The 2019-20 La Liga season kicks off this weekend and much of the attention will be on the top three teams fighting it out for the title. Graham Hunter gets you ready for the new campaign with a look at how their offseasons unfolded.
Atletico Madrid have won the summer, hands down.
Diego Simeone’s team having sold over €300 million of talent and brought in over €240m of young, hungry replacements (to date) means that even if either of their La Liga arms race rivals managed to land Neymar before the window closes on Sept. 2, Barcelona sheepishly pick up the silver medal, with Real Madrid not only third (where they finished the last two La Liga campaigns) but frantically trying to convince everyone that bronze looks awfully similar to gold.
If only there were a trophy to show for it. The transfer-related tag of “Summer Champions” signifies about as much as the increasingly heard but slightly risible tag of “Winter Champions” for those who sit top of the table when the Christmas break arrives.
Nevertheless: a job well begun is a job half done, right? So let’s give more than just kudos and a patronising pat on the back to Atleti. They faced what looked like a horrendous challenge, haemorrhaging a mix of experience, winning mentality, club legends and two superb young bucks in Rodri and Lucas Hernandez. Yet their judgement, efficacy of market management, speed of work, ability to spot the revelation of this transfer window (or indeed many previous), Joao Felix, and their net spend of around €8m — if you factor in the €60m arrival of Rodrigo from Valencia — suggests that Atleti have spat in the eye of adversity.
Whether it wins them La Liga remains to be seen, but a summer that could have left them fighting an uphill battle now sees them muscular, nimble and potentially able to punch above their weight. This season in Spain is going to be exciting, a real smackdown between the three giants of La Liga — Barca, Real and Atletico — so here are some talking points.
Will Joao Felix be La Liga’s star?
Felix is only 19, still rather slender and will find it testing to work with Atletico manager Diego Simeone and coaches Mono Burgos and Oscar Ortega. Felix is a La Liga debutant with initiation songs to sing, pranks to put up with and image-management by the club imposed on him so that expectations are dampened after his €126m arrival.
Instead, this is a kid blessed with such extraordinary talent, such chutzpah, acceleration, positional wit and an exceptional eye for goal that his Atleti teammates are already instinctively looking for him whenever they have the ball. Every single player in that squad has taken one look and said: “We have signed a diamond — let’s get him on the ball.”
If the composer George Frideric Handel were still alive, Atleti would be commissioning him to compose a second Hallelujah chorus. They have found their Messiah.
No matter his talent, a player of Felix’s age, carrying such a weight of expectation and responsibility, will encounter bumps along the road in his first complete season in La Liga. That said, the move remains extraordinary for a number of reasons. With Madrid and Barcelona involved in what is both an unseemly and, arguably, unnecessary squabble for Neymar’s grossly expensive services, don’t they both look stupid for missing the chance to purchase Felix? The answer is a resounding “YES!”
Moreover, Atleti somehow managed to agree with Benfica, the player and his agent, Jorge Mendes, a payment plan where they only have to splash out in the region of €40m (down payment, agent payment, sell-on payment to Porto where he originated) before the rest is paid over the course of his contract. If Felix performs well enough to help Atleti reach at least the Champions League semifinals, the forward could earn the his new club the entire remainder of the fee within nine months. That. Is. Utterly. Astonishing. Business.
Can Atletico’s other new arrivals replace those who left?
Losing Rodri (€70m to Manchester City) and Lucas (€80m to Bayern Munich) are blows Atletico would have wanted to avoid, but the club have long known they would need replacing at some point.
At the back, even though Diego Godin – who left for Inter this summer — was bedevilled by errors last season, it’s worth waiting to evaluate the loss of his personality and “win at any cost” attitude. But for Atleti to add the tall, tough Felipe from Porto, as well as the talented Mario Hermoso, for €30m less than Bayern were forced to pay for Lucas, is spectacular.
Kieran Trippier’s move from Tottenham came out of the blue but while he might not be as attentive to details and defensive concentration as Simeone likes, his attitude and crossing ability should give A+ service to what should be a thrilling Atleti front line.
None of Renan Lodi, Hector Herrera or Ivan Saponjic make you fret for Atleti’s investments, while Marcos Llorente, signed from hated rivals Real Madrid, is a fine facsimile of Rodri. They aren’t identically talented but Llorente was under-priced at €30m, brims with energy, industry and athleticism, is a superb professional and looks ready to make Atleti’s central midfield punishingly hard-working.
Then there’s the “other Rodri,” Rodrigo Moreno. If Atleti wrap up a €60m move for this athletic, relentlessly team-minded striker, who has been playing winning international football with Koke and Alvaro Morata since they were all kids, it’s the icing on the cake.
Atletico have had one hell of a summer. But it’s not over yet. Spain’s transfer market closes on Sept. 2 and there’s still time for huge change, though they are already looking in better shape than their rivals.
The fact that several key veterans chose to leave at the end of their contracts had threatened disaster, but it can now be construed as advantageous. Madrid and Barca are replete with players on high wages they’d like to ship out but who are refusing to budge. Not Atleti.
Has Real Madrid’s spending addressed their needs?
Atleti’s rapier-like approach to business contrasts starkly with Real Madrid’s blunderbuss style. Yes, they’ve splashed out (at the time of writing) €305.5m (gross, not net) and there’s quite a lot of “rock ‘n roll” glitz to boast about with the likes of Eden Hazard. But have they specifically reinforced the things which went awry last season? Have they done what coach Zinedine Zidane wanted this summer?
