The Kids Are Not All Right, or, What Hath Eusebio Wrought?

It’s been a while since our last look at the Barcelona B team, so let’s check in and see how their season is going, shall we? With 38 games played, the team currently sits in 9th position (out of 22 teams) with 53 points (for reference, the leader is Deportivo de la Coruna with 82 points). They have recorded 14 wins, 13 losses and 11 draws. There are 4 games still left to play. Barring some disastrous occurrence, I expect the B team will finish the season comfortably mid-table. If you had told me at the beginning of the season that would be the result, I would have been pleased with that. After all, no one expected the team to reproduce the fantastic result of last season, coming in 3rd and only being denied the chance to be promoted because of their status as a reserve team. Several key players of that team (Romeu, Nolito, Soriano, Thiago) have moved up or out, and the team has had to accommodate quite a few new players. Also, due to injuries in the first team, senior players like Bartra, Montoya, Muniesa & Tello have been called up and unavailable for quite a few recent games. Most importantly, of course, the coach responsible for taking the team to that level of success left to take a job at Roma. In my opinion the departure of Luis Enrique and the appointment of Eusebio Sacristan has had an enormous effect on the B team, and not for the better.

It may seem churlish to be unhappy with the B team’s performance given all the factors I have listed above, but if you have been watching the games over the last few years, you will have noticed that this season there has been a marked difference in the style of play. One of the fundamental tenets that Johan Cruyff introduced to the youth system at Barcelona is that all teams at all levels should play the same style of possession-based attacking football. This enables youths to move seamlessly from one level to another so by the time they “graduate” they will already know the system the first team plays. Not every La Masia product will be good enough or find a spot in the first team, of course, but the skills they have learned will serve them well wherever they end up. As Kari so eloquently ranted summed it up in a recent email:

“Barça B is meant to be a place where talented youngsters can learn the style, hone their skills, better learn things like positioning, patience and being team players.”

The primary function of a B team is to develop young players and many of us feel that Eusebio has sacrificed this development for results. The B team has played their way to a decent set of results this season, but how have they done it? Sloppily, for the most part. Undisciplined. Loose balls, lost possession, long balls from the back. Watching this B team at times this season you felt they were…well, a bunch of kids playing a park game, not the well-disciplined tactical squad Lucho molded them into last year. Partly this may be due to Euesbio having a less-talented pool of players to choose from to begin with (Kiko & Rodri being prime examples). It is also true that the constant absence of key players due to first-team call-ups has left the B team defense particularly frail and reliant on less experienced youth. With abundant playing time, however, and constant drilling in the components of the Barcelona style, one would expect to see those players improve over the course of the season and gel into a competent, if not always brilliant, team. This has not happened.

I’m not as tactically astute as some, but even I can see that the way this B team plays under Eusebio is lacking in, well, tactics. They may initially line up in the familiar 4-3-3 formation we would expect to see, but that is where the resemblance to the first team ends. The lack of pressing for the ball is the first difference you notice. If the opponent gets the ball there should be a swarm of angry Barça players snapping at his heels to make him give it up. Instead a lone player may run at the opponent, while the rest hold back and hope for the best. Big chunks of precious game time are spent sitting deep in our own half absorbing pressure from the opponent and hoping to make a break on the counterattack. When an attack is mounted, it seems to largely bypass the midfield in favour of simply lumping the ball up to one of the boys up front. Now and then you will see a spell of possession or breathtaking bit of teamwork that reminds us why we are watching this team in the first place, but by and large it is apparent that Eusebio has abandoned the fundamental principles of the Barcelona-style of football. These talented young players (and most of them are very talented or they wouldn’t still be here) are simply not being encouraged to develop the skills that would (should!) make them future prospects for the first team. In fact, some players in most need of playing time to further their development (Espinosa, Sergi Gomez) are consistently being passed over in favour of older, less technical players (Carmona, Armando) whose main purpose seems to be to add some “muscle” to the team. And not much else. From the outside looking in, one can’t help but feel that Eusebio is sacrificing the opportunity to develop youth players in order to win games by any means necessary. Yes, winning games is important, and avoiding relegation is crucial, but sacrificing talent in favour of expediency is a betrayal of the principles the Barcelona youth system is built on and a failure in the core aspect of managing a B team.

