A mixture of national styles for Bayern v Barça, and Dortmund v Real has put them at the forefront of European football
It is tempting to read a great deal into the swaggeringly four-square German-Spanish dominance of this season's Champions League semi-finals. Football loves a sweeping narrative and in Bayern v Barça and Dortmund v Real there is a sense of certain shared sporting values that go beyond mere geography, a butterfly print of matching elites from which the committed Rorschach theorist might draw all manner of overheated conclusions. But if the significance of such moments of dominance can often be overstated – exhibit one: the unstoppable rise of the Premier League (sell-by date 2011) – there is still a starkness to this semi-final lineup, a sense of a greater historical ascent in play. Something is happening here. But what, exactly?
Perhaps the most striking element of this drift towards a Germano-Iberian duopoly is the feeling not of opposed and contrasting superpowers, but of convergence and consensus, of a fraternal similarity. The dawning of the age of Iberia may have been upon us for some time, but in the Bayern supremacy it finds an answering echo: if Germany and Spain are streets ahead when it comes to player development and tactical coherence, they appear to have skipped off around the corner more or less hand-in-hand.
There will, of course, be some tribal dissent – and to be fair Manchester United were smothering Real Madrid into submission before Nani's red card – but it is worth noting the broad consensus is that these are inarguably Europe's top four teams this year. "It's no coincidence," says Dietmar Hamann, a winner of this competition with Liverpool in 2005. "The four best teams are in the semis, which has not really been the case for the last 10 years. They are here because they deserve it and I think all the other teams are behind these. I could see any one of these four winning the Champions League, but I haven't been able to see any of the English teams winning it at any stage this year."
Beyond this the Bundes-Liga semi‑final full-house fits a wider trend. The last four Champions League finals have featured either Barça or Bayern, while eight of the last 12 semi-finalists have been Spanish or German, eclipsing with surprising abruptness a similar run of late-stage hegemony for the Premier League. Albeit, we are of course talking about a small cartel of elite clubs here. The most obvious shared quality, beyond mere nationality, is the sheer scale and reach of three of the four clubs involved, the fiscal and geographical heft of Barcelona, Bayern and Real. These are collectively Europe's ascendant regional superpower clubs, brilliantly marketed to a captive nation-state fanbase and their attendant corporate backers.
Undoubtedly financial heft is the bedrock of this ascent: in Real and Barcelona the semi-finals host two of the three richest clubs around, and in Bayern the world's most prolific football merchandise machine. You don't have to be a peerless commercial powerhouse to become a part of football's oligarchical elite – but it helps.
This, though, is about more than just money. It is also a matter of style and content, a set of shared characteristics expressed within the confines of the pitch, and relating to things like tempo and texture and basic notions of how exactly a football team should go about its business. If you were to attempt to define a German and a Spanish style right now you would most likely end up with two differing but also seductively conjoined models. Spain, and in particular Barcelona, are of course the masters of the pass, a method based around the notion of tiny spaces picked apart through relentless high-spec shuttling of the point of possession. The basic approach is to treat the ball as though it is the final bullet in your revolver. This will be a lovingly crafted execution.
If German teams have a general point of contrast it is perhaps in their greater adherence to Joachim Löw's notion of football as a sport "defined by a succession of sprints". Both the national team and Bayern employ direct and purposeful bursts of intelligent movement: not running for runnings's sake, but concerted sprints, either in small pockets or across the pitch. These two nations have taken the basic bonded elements of "football" and split them in two: Spain the nation of ball; Germany of the foot.
These are fine distinctions within the trend of broad similarity. Barcelona at their best are also a team of sprints, particularly in high-pressing defence. Similarly Real Madrid are a great counter-attacking force, with ball-carriers in Angel di María and Cristiano Ronaldo who can match anything Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm might produce. Dortmund swarm around opponents in possession with as much zeal as the original blitz-defence goblins of Catalonia. And Bayern killed the quarter-final by passing Juventus to death, Barça-style, as the Italians chased the game.
It is a promiscuous stylistic overlap, the basic components of which are retention of the ball, hustling defence, attacking at speed when an opponent is destabilised, and a freewheeling approach to traditional formations, the breaking down of positional rigidity into the basic unit of the mobile, mutable modern footballer, able to perform a range of fluid roles.
