There is evidence that it can be done. Evidence that a team can rebuild on the fly without performances and results suffering. That evidence has a name: Bayern Munich.
Bayern has managed the difficult trick of transitioning between generations without hurtling into the gaping chasm that separates them. Because that’s what tends to happen. Teams hang on to one generation of players for slightly too long. And with their successors either unaccustomed to the team or not yet recruited at all, the club slips into that gap. The veterans are reluctantly ushered out the door, and the new players trickle in. Some work out; some don’t. And before the team is back up to its old level, a season, or two, or three, has passed.
Bayern, however, has managed to keep its core of veterans — Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski, etc. — productive and sharp while bringing along new pieces such as Serge Gnabry, Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich. Other young players are pushing toward more playing time, as well. It will probably make for a seamless succession, as Bayern sets out on the march toward a ninth straight Bundesliga title and defends its European crown.
The secret sauce is in Bayern’s structure. It has the branding, marketing and revenue mechanisms of a mega-club. It also has a system in place that safeguards the long-term planning of the first team, beyond the coaches who will come and go, depending on the short-term outcomes on the field.
And here is where other mega-clubs have fallen down. Namely Manchester United and FC Barcelona.
United has been in a steady decline since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 — also the last time the Red Devils won the Premier League, or anything of more consequence than the Europa League. Presently, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side sits in 15th place after a thin but not unrepresentative six games. It holds a game in hand that could lift it by a few places. But the decay is startling.
What appears to have happened here is that United got all of the branding and marketing and money stuff right. The club consistently places in the top three of the Deloitte Football Money League, which ranks clubs by revenue even though it has missed out on tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of pounds and euros in prize money in recent years. United is a global company that ticks over cash at a dazzling rate.
But after the all-controlling Ferguson finally retired, no superstructure of technical directors, chief scouts and people to handle transfers to address both the needs of today and tomorrow was erected. United kept selling itself as a world-beater. It kept earning like one. And it kept spending like one on its players. The trouble is, a squad with lots of good players doesn’t fit together very well, leaving an underqualified coach to try to glue it all together.
This issue is only slightly different to Barca’s. Its own problem is that the steady churn of success over the last 15 years or so has created that same income stream, the same reputation and the same expectations. Barca, in fact, generated the most revenue in the FML’s most recent release. But with turnover in the club president’s seat, not to mention on the board or in the director’s roles, or in the head coaching job, nobody sketched out what life would look like once Lionel Messi aged. Or when other generational players from the academy — Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi — slipped to the wrong side of 30.
Like United, Barca spent plenty on talented players. Talented players who have now conjured a 12th-place standing in La Liga, without a win in their last four games. With Ronald Koeman in charge of the first team and president Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club has split into warring factions.
This is the trap these clubs set for themselves: They positioned themselves in the market as perpetual winners. Only they did so without building the foundation that would convert their financial might into perpetual wins. And so now that both clubs need a rebuild, or at least a reset, they are caught. Clubs of the stature they have ascribed themselves do not get to take a season off. But setting things right will take a year or — gasp! — even longer than that.
That leaves no choice but to rebuild on the fly, to make structural renovations to the house while also living in it. It hardly ever works. It’s the kind of thing you only have a chance of pulling off if you’ve planned it carefully. And United and Barca don’t plan. Bayern does.
That’s why one of those clubs is the European champion and why the other two are in the bottom half of their tables.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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