Who are the prodigies allowing Barca to keep pace in LaLiga?


Barcelona’s players keep getting younger. They became the first team to ever start multiple players under the age of 18 in a Champions League knockout game when they beat Napoli this month to book a return to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2020. Pau Cubarsí, a 17-year-old centre-back, was named MVP in the 3-1 win. Lamine Yamal, still just 16, was brilliant on the right side of the attack.

Cubarsí and Yamal are two of five academy graduates handed first-team roles by Barça coach Xavi Hernández this season. Striker Marc Guiu, who scored 23 seconds into his debut against Athletic Club, defender Hector Fort and midfielder Fermín López have all been involved, too. Cubarsí, Yamal, Guiu and Fort are the four youngest players to have featured in LaLiga this year for any side.

It represents a marked change on the carousel of talent emerging at the Catalan club. For a decade, hardly any youngsters progressed from the youth teams into the senior squad. Various sources at the club put that down to a number of reasons. The most obvious is that with a homegrown spine delivering on the pitch — Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi, etc. — there simply was not the same opportunity for minutes that there has been in recent years.

In search of game time — and in other cases, bigger financial offers — players fled. Others were forced to leave, such as Japan international Take Kubo, due to the FIFA ban dished out in 2014 when Barcelona breached rules on bringing in foreign youngsters. That ban also set the academy back, former academy director Xavi Vilajoana explained to ESPN, because of the knock-on effect on internal competition within youth teams.

Barça’s well-publicized financial situation — they remain in breach of their LaLiga-imposed annual spending limit — has also obliged them to work with a smaller squad and prioritize bringing through their own players.

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Other factors are more circumstantial. Not every age group or generation is as good as the last. The class of 1987 — Messi, Piqué and Cesc Fàbregas — emerged at the perfect time to complement Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta, with Busquets and Pedro Rodríguez arriving soon after.

Two years ago, it was Ansu Fati, Gavi and Nico González — supplemented by Pedri, Ronald Araújo and Abde Ezzalzouli, who joined later in their development — providing hope at a time when it appeared lost after the exit of Messi. Left-back Alejandro Balde followed.

Gavi, Pedri, Araujo and Balde remain as key components of Xavi’s team, but they have been joined by an even younger cast of talent, led by the two stars of the class of 2007, which has drawn comparisons within the club with that 1987 edition, 20 years on. It’s not hard to work out which of the new kids on the block would play the roles of Piqué and Messi, even if Xavi, who plans to step down in the summer, is desperate to ward off comparisons.

ESPN spoke to coaches and staff at the club to profile the youngsters making a mark on Barça’s season as they continue to compete for LaLiga and the Champions League.


The wunderkind: Lamine Yamal | FW | 16 | debuted April 29, 2023

Yamal was the first of the new crop of teenagers to explode onto the scene. He joined the club aged seven and made his debut while still 15 years old last season. Since then, he has broken nearly every record for precocity: the youngest player to debut for Spain, the youngest to score for his club and his country, the youngest male player to ever start a Champions League game … the list goes on.

They are records that had been held for years until recently, but have been tumbling on an almost annual basis at the hands of Barça players. Many of Yamal’s records have been taken from Gavi and Ansu. It is likely the Golden Boy trophy, given to the best young player in Europe under 21, falls into his hands soon. Pedri and Gavi are recent winners, while Ansu came second to Erling Haaland in 2020.

There is a desperation to compare him with Messi. Xavi has tried to fend it off, but even he admits there are “flashes” of the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner. “He plays on the right, but he’s left footed and the way he comes inside …” Xavi said, before tailing off, “but we are talking about the best footballer ever, so it is best not to compare them.”

The hype is real. Double-figure goal contributions in an impressive debut campaign have only fuelled expectations. It is tempting to ask whether recency bias is in play, though. It is, after all, just a few years since the same was being said about Ansu, now on loan at Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion.

“The academy player who had surprised me the most was Ansu, but the way Yamal has burst on to the scene is a different story,” Albert Puig, who coached Yamal in La Masia, told ESPN.

“He is the biggest talent I have seen in La Masia in a long time,” another former academy director, Jordi Roura, added.

Former Barça sporting director Ramon Planes highlights Yamal’s “football intelligence,” with Xavi often keen to underline his “in-game decision-making and maturity,” even if it’s his pace, trickery and one-on-one ability that most excites supporters.

Born in Catalonia to a Moroccan father and an Equatorial Guinean mother, Yamal maintains a special connection to the Rocafonda neighbourhood in Mataro, the town up the coast from Barcelona where he grew up. When the Spain international scores, he celebrates by signalling the numbers 304 with his hands. They are the final three numbers of Rocafonda’s post code and, if his ascent continues, it may not be too long until they are known across the world.

