La Liga starts this weekend, and while the best teams are still the best teams, the dynamic between Real Madrid and Barcelona has officially shifted. Across the two legs of the Spanish Super Cup, Real ran out comfortable winners after adding to their 3-1 victory in Camp Nou with a commanding 2-0 win back at the Bernabéu. During the Lionel Messi era, Barcelona have never looked so vulnerable.
With Neymar now gone and adjusting to his new life in Paris, Barcelona still haven’t spent much of his world-record €222 million fee despite a clear need for replacements. The rest of Europe knows Barcelona need to spend, so clubs have jacked up the prices on their star players with two weeks until the transfer window closes. On top of that, Luis Suárez is now unavailable for around a month after suffering a knee injury against Madrid.
In contrast to those holes, Real’s squad is fully-formed. Coming off back-to-back Champions League trophies (and three in four years), this team is staking a claim for legendary status. Their potential transition beyond the Cristiano Ronaldo era looks promising, too, with talents such as Marco Asensio and Isco breaking out this past year.
Here are the three biggest questions ahead of the new season.
Can Barcelona finally sign the right players?
Paulinho’s arrival from China’s Guangzhou Evergrande for €40 million was arguably as surprising as Neymar’s departure. Last seen in Europe struggling for playing time at Tottenham, the 29-year-old wasn’t supposed to be on anybody’s radar, let alone that of a club with Barcelona’s stature. With the standard of Chinese football still miles behind that of La Liga and the Champions League, it’s impossible to project Paulinho’s recent performance into a top-tier European team. Never mind the quality question, either: It’s unclear how his playing style—he's a strictly central midfielder who has usually featured in a 4-2-3-1—will fit into the 4-3-3 formation Barcelona tend to play.
That said, new manager Ernesto Valverde experimented with a 3-5-2 setup in the second leg against Madrid. The resulting lack of success might mean that we won’t see it again, but that formation might at least create sufficient space for Paulinho to inhabit one of the central midfield slots without necessarily removing Sergio Busquets or Andrés Iniesta.
The Paulinho signing, however, represents a wider malaise: Barcelona’s transfer work in recent years hasn’t been good. Across the past two seasons, really only center back Samuel Umtiti has been an unqualified transfer success; signings in the €15-30 million bracket haven’t hit. Midfielders André Gomes and Arda Turan, fullbacks Aleix Vidal and Lucas Digne, and forward Paco Alcácer all arrived within the past two years, and not one has become a starter. Better is hoped for from their new right back signed from Benfica, Nélson Semedo, who arrives with a solid reputation, but the re-signing of Gerard Deulofeu, a talented former graduate of La Masia who couldn’t nail down a place at Everton before performing well on loan at AC Milan, looked more opportunistic than strategic. Clubs can afford occasional missteps in the transfer market, but when the majority of them don’t work out, it can take years to repair the damage.
The club hasn’t shopped at the top of the market since Suárez arrived in 2014, but they now need to bring in some some fresh talent. Messi is justifiably still the leader of the team. He remains their most reliable and potent attacking force and is irreplaceable, while Suárez has tempered his all-around game willingly during his time in Spain to become the complete goal scorer. However, they are both 30 years old and beyond them other stars are aging too; Iniesta is 33, and so is Javier Mascherano. Gerard Piqué turns 31 in February and even Busquets is now 29. They cannot rely on Messi—or the rest of this core—to power them forever.
Does Real Madrid have ... too much talent?
Not too long ago, any Real Madrid lineup that did not feature Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale would have been considered weakened. Now, it is no longer certain that the team’s best 11 includes all three. Ronaldo remains a phenomenal goal scorer, but his recent five-game suspension is not the disaster it once might have been.
As the schedule piled up toward the back end of last season, Real's reserves began to play a more prominent part—and they thrived. Isco, Marco Asensio, and Lucas Vázquez remain in the squad while, despite contributing significantly, James Rodríguez and Álvaro Morata have departed. Despite already impressive depth, Madrid could still buy. Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé seems to be the object of the club’s desire, but with Neymar-type fees suggested, the 18-year-old might have to spend another year in France.
