For the Love of the Ball

The history and methods of the FC Barcelona youth academy

Albert Folch, 2013, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

When I found this book, I was really excited. Finally an English book about the famous youth academy of one of the best teams of the last 20-30 years, all information, how they shape their players, what their strategy is a.s.o. Furthermore it was written by a scientist, so I could expect some thorough analysis of the success of FC Barcelona in the last decade.
The initial euphoria soon wore off. Albert Folch has, unfortunately, not much more to say than what you can read in the newspapers of the last years, when you followed the articles about the Barcelona team. Furthermore he is not able to keep the fanboy out of the text, which makes it very annoying to read sometimes, especially the constant side blows against Real Madrid. Also the analysis, why this generation was so successful, misses unfortunately scientific scrutiny completely. The whole excitement and expectations I had for the book make me feel that it is worse than it really is, so just let’s try to separate the good and the bad.
Let’s start with the latter. You might not expect that after reading the book but FC Barcelona is not the first and only team with a successful youth academy. They are just the team which had the latest successes with players formed in their youth academy (during writing the book, because after that Bayern München just followed them 2013). I would also question that they have the best youth academy. Best is, of course, always ambiguous but a team which has to spend hundreds of millions of euros for transfers does not seem to be successful in growing their own talent. Also the argument about the high number of players in first leagues in Europe only shows that the Spanish soccer organization is extremely centralized. No other team in Spain, except Bilbao, can compete with Barcelona’s and Madrid’s youth academy, because the poaching from Barcelona is so extreme. Do they just get the best players at an earlier age than other European top teams or are the players really developed better than in any other academy? This question is not really answered in the book, because the examples for the success are always the same (Xavi, Iniesta, Messi) and other players or the drop-outs are not really examined at all. Therefore the conclusion that the Barcelona youth academy is the best is mainly based on results which automatically favor this club, the club player per league comparison makes the less centralized work in youth soccer of the Dutch or German teams automatically look worse. I would also argue that a small team fighting every year relegation with bringing young players in their team or developing players to their maximum, which failed in other clubs, might be the better soccer school, than a multimillion dollar club who just makes more use of their youth academy than other rich clubs. But smaller teams, maybe with regularly positive transfer balance sheet, are not considered here.  When you read Soccernomics you can see that the Dutch players have the largest number of players in the first leagues of Europe (although their league is not even in this elitist circle), which shows you where the best youth academies of the continent might still reside.
The other topic which is entirely missing in the book is a tactical analysis of the 2010/2011. Just the notion that Barcelona should change their style to more crosses into the penalty area, because the opponents would block the penalty area with two five player lines shows a significant lack of understanding. The possession play was not the factor which cemented Barcelona’s dominance but the counter-pressing (“Gegenpressing”). That means, that when Barcelona lost the ball they were usually already organized to put pressure on the player with the ball and they did so very quickly without leaving any gaps for the other to get out of the pressure with the pass. Furthermore their defense line was usually so high, that the ball hardly came close to their penalty area. A 5-5-0, how the author proclaimed, was the worst you could do against them, because then you just made it easier for them to counteract when they lost the ball. When they were beaten by Bayern München it was because München played the better pressing. When Barcelona’s team slowly dwindled down they still played the possession play but their pressing became worse and worse, either because the tension was not there anymore to keep the players alert, because of the successes or them getting older or the new coaches did not focus on that aspect anymore as much as Guardiola and therefore their major asset in the game went amiss. Even in this book, I think, the influence of the coaching team under Guardiola is still underestimated. He was not so good, because he brought so many academy members to the first team. The team became so good, because he is one of the best coaches and developed the players further, although they were already the best players in the world. This development of players is now totally missing and therefore also the constant influx from the youth academy is not helping at the moment.
I would like to stop here talking about the negatives and mention also some things the book does really well. Folch provides a good history of the clubs and especially the development of the youth academy. If you do not constantly screen the media for information about FC Barcelona the text provides a good overview about the last forty years.
Some aspects of the decline were also nicely catched. I think one aspect which was underestimated in the media and also from the experts is the aging of Xavi. Folch mentions that the dependency of the team from Messi became stronger and stronger because Xavi’s play slowly declined and I think there is a lot of truth in that.
Finally the biggest plus of the book is the last section, which describes how to train pre-school kids in soccer. It doesn’t matter if you want to teach the Barcelona style or not I think his descriptions help in general to explain kids in an early age how to play more structured and serious and therefore it can help to give kids a head-start into soccer.
As I said before the book is a mixed bag. If you find something interesting for you in the last paragraphs then it might be worth to buy the black and white or the Kindle edition. If you know already most of the articles about the FC Barcelona or you want to set up a youth program or academy for your own club and you seek advice how to do so, then the book probably does not provide enough in-depth information.

Biography: 1/3
History: 2/3
Background: 2/3
Tactics & Game philosophy: 0/3

Next book: The Blizzard: Issue Seven


One thought on “For the Love of the Ball

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s