Sergi Samper a boost to struggling La Masia academy at Barcelona

Six players have put pen to paper with Barcelona this summer, from Neymar signing a new deal to Denis Suarez rejoining the club and Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne joining up.

The most important signings for Barcelona's identity, however, happened on Tuesday, when academy graduates Sergi Samper and Munir El Haddadi sealed new contracts. Munir has been well-known inside and outside Barcelona ever since scoring from the halfway line in the 2014 UEFA Youth League final against Benfica and consolidating himself as Barca's first choice reserve striker last term.

It is the progress of Samper, however, that Barca fans will be most intrigued to see. Few people can boast of having as long an association with the club as the holding midfielder, whose granddad signed him up to Barca's football school when he was just six years old.

Before then Samper's favourite past time was tennis, which he played every afternoon with his brother Jordi, now a professional and No. 204 in the ATP world rankings.

Once he started playing football regularly, Samper began to turn heads in and outside the club. He was the standout player in the Barcelona youth side that won the 2011 Mediterranean Cup and Arsenal took notice, offering the 15-year-old the chance to move to north London. Samper declined the offer but his teammates Hector Bellerin and Jon Toral said yes.

Samper, however, has not yet excelled at the rate he was expected to. There was a huge buzz about his debut against APOEL Nicosia in September 2014, but it was no roaring success. Samper looked out of place on the Camp Nou pitch, shy and nervous on the ball, in contrast with the confidence with which he roamed midfield for Barca B and at under-18 level. He has made just six more starts since, and played just 29 minutes in La Liga.

Now he has a new contract and a place in the first team squad, we can expect to see more of him. And Barca fans will be hoping the 21-year-old no longer looks like the rabbit in headlights we saw against APOEL, not just because he is a homegrown player who has spent over two-thirds of his life with the club, but because he represents hope in dark times for La Masia.

Not long ago the academy was the club's proudest achievement, a reference point around the world. It is less than four years ago that Tito Vilanova fielded 11 homegrown players in a dazzling 4-0 win at Levante. But now it is in decline. Only five of those players remain at the club: Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. The others departed for diverse reasons, but few players have been able to step in and take the baton from them. Marc Bartra and Sandro Ramirez have recently left the club, and the only two homegrown players Luis Enrique has embraced in his two seasons in charge are Munir and Sergi Roberto.

While some fans will shrug their shoulders at the lack of fresh homegrown talent while Neymar and Luis Suarez keep firing Barca to trophy after trophy, the academy remains crucial to the club's identity. Who better to explain that than Xavi Hernandez, who told me in 2014: "Players from the local area and the academy know the idiosyncrasies and the philosophy of Barcelona the best."

Discussing Manchester City's rapid rise to football's elite and whether it mattered that the majority of their players had been bought in, he added: "I don't know if in England it's important that there are no players from Manchester in the team, but here it would be difficult if we didn't have at least three or five homegrown players, the fans wouldn't like that."

While Barca's core still largely consists of homegrown players, their importance appears to be fading. Luis Enrique is far less willing to take a chance on youth than Guardiola and Vilanova were, for instance, although the coach cannot be blamed entirely for this, as Barcelona B is no longer the fertile ground it once was for searching for first team players.

Last year the reserve side finished 11th in their Segunda Division B group, Spain's regionalised third tier. Compare that to when Luis Enrique was in charge of the team in 2010-11 and they finished third in Spain's second tier with a squad containing the likes of Nolito, Sergi Roberto, Thiago Alcantara, Rafinha and Bartra, all of whom are now at Europe's elite clubs.

And despite Vilanova and Pep Guardiola's willingness to experiment with academy players, only two homegrown players (Thiago in 2011-12 and Sergi Roberto in 2015/16) have played more than half the games in a season since Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez consolidated themselves as first teamers in 2009-10. Samper is the player best placed to become the third. Fans will hope he does.