The changing shift in European football

As one power in football begins its inevitable downturn, another appears to step into its place. If football fans learnt anything from last week, it was that Barcelona aren’t as formidable as they were, even 12 months ago. Whether that is down to the player’s, or Pep Guardiola’s exhaustion, is anyone’s guess.

The defeat to Chelsea over both legs over the Champions League semi-final, the chance to only win one final piece of silverware this season, the Copa Del Rey against Athletic Bilbao next month, and the lack of challenge against Real Madrid for the La Liga title, as witnessed during the recent El Clasico at the Camp Nou, signifies that this Barcelona team could have entered the decline that many teams go through.

The cornerstones of the team, and in particular Xavi and Carles Puyol, have begun to enter the twilight of their respective careers, with the duo 32 and 34 years-old respectively, and the ages are beginning to show. The player’s look fatigued and with it, a distinct drop in physical and mental fitness ensues.

This was evident from the first kick of the 1-0 defeat at the hands of Chelsea almost two-weeks ago to the Fernando Torres strike six days later at the Camp Nou, with the aforementioned El Clasico sandwiched in between. As expected by many, Guardiola announced he would be stepping down from his role as Barcelona head coach at the end of the season. He himself, judging from the period between when he took over in 2008 to his press conference last Friday to announce his decision, looked absolutely exhausted.

Compare that to Xavi who, as well pointed out by Miguel Delaney in his article Spanish stars at risk of burning out, the creative midfielder has played around 66 games a year on average since June 2008. That level of commitment is expected to take it out of any professional footballer, including one that played every game of Spain’s World Cup winning campaign in 2010 and has mustered over 50 appearances for his club in all competitions since 2006.

The increase in youngsters coming through the Barcelona ranks this season is to accommodate for the ageing stars at the Camp Nou and not only is it a testament to the club’s exceptional youth academy, but also a statement that a number of these stars are heading into the latter end of their career.

A changing shift

This isn’t affecting just Barcelona, but the Spanish national side as well. Seven of the starting XI from the World Cup final against Holland still play for the Blaugrana and despite the two-years adding experience between then and now, coupled with the countless accolades picked up, they are also two-year’s older, a substantially large time span in the game.

That has begun to show with the older generation and as mentioned, Guardiola was beginning the process of incorporate the La Masia products into the first-team. Naturally, Tito Vilanova, the Spaniard’s replacement with Barca next year, will continue to transition of youth into the senior squad, but many of them won’t be ready to usurp the current incumbents in their role.

This is where the shift is beginning to change, a little further east of Spain in Germany. Following the 2006 World Cup, and as a result of Jurgen Klinsmann’s input, the emphasis switched heavily onto youth and his successor, Joachim Low, continued the process of integrating youth-team player’s into the first-team.

Paths to the final and semi-final at Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, respectively, has seen the national side begin to reap the rewards of this youth transitional process, with the likes of Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle and Mesut Ozil now firmly established members, with the oldest from the quartet being the latter at 23-years of age and obtaining 31 national caps.

Such rapid progression has seen the Germans instilled as second favourites to lift the Euro 2012 crown, just behind favourites Spain. However, if they continue their development much in the same way they have been, many wouldn’t be surprised to see them overcome their 15 European counterparts in the competition to see them win their first piece of international silverware since their European Championship win of 1996.

And it isn’t just on the national stage that the Germans look set to overtake their Spanish counterparts. At club level, Bundesliga teams are once again emerging as one of the strongest across the continent, made evident by UEFA’s decision to strip Italy of one of their Champions League places and hand it to Germany as a result of their impressive coefficient rating.

Seven teams will be representing the nation next season in the Champions League and Europa League next season, a further testament to the competitiveness of the league. Having knocked Real Madrid out of Europe’s elite competition at the semi-final stage on penalties, and reaching their first final since 2010 where they lost out to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, the quality available to Jupp Heynckes is, at times, astonishing.

More impressive is the fact that Bayern were pipped to the Bundesliga title by Borussia Dortmund, the latter’s second in as many years, and are currently languishing eight points behind the Die Schwarzgelben with a game to play. Compare this to La Liga, where Bayern surpassed Real over both legs of the last four encounter, with Los Blancos currently seven points clear of second placed Barcelona, who were in turn knocked out by sixth placed Chelsea, 22 points behind joint Premier League leaders Manchester City and Manchester United.

At both club and international level, Germany look set to become the next superpower in the world of football. With the added capability of attracting, and keeping, big name player’s, it is hardly surprising to see the nation and its clubs excel as they are doing now. Predictably the order of things will change again in the future, as is the natural order of football. Prior to Spain and Barcelona performing admirably, it was France on the international stage and numerous English clubs excelling across the continent.

And with Germany now reaping the rewards of youth development, following a similar model to Spain, numerous nations are beginning to switch the emphasis from present footballers to those of the future. England have taken steps to improve their low standards with the increasing budget and the opening of St. George’s Park in Burton. The appointment of Roy Hodgson will bolster the chances of success in Burton, with Switzerland beginning to see an improvement in the quality of younger player’s following his time as head-coach between 1992 and 1995. However, until then, it is once again Germany’s time under the spotlight to perform and despite heading into Euro 2012 as second favourites; it wouldn’t surprise many to see them lift the trophy, with the same applying to the Champions League, with the final taking place in Munich later this month.