Theoretically, it is what every side outside the rich, nouveau or old, should do. Unless a football club can count on considerable financial muscle to strengthen their team every year, then relying on a youth academy to replenish resources organically makes far more sense. And yet not everyone does it. But few do it better than Osasuna.
A brief glance at humanity is enough to work out that long-term sustainability is not one of our strong points and in the hyper-dramatised version of life that we are addicted to in football, means that time and mistakes are often deemed unaffordable. Thus, in most cases, youth products that have spent years working their way up the club are only relied upon in the meagre years.
Los Rojillo fell on those hard times when they were relegated in 2014. Harbouring a a balance sheet streaked in red marks, like an abstract art piece from a distressed accountant, Osasuna were forced into sales and there was no choice but to play the kids. Finishing 18th in the Segunda the following season, one spot above the drop, that precipice fell away into serious danger for the club’s solvency, had they been relegated over the edge.
“At that time, when we went down, there were very few resources available,” Director of their Tajonar football school and record appearance-maker Patxi Puñal told us at a LaLiga event.
“So we committed it all to the youngsters. And we were able to bring the club up and this afforded us stability. We became a financially healthy club and the club started structuring the academy. With all of the debt there was, many things had been overlooked or neglected. So coaches started working incessantly to structure the proper training of the youth players and provide quality training. Since 2017, we have been able to have a good, stable team, committing to the youth. The first team is a true mirror of that.”
Success was neither immediate nor steady, returning to La Liga in 2016, Osasuna promptly dropped back to the second tier. Again they built on their academy products and returned as Segunda winners in 2019, this time under Jagoba Arrasate, backed by Sporting Director Braulio Vazquez, who took up his position in 2017.
It has made them arguably the most stable club in Spain’s top tier. Since returning to the top division they have finished 11th, 10th and 11th again. Osasuna can now look up rather than down, the entire the mindset has changed. As impressive midfielder Jon Moncayola explained to Football España, that raising of the bar has been visible within Arrasate.
“I have been fortunate to have Jagoba as head coach for all of my career. And I have seen the growth. The first was a season of uncertainty, we tried to be prudent, to avoid relegation. But as we have achieved our targets, we have brought new players to strengthen the side. And I have seen that Jagoba has changed his mindset as we go against bigger teams, sometimes when we went to bigger stadiums we only looked for the draw, but now we look for the win. I think he is the perfect coach for this stage of the team.”
The freshly remodelled El Sadar was voted the best stadium in the world last year. Currently they have ten academy players in their side, the seventh-highest figure of the 98 teams in Europe’s so-called big five leagues.
Through their smart allocation of resources and a trust in players like Moncayola, Osasuna are going punch for punch with much heavier weight classes. Last season, the Valencia side that finished above them had a salary limit 50% higher than Osasuna, while Celta Vigo in 12th had an extra 20% to work with. At the time of writing, Osasuna sit seventh. Up above, Athletic Club boast an equally impressive academy but 2.5 times the budget to retain their talents. Below, Villarreal have access to just under three times the resources of the Navarrans.
While there have been smart additions in the transfer market, Chimy Avila and Ante Budimir stand out, most of that has been based on their ability to bring through players from Tajonar.
“In Navarra, it’s a small region of just 700,000 people. The good thing about that is that you are able to control the scouting network,” reasons Puñal.
“However there is competition from Real Sociedad, Athletic Club, Barcelona, they have never-ending scouting networks, so we need to be smart.”
Navarra and Pamplona are nestled below the Pyrenees, with the glow from the Basque powerhouses visible over the hills to the West. As Spain’s multinationals mine the land for footballing diamonds, Osasuna are panning for gold in the Rio Arga.
“We need to bring these players to our academy, to spot them, because it is true that, more so in towns, there are some youngsters that have talent, but because of the conditions around them, are not flourishing. So we need to spot them and realise that with a little bit of work, we can take them to the top. A boy that has everything, everybody will see. But we try to go beyond that and we place special emphasis on every aspect of development.”
“Even in the academy we can not compete with other clubs financially. We need to compete in terms of coaching. We need to give them the best possible training, the best possible place to develop. We can guarantee them their academic, institutional and sporting education, and it will be tailored. We are also a community club, which allows us to get to know each player in depth. Even if they are having a difficult time at school, at home, with their girlfriend, we are on top of it and we know the best for each player at all times.”
The standard-bearers for Navarra are relying partly on a strong connection to, but they are balancing it with an ability to produce complete players too.
“We [Navarrans] have defined characteristics,” continues the Moncayola, who has signed a nine-year contract with Osasuna.
“We are famous for never giving up and having perseverance and that is why the youngsters in the academy also have these characteristics. That is why the other teams tend to suffer.”
“Football in Spain is changing. Many teams in La Liga have adapted their style of play and are trying to play the ball out rather than just go direct. If you combine that with Navarran characteristics, you get very good players.”
“Like in academia, you’re not here to teach what you want, but we teach what we think is best for each academy level,” Puñal ploughs on, animated by his driving force and the club he embodies.
“The training method is based on things that our players can use to play anywhere, like control of the ball, so they can play anywhere, in Pamplona, at Barcelona, at Leipzig, wherever. The style of play, we like to pressure, we like to recover the ball as soon as possible, so we teach them that. Then as they get older, we try to incorporate more specific things.”
“Then there is the tailored method, we have specific sessions that are dedicated to specific areas of the pitch; defence, midfield, attack. We show them a presentation of senior teams and show them what we want them to do, then we do three or four exercises to put into practice what we saw in the classroom.”
What makes Osasuna’s approach different is how much they invest into their academy that is nothing to with money. Young people receive the attention and opportunities they might not get elsewhere. Puñal lays down a trump card if you’re an aspiring teenage footballer.
“And we always have the senior players there to see them play and contribute to the session, which is great for the academy players. It is different for your coach to explain it to you, but if you have Jon Moncayola or Chimy Avila… Pffft, that’s amazing. This is not something you see everywhere, we make it normal for the first-team players to explain things to the young guys and they love it.”
For Osasuna, they see it as the key area in which they can be better, smarter and more competitive. If Barcelona, who still have a world-renowned academy, have bet the house on Robert Lewandowski, Jules Kounde and Raphinha, Osasuna have put all of their money into the foundations of their house.
For an industry with so much money in it, hefty clubs often look reckless and plans far too fleeting. Osasuna look as if they are here to stay though. They focus their efforts on ensuring that where they can compete, with their own special brand of perseverance and grit, they offer something different.
Puñal is right in that the most talented youngsters in Spain will likely end up at the biggest clubs in and outside of the country. Presented with all of the work, thought and care that goes into Tajonar though, it’s easy to imagine that a parent might take their golden boy to Osasuna over other, more glamorous climes. All of that is mirrored in the first team too.
Watch C.A. Osasuna this season on Viaplay, LaLigaTV and ITV4.