Barcelona and Real Madrid raise questions about new trend set by Chelsea and Arsenal

Steven Chicken
Carlo Ancelotti lifts the Champions League trophy in 2022
Carlo Ancelotti will be going for his fifth Champions League title

This Saturday’s Champions League final has an interesting sub-plot besides the obvious main storyline of crowning the best team in Europe: it’s one generation of manager pitting his wits against a youngster standing on the vanguard of a growing youth movement.

Edin Terzic, 41, will lead Borussia Dortmund into the Champions League final. If he wins it, he will be one of the youngest ever to do so – and the fourth-youngest in the 21st century, behind only Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola (twice over).

Carlo Ancelotti and Hansi Flick defying elite management youth movement

But standing next to him on the touchline, just shy of his 65th birthday, will be Carlo Ancelotti. If Real Madrid win that game, Ancelotti will become the fourth-oldest manager to have won it, behind Marseille’s Raymond Gothals in 1993, Bayern Munich’s Jupp Heynckes in 2013, and Manchester United‘s Sir Alex Ferguson in 2008. Ancelotti is already the sixth-oldest, courtesy of his 2022 triumph with Real.

These can go either way. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona beat Ferguson’s United in 2009 and 2011, it marked the crossover point between two different generational mega-talents’ eras of dominance. When Roberto Di Matteo got the better of his 25-year senior Heynckes in 2012…not so much.

The average age of European Cup or Champions League winning managers has not changed much over the decades. The rolling five-year rolling average has its peaks and valleys, but generally sits somewhere around age 49-51, the most notable exception being a period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when hot young things Guus Hiddink, Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cryuff ruled the roost. The youngest-ever winner was in fact its first: Real Madrid’s Jose Villalonga, who was just 36 when he claimed the inaugural trophy.

If we are to believe that managers are that influential on teams’ results, that suggests either age is immaterial or that those with around 10-15 years of experience under their belts are the best bet, depending on how you choose to read the data.

And yet, Europe’s elite clubs are having a bit of a phase of plumping for relative managerial juveniles. Liverpool’s Arne Slot is the old man of the bunch at just 45. Bayern Munich have, eventually, plumped for 38-year-old Vincent Kompany. Mikel Arteta was just 37 when he took up the reins at Arsenal. Chelsea’s inbound Enzo Maresca is 44, as is Barcelona’s outbound Xavi, who took that job in 2021.

Hansi Flick, who will replace Xavi at the Nou Camp, is a complete oddity at 59. There is a sense that we are entering a new phase of managers who are moving away from the Cruyff or Sacchi schools, instead identifying themselves as being part of the Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp lineage, and everybody is desperate to make sure they don’t get left behind. Arteta’s successes at Arsenal perhaps point to why that trend has emerged in the Premier League: he has had a genuinely transformative effect on the Gunners since arriving as a rookie manager five years ago.

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Perhaps Ancelotti is an oddity, a manager with a particular ability in this competition at a club with a particular penchant for winning it: no other manager and no other club have ever won more.

But you wonder how much that has influenced Barcelona’s thinking in opting for Flick, who guided Bayern to the trophy in 2020 – and you wonder whether the needle might shift back the other way when, inevitably, not all of the new breed are able to deliver the level of success their employers want. There simply aren’t enough trophies around for them all to win.

Amid this sea change towards younger managers, you wonder whether clubs are simply being too snobby about the perceived failures of an increasingly lost generation of managers now in their 50s: your Tuchels, your Pochettinos, your Mancinis.

Italian clubs, in particular, used to cycle through the same group managers endlessly, with a sacking at one club not necessarily held against them by the next big club with a vacancy.

Now, it feels more punishing: you get one chance to prove yourself, and if you don’t, you’re evidently just not any good, and find yourself slipping further and further down the totem pole.

You look at Ancelotti and Flick, and wonder whether those older dogs really have had their day, or whether they might in fact be able to stay on top of the newer tricks if second chances were more willingly granted.

More importantly for those going for youth in their dugouts: are they sure they’re getting the next Guardiola, or might they end up with a Di Matteo?

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