Sadly, Rosell and the Barcelona board don’t see things the same way and have renewed Eusebio’s contract for another season. We may be in for more of the same next year unless someone intervenes. This is one reason why I am very happy that Tito Vilanova will be the first team coach next year-I believe that he is just as committed to the idea of bringing players up through the system as Pep is, and will continue to give these boys opportunities to train and play with the first team. These opportunities are crucial for the development of these players as they can learn from the best. Playing with the first team forces them to raise their level correspondingly and play up to expectations. You will have noticed that when given the chance to play in a CdR, Primera, or CL game, the B players have impressed in a way rarely seen during their regular season. Partly this is because of the level of the other players on the field, but it is also because they were being coached by someone committed to the Barça system and capable of bringing out the best in them.

This is the other area where I feel Eusebio is lacking and that has made him a poor choice to coach a team at this level. To me (and do remember that I say this from the perspective of a home viewer with no actual knowledge of the man), Eusebio does not have the strength of character to be a true leader for the team. Even a mediocre coach can make up for multiple failings if he or she is blessed with a charismatic personality that can inspire a team to exceed their expectations. Players need a coach that believes in them 100% and makes the players believe in themselves. That is something Lucho gave them in spades. Compare the self-confident way Lucho’s B team carried themselves on the field last year to the disjointed, almost desperate air the team gives off currently. This is not a team that believes they are the best. It’s not even a team that believes they could be the best. Eusebio is not a hands-on sort of coach. You rarely see him shouting encouragement or instructions from the sidelines. You could say that’s just his style, and maybe so, but remember that these are young kids. They are still learning. If things aren’t going to plan they need a coach willing to jump in and correct them. To teach them, inspire them, berate them if necessary. How are they ever going to be good enough to get into the first team (which is, remember, the ultimate goal even if only 5% of them actually make it) if they don’t have a coach that pushes them to excel?

The most frustrating aspect of this season has been watching the regression of talented players who were expected to keep performing at a high level. Marc Bartra is a good example. This is his third season with Barcelona B, and he has been a linchpin of the central defense. Last year when a lack of defenders prompted Guardiola to call up Andreu Fontas to the first team for the remainder of the season, there were many who thought Bartra would have been a better choice. Last summer he was the captain of the Spain U20 side that made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The leadership and confidence he showed in that tournament were those of a much older player. Watching him now when he plays with the B team he seems completely different. That confidence is gone. The communication and control at the back is rarely there. Rafinha has also not progressed as expected under Eusebio’s management. Thiago’s younger brother is incredibly talented and was supposed to be the Next Big Thing on the B team. He has definitely been a key player this season, but aside from a handful of first-rate games, has not been quite the game-changer that he should be. This may be partly due to Eusebio tinkering with his position, moving him from attacking midfielder to false 9 and back again, so that he has not been able to make any single position his own.

Won't someone think of the children?

So, having said all that, what of the prospects for the future? There are some rays of light. Several of the most talented players are due to be formally promoted at the end of the season (Muniesa, Montoya, Bartra & Jonathan Dos Santos). Nothing has been said about Tello’s situation, but it would be difficult to send him back to the B team at this point. Sergi Roberto is not being promoted this year, or at least we haven’t heard anything, and will likely be the heart of the midfield next season.

Gerard Deulofeu is another reason to be optimistic. The young striker has been touted for years as the “next Messi” to come out of La Masia. He is certainly not there yet and may never be (he is a different sort of player), but he has cemented his place in the B team and his future looks very bright indeed. He had a slow start this season, not getting many minutes, being benched in favour of Tello, Rodri, & later Soriano. When he did play, he often looked “off”. Ungainly, a little pudgy, not comfortable in his skin or in his position on the field. In the second half of the season he improved rapidly. With Tello and Soriano gone he has had plenty of starts, and he has lost weight and looks physically much more confident. He has lost much of the selfishness on the pitch that used to earn him criticism, and is one of the few players this season that presses relentlessly for the ball. Rumour is that Kiko Femenia may not be staying, and Juvenil A wunderkind Dongou will be formally promoted, so our main forward line next year could be Deulofeu – Rodri (yeah, well) – Dongou. There should be some goals in there! With Riverola leaving for Bologna, we can hope to see Espinosa get a lot more playing time in the midfield, as well as Ilie, who is finally back from a long-term injury. Well, we can hope.

OK, this turned out a lot longer than I expected and much rantier. I’ll stop now. Your turn.