Which Players Trained At La Masia But Moved On?

Barcelona are undeniably a leading force in the world of football, with the club enjoying a history of repeated success. In many ways, their signature style of play can be attributed to the legendary Johan Cruyff - having managed the club from 1988-1996 – who is believed to be behind the concept of ‘tiki-taka’; the ideology which preaches that if a team keeps possession, creates movement and works the ball around the pitch, they will generate more chances and consequently outplay their opponents.

The Dutch manager had unquestionable confidence in this ideology, promoting it across the verticals in the organisation, especially in the youth academy La Masia. Interestingly, in an era when physicality was seen as the crucial factor in top footballers, those that came from La Masia were physically smaller but all demonstrated outstanding technical talent. Some of the top players who developed through this system include household names of the current generation – Pedro, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and a certain Lionel Messi. With these players in mind, it is easy to understand why the club has enjoyed huge success both domestically and internationally, but what if we switch focus and look at players who have been brought up through Barcelona’s youth ranks but gone elsewhere for their senior career? Have they been successful when playing for their country? Have they won titles at different clubs? Are there any patterns in the clubs that La Masia players move to after their time at Barcelona? With all of these questions in the air, TSZ has decided to take a deep dive into the stats around Barcelona’s youth academy to find some answers.

Before getting started with the analysis we would like to point to a few restrictions in the study. Firstly, a player is considered to be trained as a Barcelona player if they spent at least three years at the club between the ages of 15 and 21 (taking into account the year of their 15th and 21st birthdays). Secondly, the number of players in the data has been limited to those who feature in the following two articles: article 1 and article 2, providing they satisfy the criteria of ‘club trained’, are still active in the game and have never returned to Barcelona. The data has been collected from Soccerway and includes players that are currently active. Thirdly, all graphs below, barring the third, refer to performance excluding players’ careers at Barcelona. Lastly, when referring to the top five leagues throughout this study, this is made up of the English Premier League, French Ligue 1, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Spanish Primera Division.

There are six graphs in the study. The first is a stacked bar graph showing the proportion of appearances at international level per country with a player specific split within. The second graph builds on this, outlining the total number of goals scored by player and country. In the third graph we switch focus slightly and look at the proportion of titles won at Barcelona versus all other teams illustrated in a stacked bar graph. As previously mentioned, this is the only graph that takes into consideration a player’s complete career performance, including their time at Barcelona. The fourth graph is an extension to this and looks at the exact number of titles won per player (and title type), visualised in a stacked bar graph. It is worth mentioning here that players must have won a total aggregate of two titles or more to be included in the graph.

Moving onto the fifth visualisation, we have used a bar graph to show the total number of appearances for all players split by club. The sixth builds on this, looking at the number of games played in the top five leagues vs. all others, again in a stacked bar graph. This displays the top 18 players in the data set for clarity.

So let’s get into the analysis and see how La Masia players have performed outside of Barcelona?

Looking at the graph above, we can see that Mexico has the highest number of aggregated appearances from players in the study, with a total of 113 caps. This is split between two players: Giovani dos Santos who has 93 caps and Jonathan dos Santos with 20. In fact, Giovani dos Santos has significantly more appearances for his country than any other player – nearly three times as many as his closest challenger for this achievement in Pepe Reina (34 caps). We looked closer into the raw data around this and discovered that of the 31 players in the study, 1/3 have also played for their national team. A last take from this graph is that all of the national teams that feature a Barcelona Academy player (Mexico, Spain, Italy and Argentina) are developed football nations. Therefore, the competition to play for their country would have been higher, making their achievements even more significant.

We now move on to the number of international goals per player;

Only two players in our data set have scored registered a goal for their country; Giovani dos Santos with 18 goals for Mexico and Thiago Motta with a solitary goal for Italy.

Moving on, we turn to the number of titles won by these players in order to understand how well they performed in comparison to their time at Barcelona;

Looking at the graph above, we can see that the number of titles won by these players at Barcelona represents 68.9% of their total trophy haul, compared to 31.1% for all other teams. This suggests that despite players having left and won trophies at different clubs, often at a relatively early stage of their career, their most successful time (in terms of winning titles) remains at Barcelona.

