The rise of the UEFA Youth League: So much more than a teenage Champions League

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The rise of the UEFA Youth League: So much more than a teenage Champions League

The final whistle blew at the Colovray stadium in the Swiss city of Nyon. Players dropped to their knees in a mix of disbelief and overwhelm. The Olympiacos coaching staff, who had been lined up on the touchline arm-in-arm during the final seconds of the game, ran off wildly in different directions.

After a second-half surge — three goals in seven minutes — that seemed to stun opponents AC Milan, Olympiacos were UEFA Youth League champions and only the second Greek side to win a UEFA tournament, after the iconic triumph by the men’s national team at the 2004 European Championship.

Academy football has a complex relationship with winning — it is rarely seen as a condition for player development — but Olympiacos’ celebrations demonstrated how much this meant.

They also captured some of the appeal of the Youth League itself. An under-19s tournament that has been around since 2013-14, it has been a launchpad for players including Ruben Dias, Matthijs de Ligt and Rafael Leao. Initially resembling a 32-team mini Champions League, it has since grown to include 64 clubs every year, and will expand again next season.

At the end of its 10th season — 2020-21 was lost to the COVID-19 pandemic — The Athletic travelled to Switzerland to take a closer look at the Youth League, and get to grips with a few obvious questions: How did the competition come about? What do the clubs think of it? What do players and coaches get out of it? And how has it changed the landscape of youth development in Europe?

Before the Youth League, there was the NextGen Series, the brainchild of television executive Justin Andrews and Mark Warburton, a former lower-league footballer who became a financial trader in London before later returning to the game as a coach.

In the early 2000s, Warburton visited some of Europe’s top club academies (Sporting Lisbon, Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool) in search of insights that might inform his approach to youth development.

He came away with plenty to think about — and one nagging complaint ringing in his ears.

“The consistent message was that there was a problem with the transition from elite youth performer to first-teamer,” Warburton tells The Athletic. “The gulf was too big. The clubs needed something to better prepare their elite-level players. They had to pitch best against best. It was clear that there was a void in the market and it wasn’t being filled.”

Warburton and Andrews saw an opportunity, and began to sound out clubs about the possibility of an annual, Europe-wide youth competition, ideally to be shown on television. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Case in point: Italy. Andrea Stramaccioni, Inter Milan Under-19s coach at the time, remembers the excitement caused by the prospect of regular continental football at youth level.

“This was a period when all the top clubs in Serie A (Italian football’s top division) were discussing whether or not to have a reserve team,” Stramaccioni tells The Athletic. “Everyone followed this (proposal) with interest. People were sure it would represent an evolution and a big, new international platform for our young talents.”

In 2011, aided by backing from then League One (third tier) and now Premier League club Brentford’s owner Matthew Benham, the NextGen Series was born. Sixteen teams from 11 countries took part in the inaugural competition. It was a roaring success with fans, the media and among the participants.

“The feedback was very, very positive,” says Warburton. “The clubs embraced it. It wasn’t just the games. It was the coaches sharing lunches, talking about best practice. I remember the guys from Celtic (of Scotland) going to (Spain’s) Barcelona and saying how much they learned in terms of player preparation, training load and so on. It was two-way learning.”

Stramaccioni’s Inter ran out winners in that first season, beating Ajax of the Netherlands on penalties in the final the following March. By that summer, clubs from all over Europe — “I think there were about 40 of them,” says Warburton — were putting their names forward for inclusion in the 2012-13 tournament.

Inter celebrate winning the inaugural 2011-12 NextGen Series final (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Buoyed by the success, NextGen grew to 24 teams from 13 nations for year two. But just as Warburton and Andrews were plotting further expansion, they felt a change in the tide: UEFA, European football’s ruling body, had its own youth competition in the works.

“We tried to be open and respectful to the governing bodies,” Warburton says. “We visited them and made it very clear what we were doing — that it was all about youth development and would benefit football and the clubs.“

But soon, they lost key clubs, and the competition was eventually shelved for good.