When it comes to identifying and securing prime talent—particularly Spanish talent—Real have thrived where Barcelona have failed. They have hit far more often than they’ve missed. Isco has been a top attacking option off the bench for four years now, but he had a sparkling season in 2016-17. His 10 league goals and eight assists didn’t quite line up with his underlying numbers, but just under a goal and assist per game is a superb rate.
Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Asensio, who Barcelona passed on as a youngster, has had a stellar few months since scoring in the Champions League final. Goals in the European under-21 tournament kept him in the news, and two equally stunning strikes in each leg of the Super Cup have only increased the hype. This recent knack of scoring great goals in big games has made him the hot ticket in Spanish football right now. Both he and Isco have risen to a level where they can interchange easily with their more decorated teammates.
Even in midfield, Real have enviable depth. Mateo Kovacic could be in the starting lineup for nearly any other team in world football, yet remains a rotational option with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro holding down the first-choice slots. They have also added in Spanish under-21 star Dani Ceballos, signed from Real Betis after being crowned the player of the tournament in the European Under-21 Championship—no mean feat in a team featuring both Asensio and Atlético Madrid’s rising star, Saúl Ñíguez.
Madrid have effectively found the balance between keeping their squad fresh and looking after the world-class talent they already possess. Their wealth and status will always attract talented players, but recently, their squad management has been first-class, too.
Can Barcelona replace Neymar?
Throughout the time that Neymar played alongside Messi and Luis Suárez, the trio racked up huge goal totals. In all competitions during 2014-15, they notched an incredible 122 between them; in 2015-16, they produced even more—131—while in 2016-17 they scored 111, with Neymar comparatively quiet having scored just 20. It’s hard to criticise that, but there were signs that the Brazilian was becoming less enamored with his supporting role. His shooting became more erratic and from wider and less dangerous locations. Nobody scores frequently from the wide fringes of the box, and he was no exception.
Ultimately, his 13 league goals in 2016-17 were well below the 24 and 22 from the two seasons prior. Messi and Suárez continued to link well last year—the 10 goals they created between themselves was the second-most effective combination across the big five leagues in Europe— and they remain the twin attacking focal points of the whole team. The challenge Barcelona now face is to replace Neymar’s contribution and fit a new player into the side. Do they add in a creator to supply Messi and Suárez? Or do they want more goals from a left-sided forward?
Neymar was Messi’s heir apparent, and they will not be able to replace him with equal quality. They can look at potential, however, and here Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé fits the bill. That Messi-Suárez combination ranked second last season because of this 20-year-old and his ability to find striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He would fit a creative role for sure, and as a young player only 12 months out of the French Ligue 1, may defer happily to his seniors in the side. That he is already at this level and even in the conversation for a slot at Barcelona clearly defines how much promise he has already shown in just two full professional seasons. He is a risk taker, though—a dangerous dribbler and aggressive passer—and while a potential game-changing creator, his recruitment would represent yet another move away from the club’s traditional focus on retaining possession and toward direct play.
The other primary choice is Philippe Coutinho. Liverpool’s owners have already expressed extreme reluctance to sell him, but it makes sense that Barcelona might see him as an obvious replacement for his countryman. He hit new heights during the autumn of 2016 prior to an ankle injury in November and until that moment was perhaps the top player in the Premier League. Well capable of scoring from range, he had thrived in manager Jürgen Klopp’s second season and brought the bulk of his shots closer to goal. This made him a more reliable scorer and a combined rate of 0.8 goals and assists per game moved him firmly into elite levels. However, for all their clear quality, it is still hard to envisage that Coutinho or Dembélé are at the level of Neymar, yet each will likely command a premium above what Barcelona deem reasonable.
Regardless of outcome, and whoever steps in, one thing is certain: This summer, Barcelona have simply and unavoidably gotten worse. In contrast, even if Real Madrid have not improved since last season, their wealth of attacking talent suggests that it might not matter.