We know that Barcelona have been successful both domestically and on the European stage, but how many and what type of titles have the players in the study gone on to win for other clubs?

Looking at the graph above, we can see that Thiago Motta sits at the top with a total of 18 titles; eight of these titles came in the league, the highest number compared to any of the players in the data set. Moving on to the purple bar (Champions League, Europa League) for Motta we can see that he has one trophy, which consisted of a Champions League win when playing under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho at Internazionale in 2009/2010. When exploring the stats for this purple bar for the other players, we found that only Oriol Romeu also won the Champions League (with Chelsea in 2011/2012). Having said that, Romeu also managed to win the Europa League with Chelsea in 2012/2013, an achievement he shares with Fernando Navarro and Gerard Deulofeu who both accomplished this while playing for Sevilla. When looking at national team performance it is also worth mentioning two other outstanding players. Firstly, we can see that Pepe Reina has a total of three international titles, made up of two European Championship wins and one World Cup. Secondly, Giovani dos Santos has a total of four international trophies made up of three Gold Cups and one Olympic title. Whilst these two players have won the most international titles in the data set, it is Pepe Reina who has the most prestigious titles. Two former La Masia players not included in the data set (as they are both retired) are Ivan de la Pena and Mikel Arteta, but they are worth highlighting as they both enjoyed successful careers after leaving Barcelona with a total aggregate of 13 titles.

Having looked at titles, it is interesting to investigate the number of appearances per club outside of Barcelona to see if there is any pattern in where players continue their careers;

From the graph above, we can see that the most appearances by ex-Barcelona players are in Rayo Vallecano at 466, followed by Espanyol at 433. The most remarkable take from this graph is that of the 13 teams, nine are Spanish. This confirms that of the players that leave Barcelona, a significant proportion sign for other Spanish competitors rather than moving to other European countries.

As the Spanish Primera Division is considered amongst the ‘big five’ European leagues, it would make sense that there would be a pattern for ex-players to also appear in the other top five leagues when they moved to another club. So, what proportion follows this pattern compared to playing in other leagues?

We can see that the top three players - Pepe Reina, Fernando Navarro and Sergio Garcia - have played the vast majority (nearly 100%) of games (outside of their time in Barcelona) in the top five leagues. In fact, when looking down the graph we find that Jordi Xumetra, Paco Montanes and Manuel Lanzarote are the only three players that have played the lion’s share of their games in other leagues. Looking into the raw data for all players, we found that 73% of all appearances were within the top five leagues compared to 27% for all other leagues. Yet again, this suggests that players from Barcelona are of the highest calibre as they go on to enjoy careers at the very top European club level.

To conclude, the purpose of this study is to determine the impact of having trained at Barcelona, and how it impacts those players who have furthered their careers elsewhere, are still active in top-flight football, and have never returned to Barcelona. We identified that a large proportion of the players in the study have enjoyed international careers; Giovani dos Santos has played the most international games (93) and also scored the most goals (18). In fact, Thiago Motta was the only other player in our data set that has managed to score for his country.

Thiago Motta further stood out in terms of the aggregate number of titles won, with the Champions League title being the pinnacle of his career. Pepe Reina however showed a very strong record at international level having won the European Championship twice and the World Cup once. With this in mind, it is clear that the La Masia players have been successful after their time at Barcelona. However, it is worth highlighting that the players still won roughly 2/3 of their trophies while playing for Barcelona, demonstrating the strength of the club itself.

We have also found that players leaving Barcelona seem to have a propensity to end up in other Spanish clubs, with Rayo Vallecano, Espanyol, Celta Vigo, Mallorca and Sevilla being the most popular clubs to move to. This, together with the fact that roughly 70% of all games played outside of Barcelona at club level were played within the top five European leagues, suggests that the club consistently produces players that can compete at the top level.

As a final comment, it seems like Johan Cruyff has demonstrated how a top football organisation can be self-sufficient and produce top quality players, at the same time as developing a wider network of skilled footballers.