“We’re bitterly disappointed by this,” said Bryan Jones, then the academy director at Aston Villa, who had won that second and final edition of the tournament in an all-English final against Chelsea. “The competition is one of the greatest development tools for young professional players in this country, and it will be lost to us. It’s shameful.”

Ten years on, Warburton is more philosophical. “I still take a lot of pride in what we put forward,” he says. “I just regret not being able to develop the model in the way I know it could have been developed. It was a great shame.”

The UEFA Youth League stepped into the limelight in 2013-14, contested by academy players from the 32 clubs in that season’s Champions League. The format followed that of the senior event, but with single-leg ties in the knockout phase.

The tournament expanded into its current guise two seasons later. Thirty-two teams still mirror the Champions League group stage but 32 further teams — one from each of the top 32 associations on UEFA’s country coefficient system — also compete in the ‘domestic champions path’, with a series of two-leg knockout ties before Christmas. The two sets of clubs eventually — complicatedly — intermingle in the new year, with the semi-finals and finals taking place on neutral turf in Switzerland.

While you could still accuse the competition of being something like a closed shop, given the number of clubs that consistently qualify for the Champions League — this, surely, was the basis for Villa’s anger in 2013 — the inclusion of domestic champions has spread the opportunities around. Olympiacos are its third winners from the domestic champions path, following in the footsteps of the Netherlands’ AZ Alkmaar (in 2022-23) and Red Bull Salzburg of Austria (in 2016-17).



AZ Alkmaar: The club where coaching goes against convention

In fact, the distribution of winners has been pleasingly even thus far, with Chelsea (winners in 2014-15 and 2015-16) and Barcelona (in 2013-14 and 2017-18) the only two-time champions. Twenty-one different clubs have been semi-finalists across 10 editions, including Nantes of France, Croatia’s Hajduk Split and German side Hoffenheim: no one’s idea of European giants.

Spain’s Real Madrid, who seemingly dominate Europe no matter what, are the only ones to have reached the last 16 in every Youth League season.

Chelsea, UEFA Youth League

Chelsea’s 2014-15 Youth League winning squad included Fikayo Tomori (back row, third left), Dominic Solanke (front row, second left) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (front row, centre) (Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)

Thirty-five nations were represented in this season’s Youth League, with debutants including Newcastle from England, Italy’s Lazio and Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir, but also clubs including FK Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Universitatea Craiova (Romania) and Klaipedos (Lithuania). It’s not just a teenage Champions League; they’ve essentially chucked the Europa and Conference Leagues in there for good measure.

This, to be clear, is no bad thing. It means Olympiacos reached Monday’s final having played Lecce (Italy), Gabala (Azerbaijan), Inter Milan, Lens (France), Bayern Munich (Germany) and Nantes — the kind of grand magical mystery tour you rarely see in the European competitions at senior men’s level anymore. Runners-up Milan played a team from each of the other top-five major leagues in Europe, topping a group containing Paris Saint-Germain (France), Newcastle and Borussia Dortmund (Germany) before Braga (Portugal), Real Madrid and Porto (also Portugal) provided three very different tests in their knockout rounds.

Next season, things could get even more esoteric. With the Champions League expanding, there will be 36 teams in that side of the Youth League. The domestic section, meanwhile, is ballooning to include all 55 UEFA member associations, meaning that the champions of San Marino and Gibraltar will qualify.

UEFA has it that over 1,000 players have graduated from the Youth League into senior club and international careers. For academy bosses and coaches at top clubs, it is seen as a valuable developmental opportunity.

Clubs would previously play in small international tournaments but the Youth League provides a more consistent challenge.

Nicky Butt, the former Manchester United and England midfielder, captured it well in 2018, when he was coaching at United’s academy.

“For us, it’s a massive benefit,” Butt said. “I don’t know how you get used to European football without it. When (players of my generation) were growing up, we didn’t have this competition. You just played your local teams and your national teams. Then you went into European football and it hit you.”

Joao Tralhao, who coached Benfica Under-19s in five Youth League campaigns, echoes that view.

