Real Madrid vs. Barcelona. It is the biggest rivalry in football.
The differences between the clubs goes well beyond what happens on the pitch. There is political history, European successes due to advantages given or not given to one side, different styles of play, and a cultural separation.
Another difference between the teams today is their focus on youth players. The traditional story is that Real Madrid buys superstars while Barcelona makes them.
But this is not the most accurate representation. Real Madrid may not be a team full of academy players like Barcelona, but that does not mean they do not produce the same level of talent.
The different management of young players is not a reflection of the academy itself; it is a reflection of the clubs' central policies.
This article will look at the key differences between the two clubs. I will analyze the current and future crop of academy players and then discuss the difference in policies.
By the end of the article, I hope you will have formed an opinion about which policy you think is better. Please feel free to leave you comments to continue the discussion.
Current Crop of Stars
How can we measure the quality of each academy to decide which is better? The most obvious way is probably the fairest: look at the players that come out of the academy.
Finding players who came out of the academy is pretty easy to do so let's take this one step further. Let's see how each team would currently look if they only used youth players in their starting 11.
For Barcelona, this is rather easy to do.
La Masia Starting XI
As you can see, Barcelona's team changes very little. The only non-Barcelona player is Arsenal's Mikel Arteta. We could see an all-La Masia starting 11 a few times this year.
We know that Barcelona's youth academy can produce a world class team because they already have. This team has not only been the best in the world in recent years, but one of the best ever.
A few of these inclusions are debatable. Jordi Alba and Cesc Fabregas are now back at Barcelona, but they became the stars they are at other clubs—Valencia and Arsenal, respectively.
Still, it was Barcelona and La Masia that gave these players the tools needed to become so great in the first place, so their place on this list is warranted.
What about the bench? Who could Barcelona use as substitutes? Let's take a look:
Gio dos Santos
So not all of Barcelona's academy players stay with the team, apparently. So how does this compare to Real Madrid?
Castilla Starting XI
Who has the better youth-focused starting 11?
Wow, quite a difference. Let's break this down a bit.
Of these 11 players, only three are still Real Madrid players—Casillas, Arbeloa and Granero. Four players are no longer in La Liga.
Three others switched to their cross-town rivals, Atletico—Dominguez, Luis, and Juanfran. To put Luis on this list is actually a huge stretch since he only played for Real's B team on a single season-long loan.
Let's look at the bench players.
Some of you may be wondering where Samuel Eto'o is since there are some Real Madrid supporters who seem to think he is a product of Castilla.
Well, he is not here because he is not an academy product.
At first glance, three things should become clear to you.
1. Barcelona has focused on using its youth to a much greater extent. This is down to a core difference in policy that will be discussed later.
2. If Real Madrid had focused more on youth, they could currently field a team capable of beating any in Europe.
The starting 11 listed above is stacked with world class talent. Unfortunately, most of that talent has left.
3. The number of top players produced at both clubs is pretty similar.
Many Barcelona supporters would have us believe that La Masia is a few levels above Castilla in terms of producing top talent. But as this list shows, producing talent is not a problem for either team.
So what about the future production from each academy? Let's take a brief look at a few stars from La Masia and Castilla.
Gerard Deulofeu—Perhaps the most exciting prospect at La Masia not just right now, but in years.
Barcelona is taking their time with this 18-year-old, but if he continues to play as well as he did in the Under-17s this past summer, they may have to promote him just to keep Europe's biggest clubs at bay.
Jean-Marie Doungou—Barcelona's 'New Eto'o' is quickly rising through the ranks and taking each new division by storm.
Rafinha—Many wonder what will happen when Xavi and Iniesta finally retire. The answer is likely a partnership that cannot be built at any club.
Rafinha, like his brother Thiago, has limitless potential. Every time he gets a shot at the first team he impresses. The teenager has been patiently waiting for his full promotion and it is only a matter of time before he take La Liga by storm.
Who has the better current crop of young stars?
Sergi Samper—For those who watch Barca B, you know about this teenager already. Those who don't will soon.
Samper is arguably Barcelona's biggest prospect. At every youth level, Samper has been a key player and outgrown his peers at an incredible rate. Arsene Wenger is rumored to be desperately trying to take Samper to England, but Barcelona will do their best to hold on to the 'Next Xavi'.
Unfortunately, two of Real Madrid brightest prospects have left or will soon.
Right back Dani Carvajal—who was expected to join the first team this season—signed for Bayer Leverkusen last month. It seems Real have a buy-back clause in his contract, but as we've seen with Sergio Canales and Javi Garcia, that does not also guarantee a return.
Joselu also looks to be on his way out. Hoffenheim is allegedly on the verge of signing the youngster, making him just the latest of many exciting attacking players to be deemed unnecessary at Real Madrid.
