to suggest that Rosell had sanctioned the sale of his club’s youth products to pursue a similar Galactico policy that has helped bring recent success to rivals Real Madrid. However, many have accused him of breaking apart the very philosophies and essence that made La Masia one of the most famed youth academies in football history.

And to add to the growing sense of danger, Barcelona’s B team, formerly competing in the Segunda, have struggled to rise back up through the system after relegation to Spain’s third-tier in 2015. However, the main concern for Barcelona may not have been the relegation, but rather the obvious lack of players ready to make the jump into the first team set-up.

The controversy surrounding current Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has also contributed to the feeling of uncertainty surrounding the Blaugrana. Many fans want him to leave his post, but as it appears he will retain control of his position once again, there are now concerns the club won’t be able to prevent the recent failings of La Masia for the foreseeable future.

Barcelona have been linked with puzzling targets in the current transfer market, and with the potential addition of Tottenham Hotspur failure Paulinho in process, it does appear that the focus on the production of young talent at the club has well and truly come to an end.

 

 

 

 

 

Bridging the gap – UEFA president suggests salary caps for Europe’s biggest clubs

Under the relentless sunshine alighting the sky’s vivid blues and whites, stands one of Los Angeles’ finest holiday homes. The exterior is a smart blend of bleached white stone and tinted blue panes, each reflecting the never ending rolling hills beyond the horizon. And around a shimmering pool stands a film crew, with their attention fully fixated on one man: Manchester United’s newest box office signing.

Romelu Lukaku is only one of football’s most prestigious transfers, but as he puts pen to paper to pledge his foreseeable future to the Red Devils, he will be earning around £200,000 a week. In comparison, the Belgian front man had been earning £75,000 at his previous club; a measly figure when compared to what he is receiving now at Old Trafford.

UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, has recently been putting forward his case for bringing in salary caps for Europe’s biggest clubs, and the Slovenian may see this newest blockbuster move as another statistic to add to his ongoing argument. Ceferin has recently had an interview published in one of his home country’s most respected political magazines, Mladina.

He told the publication that UEFA would have to “take into serious consideration the possibility of limiting clubs’ budgets for players’ wages”, before he argued that the introduction of a salary cap would force clubs ‘to be more rational.’

The Slovenian’s concept will have the purpose of bridging the gap between Europe’s largest clubs and their smaller competitors, who will be earning a significant amount less in revenue. And it’s clear to see why Ceferin believes this is a necessary move.

There are examples in the largest leagues around Europe of the same teams earning substantial amounts of money, and then increasing this figure through certain other dealings and sponsorships. Familiar faces end up lifting the trophies at the end of the season the majority of the time, with the biggest clubs being able to show off their supremacy more with the addition of big names and sky-high wages. Meanwhile, rooted to mid-table obscurity or worse, are teams that simply don’t generate as much revenue, and are forced to aim for players of a potentially lower standard, in an attempt to achieve the impossible.

The largest teams are consistently generating more revenue than any others in their respective leagues, due to their continued successes. With success comes more sponsorship deals and furthered attraction for top-class players. And it’s a constant cycle; one which Ceferin believes should be brought down to a fairer level, so that every team is enabled to be competitive. The idea is that every club is imposed with a strict figure for wages, that shouldn’t be exceeded. It is hoped that this could allow smaller teams to have a chance of securing bigger name players, and without the danger of overspending on wages, could use their healthier finances to invest in winning more trophies.

A similar initiative was put in place in 2012, when UEFA introduced the Financial Fair Play system. This was meant to prevent clubs from spending above what they generated in revenue, but has so far been met with mixed results.

Both Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have received substantial fines for breaching FFP guidelines, but don’t appear to have been affected in the way they are carrying out their transfer business, with more big signings expected to be made by both clubs this summer.

However, as the Financial Fair Play system doesn’t seem to be effective at points, there may be no guarantee that Ceferin’s salary cap would force change instead.

For many supporters, a salary cap has seemed like a goal which needs to be achieved, but may not be possible. The idea of simply implementing a salary cap system to the biggest clubs would be met with fierce resistance, something that the UEFA president himself has acknowledged. The idea of clubs becoming more financially secure, and potentially having a chance to becoming champions of their leagues, is certainly a tantalising one.

The idea is almost certain to be shot down by both clubs and sponsors alike, as both will wonder why they should give up an advantage over their rival teams which they would have been working towards for years.