“The introduction of the Youth League was an extraordinary boost for us and for Portuguese football,“ Tralhao tells The Athletic. “For all developing clubs in Europe, actually, because it provided a link between the academy and senior football. It is a greater challenge than the domestic leagues. It means that the players are competing at the highest level from September to May. For them, it is a phenomenal step.”

It is not just the elevated level of competition that benefits the players. It is the exposure: to different tactics and styles of football, to European-style refereeing, to the distinct tension of knockout football. Twelve of the 22 knockout games this season, play-off round included, were settled via penalty shootouts. You cannot experience that pressure in friendly matches.

Olympiacos, UEFA Youth League

Olympiacos’ Christos Mouzakitis scores from the penalty spot in Monday’s final (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Then, there are the more intangible factors. Games are broadcast on television. Players have media duties. In the group stage, they follow the same schedule as the Champions League, meaning they are travelling to the same places as their clubs’ senior sides.

Adi Viveash, who coached Chelsea to those back-to-back Youth League titles almost a decade ago, feels this side of the challenge really benefited his players, a group which included Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Andreas Christensen and Dominic Solanke.

“A lot of the time, we were playing in proper stadiums with big crowds, so the pressure was different — a lot more like they would face if they got to the first team,” Viveash tells The Athletic.

“Getting to Nyon, being in those semi-finals, and in the same hotel with four other teams… we were on top of each other and it was intense. Before we played Paris Saint-Germain (in the 2015-16 final), I felt it was a little bit near the edge, with comments being made. But that also helps players to grow. Our players were absolutely ecstatic to win it.“

That friction is not the rule. In fact, others are at pains to stress the extent to which fraternisation is encouraged. Much is made of the so-called “third period”, the time after Youth League matches when opposing teams eat a meal together and — during the group stages — go along that night to watch their respective senior sides play in the Champions League.

“UEFA do this really well,” says Dean Rastrick, former academy head at Tottenham Hotspur. “You had a competitive game but then you would have two or three hours to mix, so there was a real social element to it. Some of the players even stay in touch (with opposition players).”

Many coaches go further, putting on presentations for their counterparts on the eve of games, or inviting them to see club facilities. “You don’t just play the game and go home,” says Rastrick. “It was brilliant for relationship-building with other clubs.”

It is little wonder, then, that the tournament is viewed as a proving ground for young coaches as well as players.

Jordi Vinyals, who led Barcelona to glory in the Youth League’s inaugural season, remains the only head coach to win it over the age of 50. Marco Rose, Garcia Pimienta, Steven Gerrard, Santiago Solari and Patrick Vieira are among those to have moved up to senior football after working in the Youth League, and that list is likely to grow.

“It forced me to be a better coach, to be better prepared,” says Tralhao, who has gone on to be an assistant coach at first-team level with Monaco in France’s Ligue 1 and Antalyaspor of Turkey. “It challenged me to reflect on my methods and improve.”

Viveash, now an assistant coach at Coventry City in the English game’s second-tier Championship, echoes that view. “You learn a lot,” he says. “You’re coming up against some really, really impressive people.”

This variety in the winners of the Youth League is largely a result of generational variation.

It is unrealistic to expect any club to have a top-European-level academy side every season, particularly with the plasticity of age groups. After all, the Youth League is targeting a very specific niche of talent: those who are at the upper echelons of the academy game but have yet to make the jump to senior level. After three appearances in senior UEFA competitions (excluding the qualifying rounds), players become ineligible for the Youth League.

It can be argued that this feeds into unfair assumptions about the linearity of young player development. It also goes some way to explaining why the event’s champions have only also had its Golden Boot winner twice: Munir El Haddadi 10 years ago with Barcelona and Mexx Meerdink last season with AZ. Better players, especially forwards, get moved up to the first-team squad and tend to stay there.

UEFA’s third-tier Conference League, which began in 2021-22, has been a source of minutes for a lot of youngsters and means more clubs are playing a Thursday-Sunday schedule in senior football. That has been the case this season for Olympiacos, whose first team have reached the semi-finals of that competition (they face Villa next month) — the Athens club’s first final-four appearance at European level.