It is a similarity that carries through into international football. Germany played the last round of World Cup qualifiers with a Vincente del Bosque (and also Craig Levein)-style 4-6-0 formation, while Löw's Mannschaft have to date managed to make more passes than Spain in the qualifying fixtures.
The style, the money, the ideologically coherent regional identity. There is a fourth component, too. The evidence suggests a strong spine of home-reared domestic players is what separates the very best from those who merely have the outline, and deep pockets, of a European super-team. German and Spanish have been the most heavily represented nationalities in the last four Champions League finals, tribute in itself to their fecund academy systems. Most notably in the Bundesliga, where administrative unity between the German FA and its top tier – unlike the damaging two-way squabble between Premier League and FA – means progressive methods can be dictated from the top.
All Bundesliga clubs are required to maintain an academy that meets the standards of the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, a system decisively revamped after the generational nadir of Germany's Euro 2000 campaign. "We have many young players coming out of the academies and I think German football has made a quantum leap," Robin Dutt, sporting director of the DFB, has said. "There is superb work being done now in the academies, some very skilful and tactical training. Borussia Dortmund are a great example with [Mario] Götze, Marco Reus and Sven Bender."
Hamann points also to the simple fact of ready opportunity. "Young German players get more chance than in England. There's been some really good success at the age group levels from the Under-15s through to the Under-21s. You can produce them but they also need a chance to play.
"And these teams make sure they keep the players feet on the floor and remind them they've done nothing until they start playing for the first team. Those few months at the age of 18-20 make a huge difference. You only get one chance at it."
There are sound fiscal incentives for Bundesliga clubs to make sure that chance is generously extended. The top two tiers combined spend more than €100m on their academies each year, with notable successes. Bayern boast the home-growns Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos, Holger Badstuber, Diego Contento, Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, while across the Bundesliga 275 out of 525 players used in 2010-11 were domestic academy products. The situation is similar in Spain, where Athletic Bilbao have used 20 academy players this season, Real Sociedad 16, Barcelona 15 and even fiscally incontinent Madrid seven.
Plus, of course, the system is applied with progressive good sense. Simply having an academy isn't enough: it is the rigour, the centralised standards, and above all the willingness to accept that technique rather than physique are the essence of a good young player. If the field seems open here for a little Premier League-bashing, it is worth noting that this particular element, the home-reared core, also speaks to the recent era of Premier League success. The Manchester United teams that won the Champions League both contained six British outfield players in their starting eleven. Liverpool in 2005 were forged around the armature of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Even last season's haphazardly concocted Chelsea triumph was, paradoxically, a team effort that drew its strength not from an endless drenching in imported exoticisms, but from a largely English spine that had been in place for almost a decade.
If this combination of a highly marketable regional identity married to a domestically forged footballing backbone appears to represent the perfect storm for European club success, it has broader benefits as well. The Champions League may have overtaken international football as the concentrated pinnacle of the game, but with its high‑end regional‑local successes it also feeds directly into Europe's creeping dominance at international level. This is nothing new. The story of the World Cup since 1950 has basically been Western Europe versus Brazil and Argentina. Since 1978 only Diego Maradona's single-handed brilliance has interrupted the Euro-Brazil dynamic, while the last two finals have been all-European affairs. It would be stretching a point however to suggest Spain and Germany have come close to establishing a twin-headed international supremacy: Germany remain curious underachievers given the depth of talent. Semi-finalists in every major competition since 2006, some still lament the absence of the more familiar ugly-football winning edge in these brilliantly mannered academy products. As Hamann says: "It would be a travesty if this group of players came away without a title."
Argentina, with the La Masia-reared Messi in their ranks, will alongside Brazil provide powerful opposition next year. But Spain and Germany will be massing near the summit whatever happens, with victory in the Americas still the final frontier for Europe's expanding continental dominance.
Either way the Champions League is all set this week to provide a moment of dignity for what is right now – and by some distance – the concerted Eurozone force in world football: the high‑spec, beautifully engineered, Mercedes Benz‑football of Europe's emergent regional superpowers.