It was a busy transfer window like most for Barcelona as they went big to assemble a squad that can win the Champions League again. The Spanish giants spent €255 million and made €156m through player sales ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Despite the arrival of world-class players such as Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann, the squad does not strike you as a Champions League favourite. In fact, the Catalans spent big in each of the seasons following their last European triumph in the 2014/15 season. But they reached the semi-final just once in four years. They discarded most of the players bought during this term for various reasons, usually at a financial loss.
Of the 23 signings they made prior to the recently concluded window, only seven are still at the club. They spent over €675m on new signings in this period and only players bought for a combined total of €246m are still at Barcelona.
Fichajes Barça desde 2015. Siguen 6. Fuera 15...— Eduardo Fdez-Abascal (@efabascalUK) September 3, 2019
Samuel Umtiti (€25m), Nelson Semedo (€35.7m), Ousmane Dembele (€125m), Arturo Vidal (€18m), Arthur (€31m), Jean-Clair Todibo (€1m) and Clément Lenglet (€35.9m) are the only players who made the Barcelona squad this season.
Among these players, only Lenglet can claim to being an undisputed starter, with Arthur and Dembele closed to being included in that bracket.
Seven players who started the Champions League final four years ago are still starters at Barcelona. This can lead to three explanations for the club’s repeated disappointment in Europe.
The first and rather unlikely theory is that Barcelona’s recruiting was so good before their decline that the treble-winning players are still in excellent touch. That Luis Suarez has been awful in Europe in the last two seasons, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets have exhibited signs of decline in the same period and Jordi Alba has been unreliable in big games completely refutes this.
Another possibility is that the Spanish giants have been poor with their recruitment and splashed their budget around carelessly. Malcom, Paco Alcacer, Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne, Gerard Deulofeu, Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan are examples. Most of these players would be good signings for any other club but are just not cut out for Barcelona.
The Blaugrana also roped in players such as Jeison Murillo and Kevin-Prince Boateng on loan last season, only to present them with a fat pay cheque for negligible involvement on the pitch.
€ spent (@marca):— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) September 3, 2019
La Real 21.25m
The final explanation combines the inability of the player to make the most out of his opportunities and that of the manager to bring the best out of him. Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes and Philippe Coutinho are three players who – given their skill set – should have shone for a team like Barcelona. But Ernesto Valverde could not get the best out of them.
Whether it was fielding them in an unfamiliar position or providing limited playing time, the coach deserves a huge chunk of the blame for the failed transfers.
In conclusion, Barcelona have either not been able to sign players who can compete with the old horses in the squad and knock them off the pecking order or have had their manager stunt the growth of potential world-beaters.
Either way, they are still stuck with the same core of players who have normalised mediocrity in Europe. They don’t need more signings, but a manager bold enough to bench out-of-form senior players and provide more opportunities to the young signings and academy products.
Barca are desperate for Champions League success and Real desire another La Liga crown as the two El Clasico rivals underwent major squad renovations over the summer.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid were forced into changes of their own.
With the Spanish transfer window shut and the summer of whispers now quiet, we grade the business of the top three La Liga sides.
All transfer figures and spends have been collated from transfermarkt.com
REAL MADRID | GRADE = C+ | NET SPEND = €177.5m
Expenditures = €305.5m
Income = €130m
Key Arrivals = Eden Hazard (€100m – Chelsea), Luka Jovic (€60m – Eintracht Frankfurt), Eder Militao (€50m – Porto), Ferland Mendy (€48m – Lyon), Rodrygo (€45m – Santos), Alphonse Areola (Loan fee €2m – PSG)
Key Departures = Mateo Kovacic (€45m – Chelsea), Marcos Llorente (€30m – Atletico Madrid), Raul de Tomas (€20m – Benfica), Theo Hernandez (€20m – AC Milan), Keylor Navas (€15m – PSG)
What they needed to do
The club famed for its Galactico squads crashed to earth last season, and major surgery was required to rebuild their own version of The Six Million Dollar Man.
Zinedine Zidane was convinced of a return by the promise of big departures and even bigger arrivals.
Their midfield had grown stale in 2018/19 with the dwindling creation from Toni Kroos and Luka Modric making that a key area for investment.
Karim Benzema needed genuine competition up front and ultimately a long-term replacement with the same strategy required across the defence.
