Back in April, Barcelona were handed a 14-month transfer ban having breached rules on signing international players under the age of 18. Understandably, the Spanish giants appealed the ruling and, as a result, the transfer embargo was put on hold, meaning the club could make signings this summer before being banned from bringing in players for the next two transfer windows. Due to this, Barcelona did not hold back, bringing in Luis Suarez, Marc-André ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Thomas Vermaelen, Jeremy Mathieu, Ivan Rakitic and Douglas, while Alen Halilovic joined Barcelona B from Dinamo Zagreb.
With the club now forbidden from making new signings until January 2016, it was little surprise that only a desperate Manchester United spent more on players during the transfer window just passed than Barcelona. As a result, newly appointed head coach Luis Enrique must make do with the personnel available to him for the next 18 months. However, that is unlikely to deter the former midfielder, who has overseen an impressive start to life at the club.
Barcelona have won each of their four competitive fixtures to date, scoring seven goals and conceding none as the Blaugrana strive to return to the summit of La Liga, having been pipped by Atlético Madrid last term. The departures of Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas would have been enough to derail any potential title charge, but Enrique has done superbly thus far, combining experience and youth to form a resolute Barca side.
Much of the focus has been on the academy products who have excelled following their promotion to the first team. Sandro Ramírez and Munir El Haddadi have featured in Spain's top tier this term, Sergi Roberto continues his development, while Sergi Samper made his competitive Barcelona debut in their Champions League victory over APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday night. Rafinha, who played under Enrique for Celta last season, also started the wins over Elche and Villarreal, before making a cameo appearance against APOEL.
The youngsters have impressed hugely. Munir so far has lived up to the billing as one of the most eye-catching attacking talents on Barcelona's books. The 19-year-old bagged on his debut in the 3-0 win over Elche on the opening weekend of the season and while he has failed to add to that that, he has continued to be a threat, averaging 2.3 shots per game in both La Liga and the Champions League - only Lionel Messi (4.5) and Neymar (3.3) have averaged more of all Barcelona players.
Not only is the youngster capable of drifting into positions that enable him to forge an effort on goal, but he is clearly confident in his striking ability. The goals have not yet flowed, but Munir has the potential to become a very important player for the Catalan side, though there is the fear his playing time will drop once Luis Suarez returns from suspension.
However, at the time of writing, young Samper is the one grabbing the attention. The midfielder, who has been at the club since the age of six, put in an assured performance in the 1-0 win over APOEL on Wednesday after the now 19-year-old deputised for the experienced Sergio Busquets at the base of Barcelona's midfield three. Here, Samper ran the game as Enrique's side dominated their Cypriot counterparts to secure victory, also breaking up play effectively in the middle of the park.
No Barcelona player made more tackles (five) than the midfielder, while only defender Gerard Piqué (six) made more interceptions than Samper (four). As effective on the ball as he was off it, the graduate of La Masia attempted more passes (102) than any other player and maintained an impressive pass success rate (93%) that allowed Barcelona to control proceedings. Enrique's side enjoyed a typically high 72% possession despite the many youngsters on show.
The club's director of football, Andoni Zubizarreta, admitted after the 1-0 win over APOEL: "He (Samper) showed great calmness and took to the field very naturally tonight. He is so well organised and he distributes the ball in a way that makes the game simpler for those around him. He's very knowledgeable about what it takes to play in the position front of the back four." The former goalkeeper's comments are echoed in Samper's WhoScored rating (8.03) - only Messi (9.15) and Piqué (8.91) gained a better rating than the midfielder of all players in the Champions League tie.
Importantly, Munir, Roberto, Ramírez and Rafinha all featured in some capacity on Wednesday night and it bodes well for the future of the club in the wake of their transfer ban. Of the youngsters to break through, however, Rafinha is the one who boasts the most top-flight experience. Rafinha performed admirably under Enrique for Celta last term, averaging more key passes (1.6) and dribbles per game (2.4) than any other player at the club. Enrique knows how to bring out the best in the 21-year-old if his displays at the Balaídos are anything to go by.
This is reflected in his WhoScored rating for Celta (7.38), the fifth best of all La Liga players outside last season's top three. While his rating for Barcelona in his 3 appearances this term (6.77) isn't quite as good as it was for Celta, the 21-year-old has shown glimpses of his quality in his 131 minutes of competitive action this season.
Barcelona may not be able to sign anyone until January 2016, but the youngsters have come into the side and shown why La Masia is so highly thought of. Enrique would have helped a number of the players' development having managed Barcelona B between June 2008 and June 2011 and the team are now reaping the benefits.Suggest a correction