A quick glance at the odds to win the Champions League this season unsurprisingly reveals that Bayern Munich and Barcelona have been installed as the two favourites to triumph in Lisbon next May.
At the moment, the pair stand tall as champions of their own countries and the two leading clubs in the whole of Europe.
How did they steal a march on the rest of European football?
It starts at the beginning, as both clubs have followed the same path of investing in their youth system. They've coupled that with expensive forays into the transfer market.
Barcelona have long followed an organic approach by filtering a philosophy throughout the club. They first teach a style of play to their young players and then watch as it is executed further up the chain in the first team.
The headquarters for this experiment was La Masia, the farmhouse in the shadow of the Nou Camp that housed Barcelona’s youth academy for over three decades.
Pep Segura, the former technical director at La Masia, expanded upon its importance to Barcelona’s success in The Telegraph:
It is about creating one philosophy, one mentality, from the bottom of the club to the top. The style of play, the concept of what football is, is defined in what you do every day. When you see Xavi and Iniesta, you know they have quality, but they also have style. It is that style which comes from the academy...
To have the style that Barcelona do, you have to create a line. You have to know what you want to achieve, and to do that you have to identify the path you intend to take. You have to identify the profile of player you need and, from the very start, teach the players everything about that system.
Founded in 1979, La Masia has helped to nurture a procession of world-class talents, including Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Sergio Busquets. These and other graduates have formed the core of Barcelona’s successful teams in recent times.
When Barcelona won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011, both of their starting XIs in the finals featured seven players who had come through the youth ranks. In November 2012, they even fielded a side entirely made up of graduates from La Masia in a La Liga game at Levante.
However, Barca could not survive entirely on their own. They have always augmented their squad with astute additions from the transfer market.
That 2009 Champions League final team featured Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Yaya Toure and Sylvinho, while in the 2011 final the "outsiders" consisted of Dani Alves, David Villa, Eric Abidal and Javier Mascherano.
This summer, Barcelona have, of course, also added Neymar to their squad.
Barca surely hope that their approach of a thriving youth academy combined with carefully selected signings will be enough to dislodge the reigning European champions, Bayern Munich, who dismantled the Spanish side in last year's Champions League semifinals.
Bayern’s success—they won the Champions League and the domestic double of league and cup last season—can also be traced back to their investment in home-grown players.
In the aftermath of Germany’s uncharacteristically poor showing at Euro 2000, the German Football Association imposed a compulsory system of top-quality academies throughout the Bundesliga. Of all these clubs, Bayern have reaped the greatest rewards.
Four members of the Bayern side that played in the May Champions League final came through the youth ranks, including Philipp Lahm, David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller.
Ahead of the final, Muller, speaking with the same maturity he shows on the pitch, told The Guardian:
If you look at the Bundesliga now from a few years ago you have so many young players getting in the team you can see the academy work is paying off. You don't really need to buy older and foreign players now.
Having two teams in the Champions League final proves this. Plus when you bring in young players and can also sell them on it means all your finance is reserved for your infrastructure.
Muller might be dismissive of buying foreign players, but he must acknowledge that they have also played a crucial and prominent role in Bayern’s success.
It was the Dutchman Arjen Robben who scored the winner in the Champions League final, and he was assisted by the likes of Franck Ribery, Dante and Javi Martinez during the season.
This combination has created a formidable Bayern side. They finished 25 points ahead of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga last season, accumulating 91 points and a goal difference of plus-80 from 34 league games. Bayern even went four months without conceding a single away goal.
For all Bayern’s attacking talents, it is a concentration on defending that allowed them to go on that four-month run.
Simple coaching and making good players better was crucial. Last season, Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes explained how he did it in an interview in The Guardian:
When I arrived, Franck Ribery played football just one way – always attacking. He is a world-class player, an excellent provider and a great finisher. But he has learned over the past two years that in football you also need to do defensive work. That's why we have conceded so few goals this season.
Ribery, Mario Gomez, [Mario] Mandzukic, Muller, [Xherdan] Shaqiri …they have all learned to defend.
Of course, Heynckes is no longer there, having been replaced in the summer by Pep Guardiola, a graduate of La Masia and now the proud symbol of Bayern Munich’s current standing.
These two clubs have stolen a march on the rest of Europe over the last five years, and it will be fascinating to see if they can remain ahead of the pack again this season while maintaining their methods of development.
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