In short, no. And an utterly horrific 7-3 thrashing imposed on Zidane’s team by Atletico at the ICC tournament in July, suggests that Real might not even be favourites in their own city, let alone for the La Liga title.
Left-back Ferland Mendy was indeed a Zizou choice, and has sparked Marcelo‘s competitive instincts, but at €48m it’s not good that Mendy already out with a thigh injury. Centre-back Eder Militao may turn out to be an ideal buy, but Zidane has been flitting uncertainly between four at the back and a 5-3-2/3-5-2 system, so we’ll see how quickly the €50m 21-year-old (a €40m+ profit for Porto just 12 months after buying him) can bring security at the back.
Rodrygo and Kubo (an 18-year-old Japanese starlet who was initially part of FC Barcelona’s academy until their FIFA ban was imposed) ooze promise, thrills and a sprinkling of the magic dust of international marketing allure, yet will struggle to make a real impact until they gain a bit more experience.
Hazard adds the pedigree — unquestionably a talent of gargantuan proportions — but why on earth did the €100m winger turn up for work at his new club, one which is in turmoil, in the kind of preseason shape which would have been acceptable in, say, 1978? It’s not Madrid’s fault but it’s certainly emblematic of dipping standards.
And finally, €60m striker Luka Jovic will score goals but looks well short of having the build up play and savvy which Madrid will need against the elite group of Liga and European clubs they measure themselves against. He’s that mythical breed of striker who “only” scores goals. An odd, expensive signing.
The players who have arrived all add their own parts of youth, athleticism, hunger and energy — valuable commodities in what was a moribund Madrid squad last season — but there are still more weaknesses in the business which club president Florentino Perez and his right hand man, Jose Angel Sanchez, have managed to conduct since May.
Gareth Bale, with the Premier League and Chinese transfer markets now closed, has stayed put — despite Zidane admitting in public that “it would be best” if the Welshman left — and is likely to stay unless PSG accept him in part exchange for Neymar or he’s sent out on loan.
Thus far, there has been no move for Man United midfielder Paul Pogba either. Whether the controversial World Cup winner is or isn’t the cure for Los Blancos’ midfield ills, Zidane is wedded to the idea of buying him and has been infuriated by Perez’s failure to secure that deal.
If Neymar arrives, it will be like salt in the wound. Thus far, Real’s best midfield options look like being composed of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, which although still full of class, is bemusing. Slow, sometimes disinterested, porous, unable to control possession, lacking athleticism and physicality all last season it’s remarkable that (attempts to sign Pogba aside) no corrective action has been taken to strengthen the midfield.
Will Barcelona be distracted by Neymar pursuit?
Judging them by their own, well-publicised objectives for the close-season, Barca could award themselves a complacent pat on the back, a glass of cava, exchange mutually appreciative smiles amongst their football-executives — and then their rivals could laugh up their sleeves at the Camp Nou finances.
Barcelona’s self-set tasksheet was: add competition at left-back, augment possession-control and passing in midfield and then, a year late, add French flair up front. Junior Firpo, Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann (was there really any doubt where he was going?) tick those boxes.
Throw in some measurable progress from their young talents (Jean-Clair Todibo, Carles Alena, Ricki Puig and Carles Perez) and the outward signs are decent. However, even with the departures of Malcom, Andre Gomes, Marc Cucurella and Denis Suarez, Barcelona need to sell … and profitably.
Rafinha, Philippe Coutinho and Juan Miranda must be calculating how long it’ll take them to unpack their training ground lockers, while if the right price were offered for Arturo Vidal then the Camp Nou bean-counters would produce their abacuses in Olympic time.
The club has vastly strained its financial muscle for three reasons. 1) expensive contract extensions; 2) investment in the Camp Nou renovation project; 3) President Josep Maria Bartomeu’s public promise that his parting gift (before summer 2021, which is the latest there can be elections to determine his successor) will be another lengthening of Lionel Messi‘s contract.
Messi craves Champions League victories, not because Cristiano Ronaldo has more of them but because he’s a natural-born competitor, who has also suffered a series of brutal European disappointments in recent years at the hands of Atletico, Juventus, Roma and Liverpool.
If Bartomeu wants “Team Messi” to look indulgently on the opening of contract negotiations, he’ll do well to re-patriate Neymar. Messi, whether you concur or not, believes that his Brazilian pal will add incisor teeth to Barca’s European bite (Luis Suarez hasn’t scored a Champions League goal away from home for nearly four years and only hit the net five times in the last 29 UCL matches).
However as long as PSG keep insisting on cash only for Neymar, whether that sum is €120m or €220m, Barcelona can’t afford to buy him back. I believe it’s that simple. Nor, it seems increasingly clear, can they persuade Ivan Rakitic or his Sevilla-born wife, that the footballing life (and climate) is anything but worse any further north than Barcelona. PSG want the Croatian, but like Bale at Madrid, he’s not keen to depart.
All of which leaves both Barcelona and Madrid desperately thrashing around for a means to secure a Brazilian they can’t afford, didn’t budget for and who’ll also cost them dearly in terms of existing playing staff (Vinicius Jr., Isco, Karim Benzema and Rodrygo at Real; Ousmane Dembele and Coutinho at Barca) who’d be required to drop to the bench or leave altogether.
Meanwhile, over at Atletico, Felix may still only hint at the potential to reproduce what Neymar has achieved in his career, but the Portuguese is impressing with a new cadre of athletic and hungry teammates around him.
Atleti win the summer. Now, can they add the La Liga title?
Hold tight, this battle has the potential to be immensely entertaining, explosive, and potentially embarrassing for some.