There is a pattern and rhythm to league seasons which is set pretty early as the relegation battlers and title challengers emerge quickly.
Although there remains a long way to go, the latest international break offers an opportunity to examine proceedings so far.
Central to the narrative are new signings and plenty can be gleaned now we are 1/3 through the 2019/20 campaign.
The big-money signings provide the most intrigue and so we’ve graded the top-10 most expensive acquisitions from the summer window just gone.
1. Joao Felix | Benfica-Atletico Madrid | €126m
A confession before the analysis because this humbled writer singled-out Joao Felix as a potential flop this season.
He’s already proving that is unlikely to be the case. Judgement was based on the astronomical fee rather than the Portuguese’s talent and what’s been showcased so far is that he will serve as the flag bearer for the next generation.
Still only 19, Felix’s touch, vision, technique and blend of freedom plus control has captivated audiences in Spain and beyond.
His impact plays out in the statistics with the teenager leading Diego Simeone’s renovation project by decorating all attacking categories.
Before picking up an injury against Valencia last month, in terms of creation he was the joint most for assists and second for dribbles while he was Atleti’s joint top scorer as well. Further development will come with him breaking his introverted spells within games as he can land on the periphery.
But physically, he already looks stronger than during pre-season and Simeone might be just the man to encase this diamond in granite.
GRADE = A
2. Antoine Griezmann | Atletico Madrid-Barcelona | €120m
It’s funny how narratives can flip so early into a transfer, but swapping out Griezmann for Felix has rejuvenated Atletico while the World Cup winner has struggled at Barcelona.
There have been flashes of his undeniable brilliance, even some of his copy-cat skills after he scored a delightful Lionel Messi-esque goal against Real Betis.
But that Betis display way back in August stands as his best in Blaugrana, and in Ernesto Valverde’s desired 4-3-3 shape, the France international has found himself on the edge of contests, stuck out on the left wing.
The relationship with Luis Suarez has reflected a broken marriage. The communication on the pitch has been disconnected and with Messi returning from injury to dominate the creative space, the former Atletico man has been restricted from his usual roaming capacity.
There can be no faulting his endeavour as he’s brought the Simeone workhorse trait from the Spanish capital, regularly popping up inside his own box to help out defensively.
However, the rigidity of his left-wing role has been a problem and more time is needed for the 28-year-old to settle into his new environment.
GRADE = C-
3. Eden Hazard | Chelsea-Real Madrid | €100m
Hazard reported for Madrid duty after his summer holidays overweight and then a thigh injury before the season began meant he was out of action until September.
He went five games without a goal or an assist with the highly-pressurised Madrid environment already threatening to ignite as fans and the media wondered if the club had just blown €100m.
Welcome to Real Madrid, Eden.
Granted it wasn’t exactly the best introduction and there can be forgiveness for the sense that Real had just unpackaged an empty box instead of the FIFA videogame – qualities we’d come to expect.
It didn’t help that the collective unit struggled to get going, but in recent fixtures, the Belgian has looked much closer to the superstar we saw at Chelsea.
In the Champions League group stage demolition of Galatasaray and in an even more impressive hammering of Eibar last week, Hazard was back to his bewitching best.
His graceful glide past defenders has returned, as too, the sharpness in his passing and delivery.
Hazard is now trending toward better days, but the cold statistics of one goal and two assists in all competitions means that at this juncture, his grading is low.
GRADE = D
4. Harry Maguire | Leicester-Manchester United | €87m
It’s a sign of his stature in the squad that Maguire has already donned the captain’s armband for United this season.
The most expensive defender in history seemed set-up for failure given the gargantuan transfer fee, but stand that pile of cash next Maguire now and it’s dwarfed thanks to his indomitable displays.
His 19 interceptions are the joint most for United in the league this term and considering the dribbled-past statistics was used so glowingly to hallmark Virgil van Dijk, the fact Maguire (two) has fared better in that department bodes well.
United have had their problems this season, but despite maelstrom which surrounds the club, Maguire has been a soothing balm.
Having conceded 54 goals last term, the club’s highest total in the Premier League era, they’ve now restricted sides with 12 goals against them in 12 this season, bettering the mark set by 16 teams in the league.
The problems have largely been at the other end of the pitch, and that’s one area Maguire should be targeting to make more of an impact having missed big chances to score his first goal for United.
GRADE = A-
5. Matthijs de Ligt | Ajax-Juventus | €85.5m
No one should be surprised about De Ligt’s pretty inauspicious start at Juventus. In Italy, defending is entwined with the culture alongside food, art and fashion.
The culture shock for a 20-year-old centre-back thrust into the spotlight following a summer auction should be anticipated.
There have already been laughable headlines labelling the Dutchman a flop, but in the age of yes or no being the only answers, De Ligt sits somewhere in between.
The long-term knee injury to Giorgio Chiellini early in the season has hardly helped his transition and so there is mitigation for his shaky start.
