Barcelona's approach to youth development

By Mike Woitalla

Two years ago, while visiting Spain, I looked into to its approach to youth development. Since then, Spain has won the 2008 European Championship and Barcelona won the 2009 UEFA Champions League.

Both teams won their titles playing attractive, attack-minded soccer in an era dominated by cautious, defensive play. As coaches have become ever more obsessed with strength and size, Barcelona and Spain's star players are notable for their skill and small stature.

Among those I spoke to were Jose Ramon Alexanco, the director of Barcelona's youth program, and Pep Guardiola, who at the time had just been named coach of Barcelona's reserve team. Guardiola, one of Barca's all-time great players, had come through the Barcelona youth system, which he joined in 1984 at age 13.

Guardiola was promoted to first-team head coach last summer, and proceeded to guide Barca to La Liga title and the Champions League crown, which it captured in Rome on Wednesday by marvelously outplaying Manchester United in a 2-0 win that featured several products of Barcelona's youth program, the cantera, including Lionel Messi, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

"Our aim to is to help young players understand the game," Guardiola said when I spoke with him at Barcelona's training grounds. "Of course, there is the emphasis on the technical, where it all starts. But we want the players to learn how to think fast. We want them to learn how to run little, but run smart."

He echoed Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who coached the great Barcelona teams that won the 1992 European Cup and four straight La Liga titles with Guardiola in midfield.

Said Cruyff: "All coaches talk too much about running a lot. I say it's not necessary to run so much. Soccer is a game that's played with the brain. You need to be in the right place at the right time, not too early, not too late."

Alexanco provided me with details on how Barcelona ran its youth teams.

"We don't demand that the youth teams win," said Alexanco. "We demand that they play good soccer. We don't use the word, 'winning.'"

Not until after the players reach age 16 is there fitness training.

"That's when we start to concentrate on the technical, tactical and physical requirements they need for the first team," Alexanco said. "Before that age we mainly play soccer. Everything is with the ball. We work on skills and some tactics."

The Barca program fields teams from age 10 up. The 10-year-olds - the Benjamins - practice four days a week, in 45-minute sessions, and play 7-v-7 games on the weekend. All of the older age groups play 11-v-11.

"They play the same system, in the 4-3-3 formation, used by first team," says Alexanco. "The developmental teams have to reflect the personality of the first team. That also means playing attacking, attractive soccer. That's what our fans demand and what we want to give them."

Through age 17, Barcelona fields two teams at each age group. Each player plays at least 45 percent of the games.

Choosing the right players for its youth program is the key to its success. Barcelona does not hold tryouts. They don't work, says Alexanco. Charged with finding the talent are the ojeadores, the scouts. The players they pick come in for trials before they are invited to join the cantera.

Barcelona employs 25 scouts throughout Spain, with at least one in each province. They convene twice a year at Barcelona, where the bosses reiterate the criteria and quality they're seeking in players.

Barcelona also works with about 30 youth clubs throughout Catalonia, with the aim of finding players from the province it prides itself on representing, and it uses contacts throughout the world to find players.

"You have to have eyes everywhere," Alexanco says. "You need to see the kids who are playing soccer on the playground.

"We're looking for players who have technique and speed, and who look like players. And we're looking for players who offer something different."

(Mike Woitalla, who coaches youth soccer in Northern California, is the executive editor of Soccer America
. His youth articles are archived at
7 comments about "Barcelona's approach to youth development".
  1. Jim Ambrose, May 28, 2009 at 3:02 p.m.

    This is such a nice perspective to have in the age of the local youth teams as early as the u-9 u-10 level insisting on weight training and fast footwork training a couple of nights a week. i will be pressing the forward button on this article to a few of the local nut jobs who i believe could benefit from Alexanco's comments about the emphasis on good soccer rather than winning. many thanks.

  2. David Sirias, May 28, 2009 at 3:39 p.m.

    Besides the emphasis on soccer and not winning, there is something to be said of the "system." By the time these kids can drive they probably know what ever other player on the field is thinking and where they should be at any given moment. We can only dream of having one such system in MLS. My optimistic side places its hopes with good ole American ingenuity. If we see something that works, especially in this digital age of fact communication, we are very good at improving on it. Hopefully some influential domestic soccer professionals are taking note

  3. Kevin Leahy, May 29, 2009 at 7:57 p.m.

    Every youth coach in America should read that article. There is such an over emphasis on winning and hurrying kids into travel soccer. We need to teach them how to fall in love with the game and the ball. They need to understand about competition in the team and outside the team. The fact that Spain and Barcelona can win major titles with some the smallest sized players is also a lesson to be learned from. I have derived more pleasure from watching them play than any teams since Brazil in 1970.

  4. William Marx, June 1, 2009 at 5:30 a.m.

    The premise is total silliness. The soccer culture in Spain differs immensely from that in the USA. Indeed, ner the twin shall meet. There is no cookie cutter for soccer development. What works in Spain, what works at Clairfontaine and what works at Ajax is all quite different. The USA will figure out what works for soccer here but it will never monopolize all of the best athletes such as it does elsewhere!!!

    Lotsa silliness not much substance!

  5. Gole goal, June 3, 2009 at 4:28 p.m.

    Barcas Youth Development system in concerns to this article has a quality base. The youth system structure is well put and overall well set, it has a true purpose in what it is trying to accomplish. What it is trying to accomplish is quality soccer and quality complete and rounded soccer players. Of course here in the US it is completely different when what is valued the most in concerns to the youth system. The majority of the time what matters is the result in concerns to wins and by how many goals you win by. The problem that we face here in the States is that a good number of our youth coaches at the Youth and Club Level don’t really know enough and are looking for the shortcuts in concerns to the win. It’s so much about the now but rather than the latter. It’s not about the quantity of wins but rather the quality of play is what is important, remember quality play equals wins down the road. We all saw this in the Champions League Final.

  6. Gole goal, June 3, 2009 at 4:38 p.m.

    I by all means enjoyed this article in full, it touches base with something that is very important. The Barca youth system is focused on helping players be more comfortable on the ball and have a better understanding of the game as whole. Barca's youth system is concerned also about or should I say values player imagination, creativity, and playing faster mentally rather than in a hurry physically. Many may say that this type of system may not work in many countries but I beg to differ. We all want our players to play smarter and be more active on and off the ball, the Barca youth system promotes this. We must not ask ourselves if this system is right or wrong, rather we should ask is it beneficial to the growth process of the youth player and the player as a whole, in which in my opinion it is. If Barca is the best in the World in Club, why not try to emulate success.

  7. , June 11, 2009 at 6:05 p.m.

    Kids lose interest in soccer here if they do not score goals and win. There is no culture of positive reinforcement for the development of great touches, creativity on the ball, or a strong work ethic off the ball. The American culture is a "performance based culture." It's all about results. What we fail to realize is that it is possible to develop competetiveness in the absence of a focus on scoring goals or winning matches.

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