The club’s pivot away from acquiring the best young players to simply the best players period was the thread Zidane wanted to weave into his new approach. Sales were necessary to balance the books with the Frenchman desperate to offload unwanted assets like Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.
What they got done
Real Madrid’s summer spree was a bit like buying a tailored Zegna suit and then pairing it up with used Reebok Classics.
At eye level, everything looks dashing, but then the whole ensemble was ruined when taken in full view.
For this analogy, attackers Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic provided all the stylish verve of a jacket and tie, while defenders Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy were the shirt and trousers of the operation. It was all coming together nicely.
For the first phase of the transfer window, Real were wheeling out the runway at the Bernabeu virtually every day to parade their dapper acquisitions.
To their credit, all seemed good. Hazard filled the Galatico-shaped hole left by Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, Jovic finally represented genuine competition to Benzema, Militao likewise can challenge Raphael Varane and Mendy replaces Marcelo’s defensive negligence.
Only one piece remained – a creative talent in midfield. Paul Pogba was Zidane’s No1 choice and so we waited. And waited. And waited. It seemed a move for the Manchester United man hinged on the sales of Bale and James, neither left, resulting in Zidane being stuck with two players he categorically didn’t want and without the one man he did.
Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek were both linked, but nothing was concrete and so Real have sashayed into the new season on the same tired feet.
In fact, through the exits of Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos and Mateo Kovacic, they ended up severely weakened in midfield with Zidane one injury away from careering off track.
Strongest 2019/20 line-up
4-3-3 Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Ferland Mendy; Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Luka Modric; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard
ATLETICO MADRID | GRADE = A | NET SPEND = +€69.6m
Expenditures = €243.5m
Income = €313.1m
Key Arrivals = Joao Felix (€126m – Benfica), Marcos Llorente (€30m – Real Madrid), Mario Hermoso (€25m – Espanyol), Kieran Trippier (€22m – Tottenham), Felipe (€20m – Porto), Renan Lodi (€20m – Athletico Paranaense)
Key Departures = Antoine Griezmann (€120m – Barcelona), Lucas Hernandez (€80m – Bayern Munich), Rodri (€70m – Manchester City), Gelson Martins (€30m – Monaco), Luciano Vietto (€7.5m – Sporting), Diego Godin (Free – Inter Milan), Filipe Luis (Free – Flamengo), Juanfran (Free – Sao Paulo)
What they needed to do
As much as six players were ripped out of Atletico’s first XI and it wasn’t just that they were losing bodies, but players who formed a rich part of Diego Simeone’s philosophy.
Essentially, Atleti’s identity was taken away and piecing that back together was always going to be a herculean task.
Indeed, it’s fair to say Simeone had the biggest job on his hands from the trio of Spanish clubs, with virtually his entire defence in bits after Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran all left on a free.
Antoine Griezmann made his desire to leave clear with the sale of Lucas Hernandez was agreed in January, heralding a new and unknown era. Manchester City poaching Rodri left Atleti spineless and it was always going to be impossible to find clones in terms of both playing attributes and mentality.
But one advantage is that Simeone’s brand of football is distinctive, and so effectively Atleti were buying traits to extenuate their philosophy.
What they got done
Despite the massive turnover, Atleti reinvested wisely, bringing in players to fill key positions but also ones that offered something a little bit different.
Of course, Simeone was likely going to stick with his favoured 4-4-2 formation in some guise, which relies on supreme defensive organisation and work-rate throughout the side.
But in smashing their club-record transfer fee to sign Joao Felix, Atleti possess a player of pure flair who operates in between the lines to create and score goals. As opposed to bludgeoning opponents, Felix gives Simeone a feathered dagger and a fresh approach to scoring goals.
There’s a similar thinking with Kieran Trippier, a signing which is peculiar given his defensive deficiencies but makes sense given how high Simeone wants his full-backs this season.
Mario Hermoso has a lot of potential and versatility across the backline, Renan Lodi is an exciting young left-back who relieves Saul of the need to play there and Felipe provides competition at centre-back.
Their buy for midfield is a quintessential Simeone player. Marcos Llorente is a real smart signing, bringing a lot of energy and sharp passing into the middle.
But the signing which makes them one of the biggest winners this summer is Felix, who is already showing that the enormous transfer fee could be justified, something even this humbled author didn’t expect to see.