However, there’s no getting away from the early wobbles.
He’s been like the Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Man in the penalty box at times, conceding penalties against Inter and Lecce for handball and getting away with similar offences versus Bologna and Torino.
These incidents point to a player not quite reading the game right, but having scored the winning goal in the Turin derby recently, the confidence gained could see him improve from here.
GRADE = D
6. Lucas Hernandez | Atletico Madrid-Bayern Munich | €80m
The grading will seem harsh considering we’ve only been given a tiny snapshot of Hernandez at Bayern, but predictably given the narrative of his career so far, injury has brutalised his opportunities to impress.
In his six Bundesliga outings, he’s been forced to play most of them at left-back because of an injury to David Alaba. While his versatility means he’s more than adept at the position, the France international was ultimately bought to play centre-back.
There’s simply not been enough time to gauge the success of this €80m transfer.
The former Atletico Madrid star has himself admitted there are contrasts between Spain and Germany which will need some adjustment, noting in an interview with France Football that: “In Spain it’s more technical. In Germany, it’s more tactical and more physical.”
The 23-year-old is undeniably talented and he represents the future of Bayern’s defence. For the moment, don’t expect to see him in action anytime soon after he underwent surgery on his injured ankle last month.
GRADE = D
7. Nicolas Pepe | Lille-Arsenal | €80m
We’re down to number seven on the list and it’s been a mix of the good and the bad. That’s the most succinct way of describing Pepe’s time at Arsenal so far.
There are of course bigger stories surrounding the Gunners but within that is Pepe’s struggles. Acclimating to the Premier League from Ligue 1 always carried a lot risk and so patience was necessary.
As Unai Emery’s control of the club has slipped, so too has his patience for Pepe, though. The Ivorian has been dropped to the bench for Arsenal’s last two Premier League games and being the club’s record buy following a sensational emergence with Lille, that’s a damning indictment of both coach and player.
Two sublime free-kicks against Vitoria in the Europa League and pockets of explosion against Liverpool plus others, are evidence of his quality.
But he’s been a victim of Arsenal’s lost identity going forward, drained of the ability to pounce on counter-attacks or square up defenders.
There’s a sense that while Emery is at the helm, Pepe will continue on the periphery.
GRADE = C-
8. Frenkie de Jong | Ajax-Barcelona | €75m
There’s been some intense debate around the utilisation of De Jong as he’s often found himself stationed in a more advanced position to his one at Ajax, a role which saw him emerge as one of the world’s finest midfielders.
Indeed, the Dutchman wants to be the author of a game, and that usually means scripting play from the No6 slot as opposed to closing off chapters in the final third.
However, the 22-year-old has now fully adjusted to his new responsibilities. In recent matches he’s been absolutely everywhere and has shown practically everything.
Whether it’s his penetrative passing into the forward line, relentless pressing or his own impeccable press resistance when bodies are flung at him, he can do it all and do it all pristinely.
De Jong can rob possession, hide the ball to protect it under pressure, dribble away to find space and can set-up attacks with gorgeous passing.
He and Arthur are forming quite the midfield partnership for Barcelona and this injection of youth and guile can serve the team for many years.
GRADE = A
9. Rodri | Atletico Madrid-Manchester City | €70m
There is always that chat when a player switches to the Premier League from Spain about whether or not they will adapt to the physicality of English football.
No such conversation exists with Rodri, the guy is a giant. The Spain international represents an immediate youthful upgrade on the quality, but aging Fernandinho, and he has immersed himself in the culture of Premier League football.
In comparison to other elite No6s – Chelsea’s Jorginho and Liverpool’s Fabinho – Rodri, according to Wyscout, bests both for pass accuracy (92.73 percent), ball recoveries per 90 (11.9) and aerial duels won (66.84 percent).
Granted the caveat is that their teams demand different qualities from their defensive midfielders, but it does paint a picture of just how good Rodri has been since joining City. But he’s passed the eye test as well as the maths exam, adding height and weight on defensive set-pieces and consistent sharpness on the ball.
His intelligence has seen him used as centre-back cover and there can be no doubt that Rodri has been a great signing for Pep Guardiola’s City.
GRADE = B
10. Romelu Lukaku | Manchester United-Inter Milan | €65m
Think of the strikers draped in black and blue over the years and Lukaku is right among them.
According to Opta, the Belgian became the first Inter player to score at least eight goals in his opening 11 Serie A matches in a debut season for Nerazzurri since Ronaldo in 1997/98.
Lukaku arrived at Inter with huge expectations after the club splashed out for his services, but there are certain guarantees with the striker which make that fee worth it.
The 26-year-old is a natural scorer, the trade has comes easy to him at every location he’s graced and that has been no different in Milan.
The same limitations which made United so keen to cart him off are still there, the wonky touches and the occasional miss. However, there can be no faulting his impact and the partnership with Argentine striker Lautaro Martinez is proving to be one of the most effective in Europe, nevermind Italy.
GRADE = A
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