Posted by: mdegeorge | May 14, 2011

A trio of champions worth emulating

Champions have been crowned in Europe’s three biggest leagues, bringing an early end to the customary late-season drama.

This season’s versions of Manchester United, AC Milan and Barcelona may not go down as the greatest exponents of their respective teams’ styles in history. The 2010-11 Blaugrana are in the conversation, but Milan’s triumph over a weak Italian field, as shown by its manhandling of Inter twice, and Man U’s five road victories make them the least faltering of the Prem field.

Javier Hernandez. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

But the unified theme of the three champions is their approach to their respective titles. Despite being among the most recognizable names in the world of club soccer, the three didn’t buy titles; they built teams frugally and from the ground up, much to the dismay of free (read: reckless) spending rivals.

Barcelona is the prototype for homegrown talent. On the average gameday, at least eight of the starting XI rose through the Catalans’ youth system. Splashing the cash is a precious rare event for Barca, with the likes of Dani Alves (£23 million from Sevilla), David Villa (€40 million from Valencia), and Eric Abidal (€9 from Lyon) much more the exception than the norm. (Gerard Pique was a Barca youth product who took a brief detour to Man U before being lured back for £5 million.) The embarrassment of youthful home grown riches makes Barcelona’s model among the most sustainable in the world. The £30 million spent by Real Madrid on Xabi Alonso, for instance, is enough to finance a generation of Barca players coached up in one of the most prolific youth systems in the world.

Barca’s main rival, Real Madrid, derives an obvious connection to the other two champions via wire transfer: Some $200 million spent poaching the stars of Manchester United (£80 for Cristiano Ronaldo) and Milan (£56 for Kaka). But after two years, the title count of their former teams (two) far exceeds their own (none).

Meanwhile, their former teams have made investment in shrewd, young players a priority over paying a premium for players already in their primes. The Red Devils aren’t afraid to pay for what they need. But of recent business, only Michael Carrick (£14 million from Tottenham), Owen Hargreaves (£17 million from Bayern Munich) and Dimitar Berbatov (£30.75 million from Tottenham) were players plucked at their peaks. While Hargreaves has been an unqualified failure, the other two have come close to living out their value on their field. Nani, acquired at age 20 for £25.5 million, is now worth much more.

Chelsea shelled out £71.3 million for a defender of the future (David Luiz) and a long-term albeit struggling solution at forward (Fernando Torres). In five years, it may turn out that Man U has arguable a better pair for a fraction of that cost in £6-million-man Javier Hernandez and £10-million-man Chris Smalling. Sure Michael Owen hasn’t produced all that much in a Manchester United shirt, but what can you expect for something you got for free?

And while 10-time league winner Paul Scholes and 12-time winner Ryan Giggs appear poised to call time on their careers in the next couple years, ready-made replacements (or bargaining chips whose greatest value could rest with another team) like Tom Cleverly, Gabriel Obertan, Danny Welbeck, Mame Biram Diouf, Bebe and Federico Macheda wait in the wings.

A lot has been made of the financial situation of the Red Devils under the ownership of Malcolm Glazer. But at the player management level, the strategy has been prudent. Instead, the team has spent its millions growing a global brand, allowing the club to appreciate in value well beyond the level of accumulated debt.

Milan meanwhile has pulled several pieces of transfer market graft that are directly responsible for the Scudetto win. Again, they were willing to loosen the purse strings for players with big upsides that are quickly developing into stars (€22 for Alexandre Pato, €10 for Tiago Silva). The club’s key pieces were values they recognized. Robinho was taken off Manchester City’s scrap heap for €18 million, a far cry from the €42.5 million Man City dished out for him just two years earlier. Zlatan Ibrahimovic cost €24 million for a one-year loan with an option to buy, hardly the €250 million buyout clause Barcelona placed on his head a year earlier.

The other deals are mind-blowing. Kevin-Prince Boateng cost €1.5 million for a year loan in a co-ownership deal with Genoa that, even when Milan buys the rest of his rights, will be a bargain thanks to the Ghanaian’s rejuvenation as an attacking midfielder. Urby Emanuelson, viewed as a long-term replacement after the departure of Clarence Seedorf and/or Gennaro Gattuso as quickly as this summer, cost a mere €1.7 million. Vice President Adriano Galliani exploited the feud between Antonio Cassano and Sampdoria to swoop for a vital striker—and natural replacement to 37-year-old Filippo Inzaghi—for a mere €2.5 million. Mario Yepes and Mark van Bommel, both major contributors, arrived in free transfers, as will a natural replacement for Alessandro Nesta in Philippe Mexes this summer. Compare that to Juventus, who spent over €65 million on the far-less successful likes of Alberto Aquilani, Milos Krasic, Fabio Quagliarella and Leonardo Bonucci.

UEFA, FIFA and just about every other acronymic governing body is concerned about teams over-extending themselves in the transfer market, shelling out transfer fees and taking on wage bills they are unable to actually handle. The fact that these three teams can bring home titles in a fiscally responsible manner is a statement to the world of football.

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