Barcelona and Real Madrid made to regret wasteful spending

By Jon Driscoll l @DriscollFC

We live in a world of waste. From discarded food to fast fashion: if something is worth buying, it’s worth throwing away and replacing. From cars to mobile phones, deals are structured to move you onto the next model, even if the old one works fine. Football clubs are among the worst offenders, the richer ones anyway. Your €100m striker hasn’t scored in a month? Never mind, the transfer window will open again in January.

Can you think of a player who was signed by a big club only to be moved on before you could really say whether he had failed or not? Of course you can. There are hundreds of them. Let me name one and tell you how painful it has been as a Middlesbrough fan watching the club flap around in search of a striker while Cristhian Stuani bangs in goals for Girona.

Increasingly giant clubs have found themselves saddled with unwanted stars on astronomical wages that mean they can’t be shifted, except to a golf course in Gareth Bale’s case. The phenomenon plumbed humiliating new depths with Philippe Coutinho’s devastating late cameo as a substitute for Bayern Munich against Barcelona, the club that wanted him so badly they dogged Liverpool ceaselessly before parting with well over €100m (rising to a whopping €160m!) to get him to the Camp Nou. They got their man eventually, only to realise Ernesto Valverde didn’t know what to do with him. Coutinho is back – for now – and we’ll see if Ronald Koeman can unlock the magic.

Ousmane Dembélé is another case in point. He has been plagued by injury since Barça signed him in panic while on the rebound from Neymar. The French speedster tore a hamstring in his first La Liga start and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that every time he recovers from injury he finds a new coach in charge.

But hey, at least Arda Turan is finally off the wage bill three years after his last appearance.

Barça are not unique. Zinedine Zidane has done a great job for Real Madrid but he has been indulged by the club when it comes to wasting the undoubted talent of big money players. Bale must take his share of the blame for his ridiculous situation but James Rodriguez must have turned up at Everton this summer reflecting what he did so wrong at the Bernebeu. And there is Luka Jović, two La Liga goals in his first year is not a great return on €60m. Of course, privately Zidane might wonder why the club ended up paying so much for a Serbian striker with only one strong goalscoring season on his CV.

Atlético Madrid are also culprits. Diego Simeone has done a great job but he has been indulged by the club when it comes to wasting the undoubted talent of big money players, usually attackers: Raul Jimenez, Alessio Cerci and Jackson Martinez to name three.

Sevilla have generally bought well under sporting director Monchi but they have also sold prolifically. Who doesn’t fondly remember Munas Dabbur and Rony Lopes at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan? In 2016 Sevilla sold Ciro Immobile to Lazio, at a loss, less than a year after buying him. In the four seasons since he has scored 26, 41, 19 and 39 goals.

You might shrug it off. Players come, players go, some signings work, some don’t. But then along came Covid19 and the global pandemic that stole lives, crashed economies and, less importantly, emptied football stadiums. Real Madrid quickly stated they would not be making significant signings with income so uncertain. Barcelona, already saddled with an unmanageable wage bill, were in no position to go the other way. The curious swap of Arthur Melo and Miralem Pjanic is their biggest deal so far.

This has given us the least interesting transfer window I can remember in La Liga. Getafe have brought in some lively attackers; Sevilla and Real Sociedad have replaced departing play-makers with quality but there has been little else to get excited about. Of course the window is open for longer and I can foresee a rash of loan signings to come – but these are austere days in La Liga.

It is a different story elsewhere. Chelsea, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, have swept through a depressed market buying up exciting players. A temporary tweak to Financial Fair Play rules, allowing losses to be spread out over a longer period, has given rich owners leeway to splash the cash. Note also, the Premier League’s more lucrative TV deals which will still pay as long as football is played, even in front of empty seats.

So this season’s La Liga is likely to come down to which coach can use his limited resources the best, breathe new life into players of undeniable talent: these are not the days of Immortals, Dream Teams or Magic Squares.

Will Eden Hazard get fit enough to justify Real Madrid paying what could be up being €150m? 14 La Liga starts in his injury-hit first season was a paltry return. Can Jović add a new dimension to their attack? Is it simply too absurd to speculate about a resurgence for Bale? There are lots of games to fit into a short season, which could well face further disruption. It would be pigheaded of Zidane not to consider using the Welshman at all.

Expectations are low at Barça but Messi, Griezmann, Coutinho, Dembélé, Fati, Puig, Pjanic, De Jong and Busquets can surely be moulded into a midfield and attack to compete with the best. Will Joao Felix be able to thrive in his second season at Atleti? The talent is there for La Liga’s big clubs to shine at home and in Europe. The grim setting for the 2020/21 season might just force them to use it wisely.

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