It seems like it can only go two ways. Either a salary cap is introduced and Europe’s biggest clubs are forced to sell some of their superstar players to meet the required figures, or nothing changes – and football is continued to be hounded by suggestions to level the playing field for smaller teams.

Whether Ceferin is capable of introducing a salary cap is a completely different question, and one answered by some critics of the idea as the Slovenian simply pandering to the press of his home country. However, others may see his vision as one which will change the face of the beautiful game forever and could be the much needed way that allows smaller teams to possibly achieve their greatest dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No room for failure – pressure mounting on Pep Guardiola after summer spending

An underwhelming first season for much-lauded manager Pep Guardiola’s first season in England, saw Manchester City fail to mount a Premier League title challenge, and early elimination from the Champions League. Following this summer’s spending, there is sure to be no room for disappointment again.

With a summer spending spree estimated to total around £200 million, the transformation of the Citizens into Guardiola’s vision has well and truly begun. The Spaniard has been successful everywhere he has managed, winning titles for both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, as well as twice securing the coveted Champions League trophy for the Catalan giants.

However, with an array of talent available to him everywhere he has coached, including the likes of Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski, it is hard to argue against the fact Guardiola has never yet managed a team not blessed with a superbly gifted squad of players. The same applies to Manchester City, as over the years the blue side of Manchester have overtaken their city rivals in terms of dominance.

Some of last season’s displays showed the qualities of Guardiola’s roster of players, with positive performances against their rivals for European qualification, Arsenal and Manchester United. However, all too often the team would slip up against an opponent they would be expecting to comfortably overcome, as an uncertain defence shipped far too many goals to mount a serious title challenge.

Guardiola has now had time to evaluate the team available to him, and has already analysed their strengths and weaknesses. The Spaniard has assessed the need for another option on the wing after the release of Jesus Navas, and the £42 million signing of the talented Bernardo Silva provides him with just that. Benfica shot-stopper Ederson has also been recruited too, after the release of Willy Caballero and the shortcomings of first choice keeper Claudio Bravo last campaign.

The manager also has targets to solve the full-back situation, after the release of long-term servants Paulo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy. City appear to be locked in negotiations with several players, with Guardiola wishing to complete the signings of Kyle Walker from Tottenham, veteran Dani Alves and left-back Benjamin Mendy.

All of these targets have been chosen carefully. The addition of Bernardo Silva to an already incredibly potent attack, including the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, has added further competition for a starting XI place, leaving their coach with plenty of choice for rotation across what is sure to be a gruelling campaign of demanding fixtures.

Dani Alves has played under Pep Guardiola before at Barcelona, and the Brazilian is sure to bring a winning mentality to the squad. With several La Liga titles under his belt, and three Champions League trophies, the veteran full back will compete closely with Kyle Walker for the berth at right back. The added bonus of the potential addition of the two players is Guardiola’s demands for versatility from his full backs. They are often expected to tuck into the centre of the pitch and bring an entirely new dynamic to Guardiola’s team going forward – and both full backs will offer this attacking threat.

Pep Guardiola will have been made fully aware of the heightened expectations for the forthcoming season. The Manchester City board have invested significantly in the Spaniard’s project, and will demand a significant improvement on a third place domestic finish and early elimination from Europe’s top competition.

But the biggest pressure will come from Guardiola himself. The Spaniard is a winner wherever he goes, be it a player or a manager. He has conquered at Barcelona and also succeeded at Bayern Munich, despite not being able to deliver a Champions League trophy to the Allianz Arena.

This new challenge at Manchester City is now in its second year of development. The first year could be viewed as a failure, or potentially a vital first stepping stone in securing Manchester City’s renewed dominance in England’s top division. Either way Pep Guardiola will be expecting to gain as many trophies as possible in the upcoming season, and further prove he truly is one of the elite managers in world football.

 

 

 

Farewell to a legend – the end of an era for Wayne Rooney

13 years. 559 games. 253 goals – and a club goal scoring record to boot. Wayne Rooney’s time at Manchester United has come to an end – and has now been officially confirmed as an Everton player once again.

Following the announcement came an outpouring of gratitude and memories, as people all around the world fondly allowed themselves to reminisce over some of Rooney’s most magical moments.

The overhead kick against Manchester City, which even saw Sir Alex Ferguson nearly jumping for joy, the hat-trick against Fenerbache on his Old Trafford debut; despite some seeing him only as a self-assured kid with too much attitude. But others saw him as England’s next big thing – and someone who could play a large part in leading them to glory once again.

