Iker Bravo: Barcelona's future No.9 that they let slip away


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La Masia does not produce many out-and-out strikers; number nines who average around a goal every game at youth level. Diminutive midfielders and playmaking forwards, yes - they have them coming out of their ears at the Barcelona academy. But elite-level strikers are pretty rare at Catalunya's most famous footballing school.

And so when the Blaugrana sat down with Iker Bravo and his agents to discuss tying the then-16-year-old down to a contract in the summer of 2021, they knew they had to keep him in the building.

Like so much that has happened at Barcelona in recent years, however, they failed to stick the landing.

A year on, Bravo can look back on a debut season at Bayer Leverkusen during which he made his professional debut in the Bundesliga, and impressed enough to warrant spending pre-season with the first team.

Despite Barca's increased dependency on youth products over the past couple of seasons, that same route to the senior ranks was seemingly not there for Bravo, hence his decision to leave.

He and his family went into the talks expecting to stay at the club he had been part of since the age of five, but while Barca went in with a focus on the economics of the deal, they were unable to sell Bravo on the project they had laid out for him.

Like so many youngsters in the modern game, Bravo realised that German football could offer him the pathway he so desired, and he has made an immediate impact.

His two first-team appearances - one in the league and one in the DFB-Pokal - were reward for a campaign that saw him score 10 goals in 17 official youth-team games.

"It was not the plan for him to make his debut this season," Alberto Encinas, Leverkusen's assistant coach who previously worked within La Masia, tells GOAL of Bravo's debut campaign. "Now he will start pre-season with us and enter into the dressing room formally. It will be very good for him to be close to the first team.

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"He has a fairly complete player profile," Encinas continues, "because he's not only a goalscorer. He, of course, has great finishing ability and movement in the penalty area, but because of his career at Barca, he can also drop deeper to recycle possession as an extra midfielder.

"He has that double profile - he is not just a striker in the area, but he combines that with other skills too."

Despite Bravo's strong start to life at the BayArena, his raw statistics tell the story of a player whose goal numbers have dropped slightly, though that is of no surprise to Encinas.

"I have the memory of him being a leading player at Barca," he recalls. "When things went wrong, he always asked for the ball, and was able to pull the car along by himself.

"This year, he has had more mental ups and downs, but it is very normal. He is 17 and has had an important change in his life; leaving home to a new country, to a new language, to a different culture, to another way of playing. It's normal his game might suffer.

"At Barca, he was more dominant because the team had more of the ball, but the overall evolution in his game here has been positive. Being at Leverkusen has made him a better player, because the coaches have put him into a different context, and made him a little uncomfortable at times, but that has allowed him to learn from being in new game situations."

Bravo was certainly able to show off some of those new-found skills for Spain in the recent Under-17s European Championship, as he led from the front for his national side.

Bravo scored two goals in three games during the tournament in Israel, including a stunning first-time volley from 20 yards against Turkey in his side's opening game.

"He's a player who gives you, in addition to finishing, continuity to the game," Spain U17s boss, Julen Guerrero, tells GOAL. "He gets between the lines well, he's strong, he holds the ball up, he plays quickly - he's a player who can give us a lot of things. We know it and the team knows it."

Barcelona knew it too, but they couldn't persuade one of their rarer diamonds to stick around. A player like Iker Bravo might not come along in Catalunya for some time.