New managers are stampeding out of La Masia’s class of the 1980s. It is logical enough that the most celebrated club academy, Barcelona’s La Masia, in the modern game should now see those who learned in its classrooms and on its practice pitches as teenagers turning to elite coaching as they near their 40s. But their prestigious backstories do not guarantee they make an ideal boss.
Mikel Arteta, who will at Bournemouth today taking charge of Arsenal for the first time since his appointment as their manager, was a student at La Masia. He shared space in its old farmhouse building next to Camp Nou with distinguished contemporaries. Born in 1982, he arrived from his native Basque Country at 16, scouted for his 180-degree vision and his range of passing. He made it up through the ranks to Barcelona B, where he would sometimes line up in an XI that included teens with brilliant futures ahead of them: Victor Valdes - born ‘82 - in goal; Thiago Motta - born ‘82 - and the younger, precocious Andres Iniesta in midfield alongside him.
Just ahead of them on the escalator to future glory was Xavi Hernandez, recently graduated from the same dormitories and ready to take on the baton as midfield pass-master in Barcelona’s first team from Pep Guardiola, yet another La Masia. A lad from the academy named Albert Celades, another central midfielder, had been also auditioning for the Guardiola role, and was being picked for Spain.
Where are they are now? The evergreen Iniesta apart, they are trying out management. In the last six months, Xavi, Celades, and Motta have made all their debuts in dugouts in the top divisions of various countries. Valdes, meanwhile, was in July appointed to the important job of Barcelona’s under-19 coach, in charge of shepherding to maturity the next generation of La Masia prospects. Arteta has plenty of lifelong friends in his contacts book to dial up for advice on making this big step.
Yet in some cases, he may choose not to make that call. It might put him off. Motta, appointed head coach at Genoa in October, already looks on the verge of being fired, with his club at the foot of Serie A and Motta’s tenure worth just six points from nine games. Valdes lasted only 80 days in charge of Barca’s under-19s, sacked after one too many confrontations with the club’s senior executives. Xavi, earmarked as a future Barcelona coach, stepped straight from playing for Al-Sadd of Qatar to coaching them and has lost four of his last six fixtures. Even Celades, asked to manage Valencia in emergency in September and applauded for skilfully guiding the club into the last 16 of the Champions League, has had days to turn his hair grey, like a 5-2 loss to Barcelona in his first match in charge, and 3-0 home defeat to Ajax.
The Barcelona background was deemed a strong recommendation for all of them, a helpful fast-track into coaching. It is a legitimate assumption that to grow up with Barcelona values, as Arteta did - he left to play for PSG before making the first-team at Barca - is to be schooled in all the right theory, to be confident in decision-making. It assumes a belief in expansive, passing football. And there are huge benefits, naturally, from being seen to be following the path of the most dazzlingly successful graduate of that system. Guardiola, a champion head coach with Barca, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, advertises his La Masia learning as part of his managerial DNA.
Guardiola chose Arteta to be his deputy at City, having identified a managerial nous, sharp analytical skills and excellent communication skills in the former PSG, Rangers, Everton and Arsenal player. He did not want to lose him from his trusted circle at City either, but forceful though Guardiola can be, Arteta felt the moment had come to forge his own path. “It’s difficult to say no when Arsenal knocks on my door,” said Arteta. “I think it’s the right moment.”
His right moment is a low moment for Arsenal, who sacked Unai Emery in November and last week deemed caretaker Freddie Ljungberg not ready to be trusted with the rescue operation, after two defeats and two draws on his watch. Arsenal, who not long ago thought themselves the Premier League’s closest equivalent to Barcelona, for their style and for their ambition, are in the bottom half of the table.
Since they beat Bournemouth 1-0 in October, they have won once in 10 league outings. The scholarly new boss must act fast.