Wayne Rooney has always been a figure that has divided many people. But it would be difficult to find a single person who doesn’t believe that he is truly a footballing legend.

And his career is far from over. As he shifts from red to blue, he has returned to his boyhood club, where he first explosively announced himself onto the footballing stage and seized the eyes of the sporting world. It is a fitting final chapter for Rooney, you would think, if he were to end his career in the very same fashion from which it started.

However, the back end of his time at United demonstrated Rooney far from his best. A general lack of sharpness affected him in the biggest of games and he struggled to make an impact under the demanding managerial philosophy of Louis van Gaal. He also found himself slowly being phased out of games last season under Jose Mourinho.

So it is easy to see why Rooney has made this move. It isn’t a brave decision, or one he should take with a heavy heart – as he has achieved everything at Manchester United and departs as a true great.

After all, last season saw him overtake Sir Bobby Charlton as the Red Devils’ all-time record goal scorer, and it’s a record that no one will beat for many decades to come. In a world where players come and go more than ever before, Rooney’s loyalty to the red half of Manchester has seen him achieve these records and leave with the majority of fans sure to be wishing him well in the next chapter of his career.

Now Wayne Rooney stands proud in his first photographs wearing the new Everton jersey. It is hard to miss the unmistakable glint in his eye; a hunger to succeed and do the best for his club. Ambition is certainly one of the attributes that Rooney has never lost.

But there are a couple of ways to view this transfer. Everton are certain to see this move as a financially sound acquisition of a former fan-favourite, and someone who has achieved everything available to him in the world of football. They will see his experience of winning as being invaluable, and hope Rooney can inspire the club to achieve a European finish.

However, despite it clearly being a shared dream between club and player to reunite once again, have Everton signed Rooney as his ability visibly begins to slip away?

The 2009-10 season for Wayne Rooney is his joint-best in the red shirt of Manchester United, as Sir Alex Ferguson used him at the very top of his attack and he appeared to flourish – hitting the back of the net 34 times. The 2011-12 season matched this figure, with Rooney once again being used as a key focal point for the Red Devils’ attack.

However, it is after this that Rooney’s drop is form is worrying.

In 2014-15, Rooney only scored 14 goals, then 15 the next season. And in his final campaign at Old Trafford, he converted just 8 chances, albeit beating Sir Bobby Charlton’s record with an effort away at Stoke City.

Football experts and fans would have a valid point if they were to pin the blame for this decline on Rooney’s positioning on the pitch – as he found himself deeper and deeper in the heart of United’s midfield as the years rolled by. But it is still an alarming drop in form for someone who was certainly still a key component to the Red Devils’ attack.

Despite this, the Everton faithful will be hopeful that Rooney can inspire his new team, and grab himself plenty more goals in the process. An expectation of around 15 goals could be a realistic one if the team allow him to flourish, and provide him with the right kind of service. What Everton have lost in Romelu Lukaku’s transfer to Manchester United may not be easily replaced, but the acquisition of Rooney could certainly be a step in the right direction.

With a new home allowing him to push forward and continue to challenge himself at football’s highest level, Wayne Rooney has almost certainly left Manchester United a legend, rather than the boy he was when he joined.

Have England’s Young Lions finally turned a corner?

There are two ways to view this summer’s action involving the England international youth teams – as a glimmer of hope among years of poor performances and a painful lack of consistency, or as another failure to win a major international tournament despite the Young Lions fielding teams full of promising talent.

Rather surprisingly, it appears the overwhelming majority are looking at the positives; that England’s youth teams did themselves proud in their respective tournaments stretching out over the course of this summer. It is with a jarring feeling of unease too, as England’s international teams have long since been associated with all too familiar failings in key tournaments.

It is difficult to exactly place when England’s failings in key tournaments began to become the worst form of consistency. Every major tournament has its own unshakable precursor – the insurmountable feeling of excitement and optimism, before it is ruthlessly crushed by a poor performance and the overwhelming cloud of pessimism and assumed future failings inevitably returns.