Olympiacos and Milan line up ahead of Monday’s final in Nyon (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

Centre-back Isidoros Koutsidis, who is 19 years old, was on the bench when they beat Fenerbahce on penalties in the quarter-finals last Thursday night. He then flew from Istanbul to Switzerland the following morning to play in the Youth League semi-final against Nantes in Nyon that afternoon. AZ’s Wouter Goes and Izzy Brown of Chelsea have done similar things in past seasons. As admirable as the commitment is, it cannot be optimal for young players physically or mentally.

Those are isolated examples but, logistically, academies can end up suffering from their own success if players become too good for their age-group teams. Look at the squads of sides who have reached the semis or won the tournament and there are fewer current stars than one might expect. Go through the all-time Youth League appearance makers, and even top scorers, and relatively few have (so far) fulfilled the expectations that would have been set for them.

Age groupings have also been offered as an explanation for the struggles of English clubs in recent seasons.

There have been no English sides in the final four of the Youth League since Chelsea were runners-up to Porto in 2018-19, which jars given the recent success of Premier League clubs in the Champions League — six English representatives in the last five finals, including three winners and two all-English finals. That, of course, includes Chelsea in 2020-21, who beat Manchester City with a famous home-grown generation. Kai Havertz’s match-winning goal that night, from Mason Mount’s through ball, was a combination by two Youth League graduates (the former having played in it for Bayer Leverkusen).

There is no under-19s category in English football, meaning its clubs take players from multiple age groups to form their Youth League squads. “A lot of European countries have a team-based philosophy: they think about producing under-17 and under-19 teams,” explains former Tottenham head of academy Rastrick. “We don’t have that culture in England. We were about developing individuals.”

Former Inter Milan Under-19s coach Stramaccioni, now a Serie A TIM commentator for DAZN Italy, calls regular continental games “an evolution” (DAZN Italy)

While three overaged players are permitted in a Youth League squad, de facto English academy rules are that players are out on loan, in the club’s first team or have been sold by that point.

Viveash explains: “If a player is ready to go and play in a first team somewhere, like (now Bournemouth striker Dominic) Solanke was, then you are not going to hold them back to play in the Youth League because, ultimately, a loan could enable them to be back in Chelsea’s first team. The Youth League will prepare them for UEFA tournaments but not so much every game in the Premier League.”

If one of the Youth League’s missions is to bridge the gap between youth and first teams, Olympiacos’ performance in Monday’s final may as well have been ripped from a UEFA textbook.

It was something PSV Eindhoven Under-19s coach Jack Brazil spoke about when reviewing their pe-Christmas group-stage exit to The Athletic: “We felt we had really good footballers but we felt that we weren’t the better team.” Opponents were “just so much more adult than us, and that was a really good thing about European football: we really had to be on it with our tactics and how they were changing”.

Olympiacos coach Sotiris Silaidopoulos’ 3-4-2-1 wing-back system caused Milan problems all game. With Milan’s full-backs having to press the opposition wing-backs, they were left short at the back as the Greek side repeatedly targeted them with direct balls.

Silaidopoulos’ youngsters pressed out of a 3-4-3 shape, stifling Milan’s build-up, and dropped into a 5-3-2 low block when needed. Milan only succeeded with four of 30 crosses in the game, with others frequently nodded away by the imperious Koutsidis.

When they did break Olympiacos down, Milan had to deal with an inspired Antzelo Sina, who made seven saves — including one excellent double stop — to preserve his clean sheet. Silaidopoulos praised the emotional strength of his “rock-solid” group pre-match, and they played in a way which validated his words.

Their first and last goals of the 3-0 win came from getting wing-backs into advanced positions to cross. The second came at the end of a devastating counter-attack — No 10 Antonis Papakanellos dribbling inside then outside and finishing across the goalkeeper.

It was as close to senior-quality football as you could imagine at this level and a fine advert for a competition billed as an opportunity to “see the stars of tomorrow”.

The hit rate on that claim is variable — there are no guarantees in academy football — but the Youth League is here to stay.

Additional reporting: Stuart James and Charlie Eccleshare

(Top photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)