But there are still lots of young talents coming through the ranks. Take a brief look at a few young stars who could soon break into the first team.
Alvaro Morata—Morata has been so impressive that he seems to have already earned his promotion for next season.
Jese Rodriguez—Along with Morata, most fans are hoping Jese soon finds his way to the first team.
The teenager had a fantastic campaign last season and then matched Deulofeu as Spain's player of the tournament at the U-17s. Many deem Jese as the 'Next Ronaldo' and the club should do their best to hold on to him.
There is also Alex Fernandez Juanfran and Juan Carlos—all key players to Castilla's run last season who are rising through the ranks.
What this means is that both Real Madrid and Barcelona have lots of talented youngsters currently coming through their academies. Of course, the massive difference is how these players are used.
So we've seen that while Barcelona has a slight advantage in talent produced over the past decade, it is not as immense as one would initially think.
We have also seen that Barcelona may have a slightly more talented crop of current academy players, but Real Madrid is—at worst—not far behind.
So why does Barcelona typically get far more credit than Real Madrid. That would be down to how it uses the talent. Let's look at each club individually.
Compared to Real Madrid, not only does Barcelona produce slightly better talent, they actually use it. Players who get sold are done so out of necessity due to squad size, not because of a systemic policy as with Real Madrid.
There are still big-name signings at Barcelona, but far fewer and only when the academy does not fill the need.
For example, there have not been any top-class scoring options coming through the academy over the last few years so the club brought in Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and David Villa.
Still, the club is slowly going even further into an academy-first transfer policy.
While we are currently seeing La Masia’s Golden Age with players like Xavi, Messi, and Iniesta coming through at the same time, there is no reason to think this success will not continue.
Looking to next season, Barcelona could have an entire starting XI consisting of former youth players. In the modern football era where loyalty is a rarity and buying foreign stars is often favored over developing them, that is extremely impressive and respectable.
Barcelona nurtures players for a longer time, the aim to put them in the first team eventually. Their ideal end product is an all-La Masia team full of their own youth products.
This is not just because Barcelona happens to have better talent at the moment, it is because of a core, systemic difference between the two teams.
While the number of stars produced is similar, the difference in mindsets between the two teams is enormous.
Both clubs develop top talent; there is no denying that. But while Barcelona wants a team full of academy players, Real Madrid still wants a team full of superstars.
The club more often stunts players’ growth by either expecting too much from them upon promotion or taking them out of the academy too soon.
Rather than nurturing potential, the club tries to maximize returns on the current level of talent.Youth players are almost viewed as a way to help balance the books due to the expensive transfers brought it and forcing the youth players out of Madrid.
This was not always the case at Madrid, but the big change in philosophy under Fiorentino Perez's first Galactico era has not only altered the club's policies, but that of Europe's top clubs as they tried to compete with the superstar lineups of Real Madrid.
Who has the better youth academy?
Sure, the best youth stars will stay on for squad depth, but the first solution for a positional need is to spend big on a foreign star.
Many Real Madrid supporters will argue that the club is focusing more on youth than in times past. That is partly true, but still unproven.
Much of the new youth in the club is still from transfer. Mezut Ozil and Angel di Maria are two examples of how the club is buying younger players with high potential instead of established superstars.
But they are still buying. They are still not promoting many youth players.
Even looking toward next season when Real Madrid could have up to six academy players on the team by May. But how many will stay beyond next season? If they need midfield depth, who do you think they will target, Alex Fernandez or another superstar who becomes available?
So which academy is better, Real Madrid's or Barcelona's?
Who has the better youth academy?
The talent advantage, both current and in the near future, goes to Barcelona. But only slightly.
From a financial sense, both teams are reaping the rewards of their academies.
Barcelona is using its stars to win trophies and set the standard for modern youth development. Real Madrid is making money by selling many of their brightest stars, often at a value higher than they deserve.
So why should one be considered better? Chances are that fans will just defend their own club rather than looking objectively at both sides.
The bigger question is, does either side need to change? As is typical with this rivalry, there are big differences between the two youth policies.
But as long as both teams are making money from their academies and being successful on the pitch, why try to imitate the other instead of just perfecting their own methods?
Barcelona's successful academy focus has taken years to build. In the same manner, it will take years for Real Madrid to break the Galactico mindset.
Please feel free to comment below. Also check out my most recent articles listed below. Thanks for reading.
Real Madrid: A Complete Guide to the 2012-2013 Season.
Santi Cazorla to Arsenal: What it Means for Everyone Involved
Chelsea: Complete Guide to the 2012-2013 Season
Why Real Madrid Will Have Barcelona's Number in La Liga Next Season