The injustice of the 2010 World Cup, where the England team visibly struggled in the staunching South African heat and limped through the group stage, could have been the starting point. The look of fleeting panic from Robert Green as he fumbles a simple save over his own goal line, and the sheer agony of Frank Lampard’s shot thundering over the line off the crossbar but not being given, will still haunt every faithful England fan as they close their eyes at night. Euro 2012 could also have been a point where the English people turned to apathy over genuinely taking an interest in how their national teams performed, as the Three Lions once again succumbed to a penalty shootout defeat.

However, five years on, and after the development of an entirely new format of how England national teams are coached, there are noticeable differences in the performances and philosophies within the country’s international youth teams.

Once again, people are starting to shake off their apathy and are taking a genuine interest in how they perform.

England’s under-17’s team came agonisingly close to winning the European Championship, but lost on penalties to Spain in the final, after conceding an equaliser six minutes into stoppage time. Some could argue that this is an all-too familiar outcome for an English international team, and that the suited figures throughout the Wembley boardrooms had once again failed the talent produced by the country. However, it is also possible to side with a feeling of surprised optimism – as after all the under-17’s team have only progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the competition twice within the last six years.

This increased feeling of optimism carried itself into June, where England successfully retained the Toulon tournament trophy after winning a penalty shootout. Despite there being only 12 teams in the competition, and England being the defending champions, it is still an impressive feat to finish top of the group in the first stage, beat rivals Scotland in the semi-finals and then defeat a talented Ivory Coast squad to retain the trophy. The crossover with the u-20’s world cup also reduced the quality of the Young Lions on display, but they still came out as victors.

The U20’s World Cup was entirely expected to be another tournament of failure for England’s youngsters, with certain players being moved into the next age category above, and the usual dense, unshakeable knowledge of prior failure sure to be weighing heavily on the minds of the squad. However, the Young Lions spectacularly proved their doubters wrong and progressed through the whole tournament unbeaten, before defeating Venezuela 1-0 at the final hurdle to claim their first ever title for this tournament.

And it appears this increased optimism found its way to the u-21’s European Championships, where England reached the semi-finals of the competition for the first time in almost a decade. Despite a penalty shootout defeat against eventual victors Germany marring what was almost certainly a successful summer for the squad, the tangible difference in performances across the board for all Young Lions team is inescapable.

And so, with the senior team hurtling towards a World Cup they look woefully unprepared for, and a country-wide uncertainty about the appointment of Gareth Southgate, an opportunity has presented itself for the Young Lions to further progress in their careers. With senior players certain to be phased out of the England set-up slowly but surely by the management team, there remains ample opportunity for the likes of Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham, Will Hughes and others to stake a claim for themselves and secure their future in the senior England setup for the foreseeable future.

If the talent on show adorning the Young Lions colours at various tournaments across the summer can find their way into their respective club’s first teams, or find a place where they can settle and will be guaranteed regular playing time, then it would be very questionable if Gareth Southgate were to ignore them.

 

Image credit: FIFA.com

 

The sorry state of Sunderland

Fresh off the back of a convincing 2-0 away win against relegation contenders Hull City, Sunderland fans are sure to be wondering what could have been. Relegation was confirmed last week for the club, as Bournemouth sunk them at home – and other results conspired against them.

However, as the full time whistle sounded around the KCom Stadium, and the Hull City players trudged off in the knowledge that a Swansea victory could put them perilously close to the drop, the Sunderland contingent finally had something to celebrate.

It has been a long and gruelling season for the Mackems, with uncertainty surrounding their managers at every turn – and pitiful performances from players brought in by David Moyes to help steady the tide instead causing the most hideous crash – potentially the worst seen in the club’s entire history.

Sunderland have experienced 23 defeats this season – a crushing statistic when compared to previous seasons of mid-table safety. Moyes’ appointment in July was quietly lauded by fans and pundits alike, after he replaced Sam Allardyce after the FA came calling.

Now both Moyes’ and Allardyce’s regimes could well be short lived with Sunderland’s confirmed relegation, although the Scot is adamant he plans to see out the remainder of his four year contract.

After Sunderland’s defeat against Middlesborough, Moyes predicted his team would be in for a season-long relegation fight. The Scot’s prediction came after the second game. And the sorry truth is that he hasn’t been proved wrong.

The summer transfer window was a shambles for the club too. Moyes operated on a strict budget handed to him by owner Ellis Short – so stuck to what he knew best. In came recruitments from his old clubs.

Steven Pienaar was handed a contract after injury related problems saw him released from Everton. Former Everton players were signed by the club; forward Victor Anichebe and Joleon Lescott came in, albeit accusations that the veteran defender was out of shape.

Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo was brought in during the January window, marking another transfer period of misery for Sunderland.

And the uninspiring signings led to limp performances on the pitch. The start of the season saw the club fail to win any of their first ten games in the Premier League – and a fourth round defeat against Southampton saw them crash out of the EFL Cup prematurely as well.

The back end of the campaign has also been a miserable one – after the club were the first in the top division to have their relegation confirmed.

The highs of the season have been few and far between – but Jermain Defoe scoring 14 goals on limited service is almost certain to see him move on during the summer.

It is puzzling that his manager’s future remains uncertain. There has been no official support for Moyes coming from the higher levels of the club – but the Scot’s comments recently seem to suggest he is assured of his future in the Stadium of Light dug out.

So with the club condemned to scrapping in the Championship next season, the Sunderland rebuilding job is surely a massive one.

But fans will be concerned that it doesn’t seem to have begun yet.

 

 

 

City fail to break through as Manchester Derby ends in stalemate

A red card for Marouane Fellaini and disallowed finish from Gabriel Jesus saw the Manchester Derby end in a heated 0-0 draw.

The build-up to the game was fixated around both teams’ desire to secure European football next season, and the tight opening exchanges showed this.

The first real chance fell to Mourinho’s visitors, after Rashford demonstrated his pace down the right, before squaring it to Ander Herrera. The Spaniard’s whipped cross to the back post looked destined to find the head of the towering Fellaini, but Fernandinho nipped in to knock the ball behind.

City’s first opportunity was a glorious one, spurned by Sergio Aguero. Eric Bailly’s mix up with De Gea saw De Bruyne allowed time to whip in a dangerous ball. The usually reliable Aguero stole in at the front post, but could only strike the base of the bar after he lashed an effort goalwards.

This effort saw City take the ascendancy – which limited United to short-lived counter attacks, attempting to make use of Rashford’s electric pace.

It was the pace in United’s front line that led to arguably the most glaring chance of the first half.

Martial’s run and cross saw the best and worst brought out of much-maligned City goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo. The Chilean shot stopper reached high to palm out Martial’s cross, but he could only parry the ball downwards, straight to the feet of Mkhitaryan. The Armenian was only able to fire his effort straight at Bravo however, with the goalkeeper reacting quickly.

Good saves were forced from De Gea as the half wore on. Aguero’s curling effort looked destined for the far corner for a split second, but the Spaniard was able to comfortably pluck the ball out of the air. Kolarov’s vicious near-post strike also required United’s keeper to be at his best, as he flung himself downwards to smartly save.

United spurned another glorious opportunity on the stroke of half time. Rashford’s teasing delivery fell to the unmarked Herrera at the back post, but he could only guide his header wide when he had more time.

No changes at the interval saw the Citizens start the second half on the front foot.

The home side continued to turn the screw, with lightning wingers Sterling and Sane testing United’s backline. This penned the Red Devils’ wide men, Martial and Mkhitaryan in their own half, leaving United with few outlets during their occasional forays forward.

Otamendi’s goal bound header from a corner was well blocked by Eric Bailly, before an injury forced City into a change of goalkeeper. Claudio Bravo rose highest to collect a United delivery, but as he landed the Chilean noticeably winced, and pulled up with a muscle injury.

The break in play saw Caballero replacing him, and also Jesse Lingard introduced by Mourinho in the place of the ineffective Martial.

As the game entered the final ten minutes, the game took a dramatic twist.

Marouane Fellaini collected a deserved yellow card for a late challenge on Sergio Aguero, despite it being his first foul of the game. However, as Aguero wriggled away from the quick free kick, Fellaini appeared to make contact with the Argentinian again.

Despite referee Atkinson looking likely to give the towering Belgian the benefit of the doubt, Fellaini rashly threw his head forward into Aguero’s face, and rightly received his marching orders.

Mourinho responded by throwing on Timothy Fosu-Mensah, to preserve what could be a precious point for his side.

Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus was brought on by Pep Guardiola – his final roll of the dice. And in the dying stages of added time, it appeared to have paid off. Aguero’s sharp turn and drilled cross found the little Brazilian, who diverted the ball into the net and peeled away in ecstasy.

However, the linesman had raised his flag immediately for offside, meaning United left the home of their closest rivals with a battling point.

How important it will be in their race for the top four still remains to be seen.