Battle of the academies: Hale End vs La Masia
Ludo Palazzo explores how Arsenal’s Hale End academy compares to La Masia in Barcelona.
Arsenal’s Hale End academy is one of the most famous in world football and it is steadily
becoming an extremely successful factory for young talent. In recent years, many of Arsenal’s ‘big name’, high earning players have underperformed and led the club into crisis but the true juxtaposition lies with the youthful exuberance coming from Hale End academy products this season as they continue to take the Premier League by storm.
Many clubs would envy the young talent stemming from Hale End and Arsenal’s real challenge now is to destroy the stereotype of Arsenal being a ‘feeder club’ to Europe’s elite. These academy graduates are now amongst the first names on the team sheet and must be tied down to new long termdeals if Arsenal are to continue their meteoric rise to the very top
Arsenal’s youth are shining brightly, and this article will compare Arsenal homegrown talent
to another of the world’s primary footballing education centres, ‘La Masia’.
Historically, Barcelona’s ‘La Masia’ has regularly churned out extraordinarily talented players and bred them into winners- it did give birth to three of the most wonderful footballers to grace the game and became the first ever footballing academy to produce the three finalists at a single Ballon d’Or competition in 2010 (Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi). This legendary academy continues to produce talent, even if the days of Messi seem to be behind us, and it is this talent that has Barcelona cruising towards their 27th domestic title. However, deciding which set of youngsters have been more
impressive, both historically, and today is a more complicated question. Let’s look and make
Bukayo Saka vs Pedri
Bukayo Saka and Pedri are two of the most exciting youngsters in world football. They have
both been in the limelight for some time despite their youth and the success of their clubs
can be largely attributed to their contributions. Their success can further be measured as they
were entrusted with taking over the ‘old guard’ of experienced internationals at their clubs
and provided a new, direct and enjoyable brand of football that had been lacking. Statistically,
it is difficult to compare the two players, as Saka plays as a right winger in the current Arsenal
set up, and Pedri plays in central midfield. Football is about more than statistics and Pedri’s
contributions stretch further than his goals and assists. However it is important to note that
Bukayo Saka has registered 54 G/A in 127 Premier League matches and 14G/A in 25 Europa
This is an even more impressive statistic when we consider Saka’s versatility. Saka has played
in a number of different positions in this Arsenal side, and has consistently delivered from
each one, including his initial breakthrough as a Left back. While Saka’s versatility makes him
a very attractive player, it is important to consider Pedri’s durability. At just 18 years of age
Pedri played a remarkable 37 league games out of 38 and represented his national side 20
times at Senior,U21 and Olympic level making him one of the most talked about players in
world football. Today, Pedri has amassed 70 domestic appearances for Barcelona despite only
being 20 years of age. He has provided an impressive return of 16 goals and 7 assists for
Barcelona in just 104 matches. While this total does not compare to Bukayo Saka, Pedri has
achieved this at a younger age and playing in a deeper role.
Emile Smith-Rowe vs Gavi
Next we take a look at another of Arsenal’s breakout stars in the last two seasons, Emile
Smith-Rowe. Arsenal’s new number 10 is well and truly on his way to emulating the success
of Arsenal’s previous number 10, Mesut Ozil. Smith-Rowe performed excellently last
campaign and has since struggled with injury but looks set to be eased back into this title
chasing Arsenal side. Emile Smith Rowe has had a slightly different journey to Bukayo Saka as
he experienced valuable loan spells at Huddersfield and RB Leipzig. Despite this, Arsenal’s
resurgence in recent seasons can be attributed largely to his and Bukayo Saka’s contributions.
While many rival fans questioned the decision to trust such young and relatively
inexperienced player with such a legendary squad number, there is no doubt that his
performances have galvanised the Arsenal fan base and ‘The Croydon De Bruyne’ continues
to be a valuable asset in this Arsenal team. While he has not played a big part this year due
to his injury worries, he was among the very best in this Arsenal side last campaign and the
potential he possesses is clear to see. His direct attacking play and determined guile on the
ball has now started to be rewarded with a tangible end product in the final third as he
continues to add to his G/A tally. Smith-Rowe’s continues to prove that he can contribute with
goal involvements through youth sides but also in the premier League and he is undoubtedly
one of Arsenal’s most promising homegrown talents.
