Barcelona and Real Madrid are spending heavily this summer. But what business have they done so far? And will it pay off?
- Transfer Centre – LIVE!
The Spanish clubs fell below their usual standards last season. Barca’s domestic double was overshadowed by their Champions League capitulation against Liverpool, while Real Madrid’s dreadful campaign saw Zinedine Zidane return to hotseat just 10 months after his departure.
Will the Spanish giants rule Europe again in the new campaign? Could Diego Simeone’s big-spending Atletico Madrid crash the party in La Liga? Nick Wright examines a summer of change in Spain.
Messi, Suarez, Griezmann… and Neymar?
Antoine Griezmann has joined up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at Barcelona, completing a protracted and controversial £108m transfer from Atletico Madrid last week. But could that fearsome front three soon become a frankly terrifying front four?
Neymar is the name on everybody’s lips. It is less than two years since Paris Saint-Germain sensationally triggered the Brazilian’s £200m release clause to take him to the Parc des Princes, but he is far from happy in the French capital and rumours of a return to Catalonia are intensifying. Neymar confirmed his intention to leave after talks with PSG’s sporting director Leonardo on Monday, Sky Sports News understands.
PSG certainly appear to have run out of patience. Neymar has scored 51 goals in 58 games for them, but his time in Paris has been interrupted by injuries and the club were forced to open disciplinary proceedings against him last week after he failed to report for pre-season training, despite sitting out Brazil’s Copa America triumph with an ankle injury.
The Ligue 1 club’s sporting director Leonardo has confirmed he can leave for the right price, and Barcelona are the bookmakers’ favourites for his signature. Neymar has not publicly confirmed his desire to rejoin them, but he added fuel to the fire by naming their 6-1 win over his current club in 2017 as his “best feeling in football” in an interview over the weekend.
It would be a complex deal to pull off – both in terms of the bad blood that lingers from his departure in 2017 and in terms of the finances involved.
Barcelona have already spent £65m on Frenkie de Jong and £23m on goalkeeper Neto in addition to the £108m on Griezmann this summer. Andre Gomes, Jasper Cillessen and Denis Suarez have been sold for a combined total of over £60m, but Barca would have to raise more cash to fund a move for Neymar, with Philippe Coutinho a potential candidate to be sacrificed.
- ‘Barca’s mixed messages on Coutinho’
- Neymar tells PSG he wants to leave
There are sure to be more twists and turns in the weeks ahead, but Neymar’s return to the Camp Nou is no longer the unthinkable prospect it might have seemed in 2017. If Barcelona are able to put a tempting enough offer to PSG – then it seems he is there for the taking.
Barcelona: The new Galacticos?
A front four of Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Neymar evokes memories of Real Madrid’s Galactico era, when they squeezed a succession of the world’s most celebrated attacking players – from Zidane and Ronaldo to Luis Figo and David Beckham – into the same star-studded line-up.
Barcelona’s reincarnation of that approach is certainly a tantalising prospect, but as with Madrid’s Galacticos all those years ago, it would present major challenges as well as possibilities.
That’s because no amount of attacking talent can ensure a team actually functions as a team. Madrid’s Galactico policy was initially successful, with two La Liga title wins coming either side of Champions League glory in 2002, but that success was followed by three trophyless seasons.
The attacking emphasis made for thrilling viewing, but the imbalance ultimately proved the project’s undoing. Now, at a time when Europe’s strongest teams are defined by their systems and collective strength, the worry is it would be even more difficult for Barcelona to make a mantra of all-out-attack work at the very highest level.
Because that is what such a strike-force would entail. Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Neymar possess stratospheric levels of talent, but will they track back and help their midfield? Will they drop deep to defend a lead? Will they lead the press like Liverpool and Manchester City’s forwards?
Claude Puel may not be fondly remembered by Leicester and Southampton supporters, but the Frenchman made some astute points on this subject when asked about the direction in which football is heading in a recent interview with El País.
“What we have seen with Ajax, Liverpool and City is the prevalence of a certain physicality,” he said. “All the teams [in the Champions League] have technical quality, but the ones who win are the ones capable of maintaining constant pressure, of making repeated runs, of playing at full speed.
- Are Neymar and Pogba sound investments?
“This doesn’t mean that you need athletes or strong and tall players in your squad. What has changed is the nature of training. It’s more intense, it’s faster, it’s more focused on transitions and on defending in the opposition’s half. We see it at City: David Silva, Bernardo Silva, (Kevin) De Bruyne… A few years ago, they were not physical, hard-working players. But now, they are players who don’t stop moving.
