How do you move on from two of the game’s greatest ever players? In 2019/20 this question plagues both Real Madrid and Barcelona. For Madrid, the answer has included a diversifying of their transfer policy and a concerted investment in youth. Stung by missing out on Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappé, Florentino Pérez has pursued this tactic with the fervour and economic potency uniquely afforded to him by the depth of Real’s coffers. Meanwhile, in Catalonia, Barcelona has taken a different tact – investing in splashy, big-money signings, as they attempt to buoy the final years of Lionel Messi’s career.
An Economic Shift
The 2016/17 season would represent the last time Madrid achieved domestic bliss finishing three points above Barcelona to win the La Liga title. The first year of Zinedine Zidane’s managerial reign would be a historic one, as the club not only snatched domestic honours, but also did the unthinkable in defending their Champions League crown.
Despite the obvious success, in the background, the gears were already turning on a revamp to the club’s transfer strategy. The acquisition of James Rodríguez in the summer of 2014, to the tune of €75-million, would end up representing the most Madrid would spend to acquire a player until the arrival of Eden Hazard this past summer. At this juncture, Cristiano Ronaldo was already 31 years old and Madrid was required to contemplate how they would move on from such a historically gifted performer.
In fact, it was at the start of Madrid’s championship season in which a number of factors coincided to cement the club’s future transfer strategy. The first was the signing of a massive new broadcast licensing deal between the Premier League and its domestic partners. The new contract would see revenues jump an unprecedented 60-percent and bolster the already staggering buying power of the English first division. At the same time, in Spain, the new broadcast licensing structure saw the league negotiate television contracts as a collective for the first time in its history. In the long-term, this would prove to be a boon for the division as a whole, but to football’s two biggest and most in-demand clubs, it represented something of a curtailing of financial independence. What is more, the summer of 2017 saw Mbappé move from AS Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain for an estimated fee of €180-million, thus starving Madrid of another generational talent.
Madrid’s Youth Gambit
The summer of 2017 all but confirmed Madrid’s rebuke of their Galactico strategy of the past. That summer Madrid would make two moves in the transfer market bringing in 19-year-old, Théo Hernández for €24-million and 20-year-old, Dani Ceballos for €16.5-million. In the background, the club promoted Castilla product, Achraf Hakimi and added him to the list of academy loanees such as Martin Ødegaard and Borja Mayoral.
Meanwhile, on the field, the club was noticeably in decline. Domestically Madrid stumbled to 76 points and a third-place finish; to regular La Liga viewers it was clear this was not the same side that had stormed the competition just one year previous.
Nonetheless, for Pérez and his board, the Champions League would end up providing the perfect cover for their broad structural transition. In knockout competitions, the best sides do not always win – by their nature, they require a certain level of both competitive guile and luck. Therefore, despite domestic wobbles, Zidane’s side captured its third-straight Champions League trophy and in so doing, threw a veil over what had been a sub-par campaign – shrouding the personnel pivot.
Nonetheless, Madrid could not hide forever and the 2018/19 campaign kicked the door wide open on what had been percolating in the background. Zidane and Ronaldo departed and in their absence left a vacuum – one so vast no single player, or manager, could hope to occupy. Nevertheless, Pérez doubled down on his strategy and instead of searching out an expensive replacement he brought in 18-year-old Vinícius Jr., 22-year-old Álvaro Odriozola, and two 19-year-olds in the shape of Andrii Lunin and Brahim Díaz. What is more, the club notably promoted Raúl de Tomás, Federico Valverde and Sergio Reguilón from the Castilla.
Practically, the season was a disaster, as the club cycled through two different managers before eventually bringing back Zidane. The final few months of the campaign representing a competitive purgatory, as Real stumbled through their worst season in decades.
Looking back it could be deemed a necessary failure – the club needed to understand the impact of Ronaldo’s departure and the consequence of its transition to a more diversified transfer policy. It was also necessary for helping to bed-in some of the young talent, which has now proven to be integral in the club’s turnaround this season.
This 2019/20 campaign is not over and several competitions still hang in the balance, but Real’s on-field performances, albeit less awe-inspiring than in its last La Liga winning campaign, have been much improved. Unquestionably, the revived form of several key veteran players such as Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Casemiro, has played a substantial role in the club rediscovering its dominance. And yet, Real has been aided by the contribution of young players such as Ferland, Mendy, Valverde, Rodrygo, Éder Militão, and Vinícius. What is more, €100-million signing, Hazard, has only made eight league appearances this season – contributing a single goal.
To put Real’s transfer policy shift into perspective, the club has spent a total of €326-million over the past three windows on players 21 and under – the most expensive signing being the €60-million acquisition of Luka Jovic. This is compounded by the number of highly-rated youngsters Madrid currently has on loan; a list which includes such names as, Hakimi, Ødegaard, Reguilón, Ceballos and Takefusa Kubo.