Strongest 2019/20 line-up
4-4-2: Jan Oblak; Kieran Trippier, Stefan Savic, Jose Gimenez, Renan Lodi; Saul, Marcos Llorente, Thomas Lemar, Koke; Joao Felix, Alvaro Morata
BARCELONA | GRADE = B | NET SPEND = €98.6m
Expenditures = €255m
Income = €156.4m
Key Arrivals = Antoine Griezmann (€120m – Atletico Madrid), Frenkie de Jong (€75m – Ajax), Neto (€26m – Valencia), Junior Firpo (€18m – Real Betis)
Key Departures = Malcom (€40m – Zenit St. Petersburg), Jasper Cillessen (€35m – Valencia), Andre Gomes (€25m – Everton), Paco Alcacer (€21m – Borussia Dortmund), Denis Suarez (€12.9m – Celta Vigo), Philippe Coutinho (Loan fee €8.5m – Bayern Munich), Rafinha (Loan fee €1.5m – Celta Vigo)
What they needed to do
Fresh faces detached from the embarrassing nature of Barca’s last two Champions League exits.
Their ambition is clear and winning Europe’s top honour necessitated for premier players to be signed.
Metronome Sergio Busquets is now entering his physical decline, making more passing errors last season than ever before, and so adding more legs in midfield was crucial, especially given how Liverpool’s greater athleticism railroaded them last season.
Luis Suarez will be 33 in January and there is no other recognised No9 ready to step up and ultimately take his place in the long-term.
While the team is built around Lionel Messi, alleviating the massive creative burden from his shoulders was undoubtedly a significant aim because whenever he’s not in the side, Barca struggle immensely.
Competition at left-back was also another position to recruit for, but otherwise the defence was well stocked. Philippe Coutinho proved to be a massive dud and so moving him off the wage bill was paramount to their ability to bring in big names.
What they got done
Neymar was supposed to be the one left in the shadow as opposed to casting one, but his specter loomed over Barcelona all summer.
In the end, the club never had the funds available to meet PSG’s asking price which was to recoup most of their world-record €220 million outlay.
Having signed Griezmann, it was never realistic they could sign both in the same window without selling off their major assets and with Coutinho only interesting Bayern, and only on loan, that was one man of value a big chunk of cash couldn’t be scraped from.
However, as hard as that is, ignore Neymar and the rest of Barca’s business made a lot of sense.
The deal to take Frenkie de Jong from Ajax was agreed in January and in the Dutchman, Barca have one of the finest young midfield talents in their ranks.
His flexibility to play multiple roles is a bonus but ultimately he will serve as the long-term successor to Busquets, bringing a more athletic personality to the No6 role, as well his signature press-resistant style and pristine progressive passing.
Griezmann at 28 years old is a prime force and given Ousmane Dembele’s struggles in a Barca shirt, having him play off the left and Messi on the right means Ernesto Valverde has plenty of ingenuity going forward.
Junior Firpo is one of the most enterprising full-backs in Europe and is a shrewd capture to support Jordi Alba.
Now, the big negative is not finding an adequate No9. The club scouted Luka Jovic and failed to convince him of a move to Camp Nou and there didn’t seem to be any alternatives.
Griezmann is an awkward fit and so Valverde is left dreadfully short up front, something he’s painfully come to realise now Suarez is already injured.
Strongest 2019/20 line-up
4-3-3: Marc-Andre ter Stegen; Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba; Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique believes the penalty given to Osasuna during their 2-2 draw was not a fair decision to give away.
An entertaining night at Pamplona ended with the spoils being shared after four goals were scored in an exciting contest, including a dream goal for 16-year-old Blaugrana striker Ansu Fati.
However, it was Pique who was at fault for Barcelona, conceding a penalty in the death.
The former Spain international defended his action and claimed that his arm was swung in the natural direction and the penalty was an unfair call.
“I hit it with my hand, but we always have meetings at the start of the season and they talk about distance to the ball,” Pique said, according to Marca. “I didn’t have time [to get out of the way].
“I wasn’t taking up more space than normal with the hand. I was jumping in my natural way. I’d like the referees to try and do it.
“For me, who was in the middle of it, it shouldn’t have been a penalty.”
Despite dropping points in two out of three game so fars, Pique is calm and believes there is time for Barcelona to set things right.
“We’re not worried,” he said. “It’s not the start we wanted, but we know that the league is long.
“The important thing is to get to March or April with a chance of winning the league.
“We’d have liked to have nine points from nine, but we’re having more difficulties than expected.
“It’s important to remain united.”