“Barcelona’s problem is that in the big games we see two or three footballers who don’t defend. Under Guardiola, [Barcelona’s] forwards made effort to win back possession high up the pitch – like City do now – but now Messi and Suarez don’t go back so they defend with only eight or nine players.
“When a team drops back to defend in a low block, it has to be with all 11 players. You can’t do it with only eight. That approach is okay in La Liga, but against top teams who play at a high tempo, it’s problematic.”
Puel used Barcelona’s Champions League exit against Liverpool as an example. Jurgen Klopp’s team were actually the superior side in the first leg as well as the second, he argued, but while Messi’s individual brilliance saved Barcelona at the Nou Camp, their tactical and defensive shortcomings were simply too great at Anfield.
Throw Griezmann and Neymar into the same team as Messi and Suarez, then, and while it would be a mouth-watering prospect, there is a considerable risk those extremes may become even more pronounced.
Hazard leads Real Madrid overhaul
Over at Real Madrid, a major overhaul is underway following a wretched season which included a third-placed La Liga finish and a last-16 Champions League exit. Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari came and went, but even Zidane was unable to stop the rot following his return in March. A dismal run of three defeats from their final four games underlined the need for change.
Florentino Perez has responded emphatically. Eden Hazard is the headline arrival, of course, completing his move from Chelsea for a fee which could rise to a record-breaking total of £130m. The Belgium international is charged with filling the Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped void in Madrid’s attack, but the goalscoring burden will not fall to him alone.
Before the Hazard deal there was a £52.4m move to sign Luka Jovic following his 25-goal season with Eintracht Frankfurt, and since then they have also paid £40m for the 18-year-old Brazilian wonderkid Rodrygo, who has joined from Santos.
The spending does not stop there, with left-back Ferland Mendy arriving from Lyon for around £44m as a long-term successor for Marcelo, and centre-back Eder Militao joining for roughly the same amount from Porto in a deal which was confirmed soon after Zidane’s return to the club.
- Transfer ins and outs
The new recruits have an average age of 22 and are intended to freshen up an aging squad which contains six players over 30 and another – Toni Kroos – who will reach that age in January.
Madrid have not yet been able to shift Gareth Bale, who seems determined to stay despite his recent struggles in Spain, but they have succeeded in trimming their squad elsewhere, recouping more than £100m on the sales of Marcos Llorente to Ateltico Madrid, Mateo Kovacic to Chelsea, Theo Hernandez to AC Milan and Raul de Tomas to Benfica.
The question now is who else will arrive at the Bernabeu before the deadline. Paul Pogba is the focus of intense speculation, with agent Mina Raiola reiterating his client’s desire to leave Manchester United earlier this month. Zidane is known to be a big admirer of the France midfielder, but United will not let him go cheaply.
That deal could therefore depend on other sales. Arsenal and Tottenham are vying for the signature of Spain U21 international Dani Ceballos, according to Sky Sports News, while Isco, Lucas Vasquez and James Rodriguez, the latter of whom has returned from his loan spell at Bayern Munich, have also been linked with moves away from the club.
Regardless of who else comes and goes, Zidane faces a huge challenge to usher in a new era of success. Even for someone with a CV as decorated as his, patience is likely to be at a premium at the Bernabeu.
Atletico also on the attack
Elsewhere in Spain, Atletico Madrid are following Real and Barcelona’s lead with a spending spree of their own.
They remain furious at Barca’s deal for Griezmann, insisting they are owed £180m rather than £108m, but in addition to that sale they have already allowed Rodri and Lucas Hernandez to join Manchester City and Bayern Munich for a combined total of over £120m.
Diego Godin has moved to Inter Milan on a free transfer, with Juanfran, another veteran of Simeone’s defence, also reaching the end of his contract, but they have generated further funds from the sales of Luciano Vietto to Sporting Lisbon (£6.7m) and Gelson Martins to Monaco (£19.6m).
It’s little wonder, then, that there have been some expensive arrivals. Most notably, there was the massive £113m deal to sign Joao Felix from Benfica. The 19-year-old is regarded as one of the brightest young talents in European football and joins Alvaro Morata, who has completed a permanent £58m move from Chelsea, in Atletico’s attack.
The previously mentioned Marcos Llorente has arrived from Real as a replacement for Rodri, while there have also been deals for defenders Felipe (£18m) and Renan Lodi (£22.4m) from Porto and Athletico Paranaense respectively, while forward Ivan Saponjic has joined from Benfica for £6.3m.
Mexico midfielder Hector Herrera has joined on a free transfer and is joined at the Wanda Metropolitano by his countryman Nico Ibanez, who has arrived from Atletico San Luis for an undisclosed fee. Herrera and Ibanez take the total number of signings to eight so far and there could be more to come, with Atletico reportedly eager to sign James Rodriguez.