Barcelona and Real Madrid may top La Liga, have qualified from their Champions League groups, and remain the top soccer clubs in the world concerning earnings — but it is widely recognized that neither side looks at the top of the game. To continue progressing in Europe’s elite competition, they need to sharpen up — hence Barca’s choice to substitute Ernesto Valverde with Quique Setien this week.
You can always judge how Barcelona and Real Madrid comprehend the relative success of the previous season by having a look at that summer’s dealings in the transfer market. Austerity means there was a decent quantity of silverware won. If they are splashing the cash like shopaholics in the Boxing Day sales, things probably have not gone very well.
That La Liga’s big beasts were Europe’s top spenders in the summer of 2019, every splurging eye-watering amounts on players, is telling. Barcelona shelled out $255 million in transfer fees, while Real Madrid’s cost exceeding $300m.
Eden Hazard was the headline coming, but Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao and 18-year-old wonderkid Rodrygo each controlled fees north of $40m, despite the fact that they were signed with the future in mind, together with the Rodrygo deal agreed as far back as June 2018.
Nevertheless, the new signings have, for the most part, been conspicuous by their absence from the starting XI at the first stages of the year. Coach Zinedine Zidane was particularly loyal to the players that procured three Champions League trophies during his first spell in the Bernabeu dugout.
Returning from his vacations 7kg obese, the Belgian’s pre-season form was bad and he soon picked up an injury. “Innocuous,” El Mundo Deportivo composed the next day.
The new recruits were supposed to inject real competition for places at a trophy-laden but ageing squad. “Regardless of the investment,” composed Marca just a month into the campaign, “a lot of those signings are only substitutes for the old guard. Zidane’s revolution is in danger of getting half-hearted because he did not get what he wanted.”
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s 2018/19 year might have seen them bag a fourth league title in five decades, but a chastening Champions League semi-final defeat to Liverpool supposed that rebuilding was unavoidable. Real Madrid’s European triumphs have earned continental competition the priority in the Camp Nou.
Barça trailed in four of the first five league matches, their seven-point return representing the club’s worst start to a national season in 25 years. In terms of their goalless Champions League draw Borussia Dortmund, to say Barça looked inert makes helium, neon and other noble gases seem busy.
It is true that Griezmann bagged a brace on his home debut in a 5-2 win against Real Betis, which he’s worked hard to rebuild bridges in Catalonia having turned down Barça so publicly in the summer of 2018, but the $120m coming from Atletico Madrid has regularly appeared isolated. Crucial to his adaptation will be the way he dovetails with captain Lionel Messi, who’s considered by some to have preferred Neymar return from PSG instead.
Griezmann has stated that playing Messi was the largest reason why he joined the club, but he would not be the first Barça signing to not adjust to servicing their celebrity. Of the Catalan club 21 signings between 2015 and 2018, just six — Samuel Umtiti, Ousmane Dembele, Nelson Semedo, Arthur, Clement Lenglet and Arturo Vidal — stay at the Camp Nou. Philippe Coutinho lasted just 18 months, and fellow Brazilian Malcolm less than 12.
To their credit, the players have recognized the problem. After the 2-1 win against Villarreal in late September, a dinner was organized by the senior players for the entire group to get to know each other — Griezmann, particularly. In summary, if either club would be to deliver the European victory they crave, Barça’s players should incorporate emotionally while Actual Madrid must do this physically.
Hazard and Griezmann aside, the transport policy of both clubs was notable for the prevalence of under-25s, purchased in the expectation that they will develop into world-class talent in a few seasons.
Frenkie de Jong is currently there. The Ajax academy product, still only 21, is the quintessential Barcelona midfielder: a professional passer who investigates a game’s rhythm. He had been Los Cules’ celebrity in the season’s early phases — indicative perhaps of how low the valley, not how high the mountain, but striking nonetheless. He is a leader, personally apologising to fans for Barça’s bad start, and the ideal inside to play alongside Sergio Busquets and one other in a three-man midfield.
Employed as a consequence substitute, the lightning-fast forward scored twice in his first three La Liga matches and is currently a Blaugrana darling. So significant has he become, Barça have been trying to make sure he is called up to Spain’s Under-21s rather than to the U17 World Cup in Brazil, so he won’t won’t miss a month of this year (born in Guinea-Bissau, he’s only been granted Spanish citizenship).
In Madrid, however, Vinicius Junior is the only recent youthful arrival to be given regular moments. Jovic was the very sought-after under-21 ahead in Europe, but he then began two of Los Blancos’ first 10 matches.
Zidane should pay attention to the performance of his ‘plan B’ against Osasuna in late September. With the midweek tussle sandwiched between large away fixtures at Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, the director gave begins to Militao, Alvaro Odriozola, Federico Valverde, Jovic, and Vinicius, who scored along with replacement Rodrygo in an impressive display. Real Madrid went top of La Liga for the first time in 858 days and shut out their opponents so completely that it was the second consecutive match where they did not concede a single shot on goal.
Compare this record, however short, to that of Barcelona, who went into October with no league clean sheet, and it is obvious who left defensive reinforcements in the summer instead of simply papering over the cracks by purchasing attackers — and it is not who you would have expected.