The prodigy: Pau Cubarsí | DF | 17 | Jan. 18, 2024

Roura tells the story of a tournament that took place in New York in the summer of 2019. Barça’s U11s progressed to the final where they hammered their counterparts from Real Madrid 6-1. Roura says that was the moment there was a realization that the class of 2007 — which also features midfielder Marc Bernal and Patrick Kluivert’s son, Shane — could be special. Yamal and Cubarsí were the standout players.

Yamal’s ascent to the first team may have come earlier than expected, but it was always viewed as a given at some point. What few imagined was Cubarsí would be playing such a prominent role at the age of 17, too. Not because he doesn’t have the quality, but because centre-backs often have to wait until they are older for their opportunity.

Cubarsí’s path to the team was also seemingly blocked by the number of defenders at the club — Araujo, Jules Koundé, Iñigo Martínez and Andreas Christensen — but his chance arrived in January. What has followed since has been incredible.

After making his debut in the Copa del Rey, Cubarsí was a surprise starter in a league game against Real Betis in January. It is now a surprise if he is not in the XI, and against Napoli and Atletico Madrid before the international break, arguably Barça’s two biggest games of the campaign so far, Xavi picked the teenager.

From the small Catalan village of Estanyol, which has a population of fewer than 200 people, Cubarsí was playing for Girona when Roura and his No. 2, Aurel·li Altimira, came knocking in 2018. His progress through the youth teams since has been rapid and, in recent years, coaches have even swapped his position with a view to making him an even more well-rounded player.

Oscar López, who coached him when he was with the U17 team, started playing him as a left-sided centre-back. The idea was to improve his positioning and his weaker foot. The result is a two-footed player who is equally as comfortable on either side of the pairing.

Coaches compare his ability on the ball to ex-La Masia graduates Piqué and Eric García. Of players to have played more than 500 minutes in LaLiga, only Toni Kroos and Frenkie de Jong complete more passes per 90 minutes. His success rate of 91.4% is also impressive considering how often he dares to play through the lines or look for diagonal balls that lead to attacks.

Against Napoli striker Victor Osimhen this month, he also showed he is up for the physical battle, winning all six of his individual duels. It led to a Spain debut last week after just 13 Barça appearances as he became the youngest to ever debut for La Roja after Yamal, taking the No. 2 spot from Gavi.

There is already talk of him being involved at the European Championship and the Olympic Games this summer, which will spark concern at Barça. Many at the club blame Pedri’s debut season, when he played 52 times for Barça and then represented Spain at the Euros and the Olympics aged 18, for his recent spout of injuries. Ansu has also suffered from muscle problems. Gavi is currently out with an ACL tear and Balde with a hamstring problem.

It is there where sources say there is an awareness at Barça that they must be smarter as they manage Yamal and Cubarsí’s minutes while they are still growing into their bodies. Sporting director Deco has already made it clear the club do not want players going to two tournaments this summer.

The late(r) developer: Fermín López | MF | 20 | Aug. 27, 2023

It says something about the age of the players breaking into Barça’s first team when Fermín, aged 20, could be considered a late developer. The talented midfielder joined the club from Real Betis aged 12 in 2016 — the same path taken by Gavi — and for years was labelled as one of the players to watch in the academy.

However, for whatever reason, things did not quite pan out as expected and in the summer of 2022 he agreed to join third-division side Linares on loan. For many, that more or less spelled the end of his Barça career. The ecosystem at Barcelona is so specific in terms of its style of football that players leaving on loan, whether to top-level clubs or lower, struggle to adapt to a new environment and a different philosophy. It is why Riqui Puig fought so hard against leaving on a short-term deal because he believed his qualities were best served at Barça, even if his chance ultimately never arrived.

“Kids that go on loan don’t often make it back, certainly not jumping from the third division to playing in the Champions League in under a year,” one coach at the club told ESPN.

Fermín, then, can be considered an outlier.

He was a surprise addition in last summer’s traveling party to the United States in preseason. He introduced himself properly with a stunning strike in the 3-0 friendly win over Madrid in Dallas. His performances in the U.S earned him a first-team place this season.

Like many of those from outside Catalonia at La Masia, his story is one of sacrifice. He left his family in Andalusia to move to Barcelona. He left Barça for Linares in an attempt to prove his worth. On the pitch, he now gives everything to earn a place in a midfield where the competition for places includes Ilkay Gündogan, De Jong, Pedri and Gavi.

