The academy graduates’ performances for the first team in recent days suggest the issues with home-grown talent at Camp Nou may have been exaggerated
The hype wave is in constant motion. On Saturday Carles Alena was riding it, by Thursday it was Riqui Puig being championed.
But the young midfield duo have more potential than most and at Barcelona they could not be in a better place to turn promise into performances, even if the last few years have been a struggle for the club’s feted La Masia academy.
Since the golden generation – Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol who have left, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets who remain – few have made it from youth level into the first team squad at Camp Nou on a regular basis.
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The one success story is Sergi Roberto, who enjoyed an unlikely transformation under Luis Enrique when deployed out of position at right-back.
Beyond that, frustration. Munir El Haddadi holds a first team place but is rarely called upon and always seems to have one foot out the door.
Sergi Samper remains in the squad but, partially down to repeated injuries, little is expected of a player who once looked to be the natural replacement for Sergio Busquets.
Alena and Puig are different beasts and from the Cadete sides to the Camp Nou, the pair are giving Barcelona fans more hope than they have felt in years about young, home-grown talent.
Both are pure Barca players, midfielders who understand how the team operates, where to run, where to pass and when to do it. Details they have devoured since childhood, details that take new signings months to learn, if they ever do at all.
Alena’s dart behind the defence, found by a sensational Lionel Messi through-ball and finished by the 20-year-old for his first La Liga goal in Barca’s 2-0 win over Villarreal on Sunday, was a run that would go unnoticed playing for any other side.
“It’s much easier when you play with Messi, because only he can pass that ball to you, nobody else would see it,” explained Alena.
It has not been an easy road for the Catalan, who had the wisdom to take a step down this summer to prepare better for his leap up.
The club promised him he would be a first team player this season but an unfortunate injury ruled him out of the summer US tour.
Alena decided, with the help of his agent Ivan de la Pena, to continue with Barca B, rebuilding himself physically until his opportunity came. Others would have demanded their spot in Ernesto Valverde’s squad.
The midfielder, an attacking-minded central player but with a good work ethic and willingness to recover the ball, impressed Barca’s coach with a bright performance from the bench in the first leg of the Copa del Rey round of 32 clash with Cultural Leonesa.
That bought him a substitute appearance in La Liga against Real Betis, and another against Villarreal in which he finished expertly from Messi’s pass.
On Tuesday, he was finally promoted to the first team and given the No. 21 shirt. With Rafinha Alcantara injured for the rest of the season, Alena will have opportunities to cement his status.
“My aim is to give the coach a selection problem when he considers picking the team, for my name to be in his head,” he said.
Despite training with the first team regularly, he maintained his link with the academy sides. During Barcelona’s home clash with Inter in the UEFA Youth League, Alena was in the stands to watch his friends play, and was happy to pose for photos with fans who knew that soon his rise would come.
After all, that was the competition in which he catapulted to fame, scoring a remarkable solo goal against Roma in 2015. Since then his card has been marked for bigger things by the world at large, and earlier still for those who have followed his progress at each youth level.
Puig showed on Wednesday that he too is destined for greater things. The 19-year-old delivered a sublime assist for Denis Suarez in an electric 35-minute cameo in Barca’s 4-1 win over Cultural Leonesa in the second leg of the cup tie.
Although physically tiny, appearing a child among men, Messi and Co have proven size doesn’t matter if you have the right technical and mental attributes, and Puig certainly does.
It seemed clear from the start, which for most was the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles this summer, when he made his non-competitive Barcelona debut against Tottenham in a friendly.
Then 18, he began the year a relative unknown and not even in Barca B’s team yet, but led the club to victory in the UEFA Youth League and trained with the first team for the first time in April.
Puig enjoyed some early luck, getting his chance in the summer thanks to Andre Gomes’s injury, but grasped it with both hands, wowing the crowd with a delicate flick over Christian Eriksen’s head – his own moment to rival Alena’s wonder goal and prick the public consciousness.
The creative midfielder, who is similar in many traits to former captain Andres Iniesta, struggles sometimes with the grim physicality of the Segunda B, but it is all part of a formative experience which will serve him well when he makes the leap up.
His performance against Cultural shows that it really is a question of when, not if, and the player was thrilled with his debut.
“I came to Camp Nou when I was three years old, imagine the hope and excitement I had running out onto the pitch, and even more given that Ernesto gave me 35 minutes, it’s a dream,” he said.
Puig was nervous, he later admitted he was shaking.
Getting ready for your Camp Nou debut is not a normal sensation. His nerves were understandable. But as soon as Puig’s boots touched grass, he was comfortable again, smiling, because playing football comes to him completely naturally.
Puig’s dream is the same as that of most Barca fans desperate to see youngsters make it at Camp Nou, fans who were salivating over a midfield trio of Busquets behind the two La Masia gems.
It was the first time that midfield has been deployed, but if all goes to plan, it will not be the last.