Gavi is one of Barcelona’s youth talents that bears similar characteristics to some legends of
the past. Gavi’s passing ability and understanding of the game shows maturity beyond his
years, and, even at just 17 years old, he has the ability to control games against far more
experienced players. While Gavi began his footballing journey at Real Betis, the real process
which turned Gavi into the outstanding prospect he is today was seen at La Masia.
At La Masia, Gavi learned the Barcelona philosophy of football and gained the technical ability
to play in Barcelona’s midfield at such as young age. Gavi’s intelligence on the pitch is
remarkable as he always manages to adapt his positioning to benefit the team and make sure
the shape remains correct. He has been rewarded for his fantastic performances with
appearances for the Spanish national team. This responsibility and maturity for such a young
player means that Gavi really is destined for the very top with some top pundits even asking
to see his birth certificate! Gavi is a player to keep an eye on as he is still yet to sign a contract
extension a Barcelona and could be available on a free transfer this summer with Liverpool,
Chelsea and Manchester United swooning.
Both Emile Smith-Rowe and Gavi have proved they belong on the largest stages in world
football and it is no secret that the youth academies they played at, helped to shape their
footballing progression. Keep a close eye on these two!
Jack Wilshere vs Iniesta
We have taken a look at some of the most recent talents to come out of both Hale End and
La Masia, but now let’s take a look at two players who graduated their academies some time
ago. Jack Wilshere and Andres Iniesta enjoyed very different careers in the game and most
people will tell you that the Barcelona man’s career was far more illustrious and successful
than ‘super Jack’s’. However, when both players were playing at youth level, they were both
tipped for greatness and both demonstrated similar qualities.
The education both players received at their youth academies played a crucial part in their
emergence into the limelight. Indeed, Wilshere made his Premier League debut at the age of
16 years and 256 days, showing just how talented he was from a young age. Many fans fell in
love with Wilshere’s bullish approach and technical ability, and even more remember his
legendary performance at the Emirates against Barcelona when he completely dominated a
midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. At the age of just 19, Wilshere outplayed some
of the best midfielders in the world and even had Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola offering
his compliments after the game. Wilshere’s style of play was in many ways reminiscent of this
legendary trio of Barcelona midfielders and his youthful flair was something that caught the
eye. In hindsight it is a real shame that a player who showed as much promise as Wilshere
never reached the heights he was expected to. A career largely marred by injuries awaited
him, but he will always remain a club legend especially with his current position as U18s coach
and the success he is bringing the youth side.
Andres Iniesta, ‘El Illusionista’, was one of the most legendary players of his generation.
Iniesta embodies everything that La Masia football academy is about through the way he
makes football look simple. Iniesta’s intelligence of the game is unrivalled, and his ability to
already know what to do with the ball, before he receives it, is crucial to his success. Some
have even compared him to a chess player as his each and every move is calculated. Some of
Iniesta’s achievements include winning the Champions League 4 times, winning the World
Cup with his nation and being nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2011 and 2013. While it is
undeniable that Iniesta enjoyed a far more successful career than Jack Wilshere, that famous
Champions league night at the Emirates in 2011 where the two faced off against each other
will always live long in the memory of every Arsenal fan. There are certain similarities to the
ways that both players played the game which is a massive credit to the impact that Iniesta
had on youth players rising through the ranks.
As a ‘one club man’, Iniesta amassed 674 appearances for Barcelona and became a club
legend. It is certainly a possibility that we will see Iniesta back at Barcelona at some point,
perhaps in a managerial role with his fellow midfielder Xavi.
Both of these academies have produced world class talents with more certainly on the way. Which of these academies do you think is best?