Fermín is different, though. He plays with an energy that, with the exception of Gavi, the others don’t have. It improves Barça’s press. He also, as the Spanish say, tiene gol (has goal — gets goals). Coaches highlight his ability to ghost into the box with impeccable timing, while he is also useful in the air despite only measuring 5-foot-7.

After 1,318 minutes of action, he has scored six goals at an average 0.41 per 90 minutes. At the moment, sources label him the perfect squad player. The problem — and it is not an immediate one — is how to keep him happy if he does not become a regular starter because he is such a useful player to have around. That will also depend on Fermín’s own ambition.

The (really) local lad: Hector Fort | MF | 17 | Dec. 13, 2023

Plaça de la Concòrdia is a square about a kilometer away from Spotify Camp Nou. It is there, as a boy growing up in the Les Corts district, that Fort honed his skills before joining the club. There are few more local lads than him.

Slightly older than Yamal and Cubarsí, he has been playing with older age groups for a while. Nicknamed “The Machine” because his physical attributes have always surpassed his contemporaries, at 6-foot-1 he is relatively tall for a full-back. His role has been more residual this season, but that is not a mark against him or his chances of making it at the club. In the seven games he has played, he has done well as a left- and a right-back.

“What Yamal and Cubarsí are doing, and Gavi before them, is not the norm,” one coach said. “It is the exception — or it should be! Players develop at different ages and there are players who are older than them who still have a chance of breaking through.”

Fort, in reality, is not much older. He is very much part of the emerging generation that is generating interest beyond Barça’s walls. As Barça negotiate new contracts with Fort, Cubarsí and Guiu, among others, Europe’s biggest clubs monitor their situations. ESPN reported previously there is Premier League interest in Cubarsí — whose release clause is around €10 million — while Fort represents the other battle that happens off the pitch: one involving agents.

He is currently represented by one of Spain’s biggest agents, Arturo Canales, who sources tell ESPN will take charge of the negotiations for a new deal. Super agent Jorge Mendes, who already counts Yamal and Balde among his clients, is keen to get him on the books at his agency, Gestifute, in the long term, though.

The classic No. 9: Marc Guiu | FW | 18 | Oct. 22, 2023

Guiu’s debut for Barça last October could hardly have gone any better. Just 23 seconds after coming on, he rounded Athletic Club goalkeeper Unai Simón to score the only goal of the game at the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic. Another goal followed in the Champions League at Antwerp and against Mallorca recently, when Xavi wanted to rest Robert Lewandowski, it was Guiu, not €30m signing Vitor Roque, who started in attack.

In his 11th year at the club, Guiu is interesting in the sense that he is relatively close to being a traditional No. 9, a profile of player that rarely comes through La Masia. There have been forwards like Bojan Krkic and Munir El Haddadi, but no one with the stature of Guiu, who stands at nearly 6-foot-2. Sources at the club compare him with RB Leipzig’s Benjamin Sesko, a striker that Barça have watched repeatedly.

“Sometimes, because of the style of play, more midfielders come through and it’s been more difficult [to find strikers],” says Roura, who was behind Guiu’s arrival at the club. Roura also points out that Barça are always more likely to spend big on forwards, with Roque a recent case in point.

All Guiu can do is keep scoring goals, which he is doing. His goal-scoring touch has extended to the reserve team, Barça Atletic, who play in Spain’s third division. He has netted three times in 158 minutes of action, including a stunning acrobatic effort against Rayo Majadahonda this year. First-team call-ups and international commitments with Spain’s youth teams have limited his appearances for Rafa Márquez’s team.

Who’s next?

The rule book has been ripped up by this generation. It’s likely that the next players to progress into the first team are older than Yamal and Cubarsí, but sticking with the class of 2007, those asked for this article said Bernal (16) has first-team potential. If you want to look even younger, midfielder Guille Fernández (15) has already been involved in the UEFA Youth League, a competition for under-19s.

There are other players who have been in and around the first team for a while, either debuting under Xavi or training with the squad regularly. Defensive midfielder Marc Casadó tops that list, joined by United States youth international goalkeeper Diego Kochen (18), midfielders Aleix Garrido (19), Unai Hernandez (19) and Pau Prim (18), in addition to wingers Ángel Alarcón (19) and Dani Rodríguez (18), who is out of contract this summer and drawing interest from England.

It could well be, though, that the next player to establish themselves in the first team is not a La Masia thoroughbred but rather someone brought in after turning 16, as was the case with Pedri and Araujo. Senegal defender Mikayil Faye (19) and young German midfielder Noah Darvich (17) are two of the prime candidates in that field.

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