It’s unlikely all these developing players achieve the quality necessary to play for Real Madrid. However, the club is banking on a handful of them becoming stars and in the process saving them the expense of battling an inflated market to acquire them in their prime.
Barcelona Splashes the Cash
When Neymar signed for Barcelona in 2014, Messi was 26 years old. Even at the time, there was a tacit understanding that the tricky forward was the future of the club – the ultimate successor to arguably the game’s greatest player.
For a time it all seemed to be going to plan, as Barcelona added Luis Suárez for the following season and enjoyed a window of success under manager, Luis Enrique. However, much like for Madrid, the 2016/17 season would prove transitory for Barcelona, who won the Copa del Rey, but faltered in both the league and Champions League. To make matters worse, just as Mbappé’s move to PSG was a catalyst for change in the Spanish capital so too was Neymar’s surprise departure to the French giant in the summer of 2017.
Neymar’s switch threw a spanner in works at Barcelona. Not only did his departure represent a tangible loss on the field, but also, more importantly, it changed the calculus off of it. In a similar situation, Madrid elected to make a sharp turn toward youth – stuffing their cupboards full of as many talented youngsters as they could get their hands on. Barcelona, on the other hand, seemed to panic.
Weighed down by the notion that a team with Messi in it must remain competitive at the highest level, Barcelona reinvested its Neymar earnings – shelling out outrageous sums on Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé. The duo’s contribution during the 2017/18 season was peripheral; they chipped in offensively but were far from living up to the expectations brought about by their inflated price tags. Despite all this, Barcelona won the league at a canter.
Even still, it remained clear that Barcelona had taken a step back. However, unlike Madrid, the Barcelona brain trust failed to see the opportunity being afforded to it by Ernesto Valverde’s domestic success. Broadly speaking fans may not have been happy with the club’s European performance, and rightly so, but running away with a La Liga title, in many ways, obfuscated what were deeper structural issues.
That offseason saw Barcelona take a brief reprieve from exorbitant spending. Intelligently, the club brought in Clément Lenglet from Sevilla, took a chance on Arthur and like him or not, made the useful acquisition of Arturo Vidal. Conversely, Barça also dropped €41-million on Malcolm (a player they would sell the following year at a €1-million loss) and the curious January loan signing of Kevin Prince-Boateng. There were practical moves made in this window, but there is an argument that in this moment, Barcelona did not do enough to plan for the future.
Nevertheless, wallowing deep in its first Ronaldo-less season, Madrid was no match for Barcelona in the league and once again the club strode to victory, but once again leaned heavily on Messi. Meanwhile, the discontent surrounding Valverde’s style compounding. Despite an embarrassing Champions League exit, the current squad had done enough to stem the tide and buy the board more time to formulate a cohesive strategy for the future.
The answer turned out to be more high-profile signings, as Barcelona dropped €125-million and €75-million on Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong respectively. Both these player’s qualities were undeniable but like Dembélé and Coutinho, there was a question as to whether or not they were what Barça truly needed to make its squad more functional.
Fast forward to today and Barcelona, despite having spent a fortune on new players, is out of the Copa del Rey and with four losses, sits three points behind Madrid in the league. On top of this, Valverde has been sacked and Quique Setíen hired on an interim basis. More concerning perhaps, is that the club has not curbed its messidepencia.
Compared to the €326-million spent by Madrid on players 21 and under, Barcelona has spent €203-million, of which 71-percent was allocated to one player – Dembélé. The club has intriguing talents currently on loan, but the breadth and quality of its loan list does not hold a candle to Madrid’s. Predictably, the revolving door of expensive signings has meant La Masia products taking a backseat in terms of playing time. Ansu Fati’s emergence has rightfully excited Barcelona supporters, but outside of the 16-year-old, only one promoted player has managed more than 400 league minutes (Carles Pérez).
Barcelona’s shift is arguably more complicated. The club is not only simultaneously seeking Champions League glory, while pursuing a succession plan for one of football’s preeminent forces, but is attempting to replicate the dominance and the playing style of a historic generation of players. The departure of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Carles Puyol, as well as the slow decline of Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, means turning over nearly an entire XI of era-defining talents.
La Masia has always been a point of pride within the club and among supporters and for good reason. So much did the reputation of La Masia grow during Barcelona’s golden era that Madrid was forced to take note. Now Real has an equally enviable youth production line. That same tinge of jealousy may also have been felt when they missed out on Neymar. The confluence of the two, allied with the changing economic landscape, prejudiced Real’s decision to pursue youth at all costs. Pérez has managed to give Madrid one of the most enviable stables of young players in the world, while keeping costs, relatively, in check.
Meanwhile, in many ways, Barcelona finds itself in the same situation Madrid did a year ago, but for the Catalan’s it seems less purposeful. Since 2016/17 no team in Europe has spent more on players than Barcelona – in fact, Barça has spent over €300-million more than Real in that time. Even with the sale of Neymar, the club has accrued a €324-million transfer balance. Exorbitant spending in the pursuit of recapturing its famous form.