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What Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Transfer Dealings Mean for the La Liga Title Race

Madrid’s summer makeover might not be completely to Coach Zinedine Zidane’s liking, though there’s still time before the transfer window closes. Barcelona, meanwhile, have fine-tuned their squad with two marquee signings.  

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Replacing one of the two best players in the world is difficult, even more so when you don’t even bother to try. Last year, Real Madrid sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus for $117 million and barely reinvested that money back into their squad. Somehow, the prevailing wisdom at the club was that they could withstand the loss of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner—as it turns out, they were wrong. Real Madrid finished third in La Liga last season—19 points behind champions Barcelona and eight points behind second-place Atlético Madrid—and exited the Champions League in the round of 16. They went through three managers: Julen Lopetegui, followed by Santiago Solari, and finally Zinedine Zidane, who returned as Real Madrid’s coach in March after abruptly resigning at the end of the 2017-18 season. The upheaval on the coaching staff and a disappointing season underscore how much Real Madrid misjudged the impact of Ronaldo’s loss, and they’ve spent this summer trying to rectify that mistake.

Barcelona, meanwhile, harbor no such illusions about the importance of their superstar, Lionel Messi. They’ve won two league championships in a row—and four of the last five—and the idea that any player could somehow replace Messi is treated as sacrilege at the Camp Nou. Barcelona will rely on the 32-year-old as long as he’s physically capable. Messi, increasingly, is asked to paper over the cracks in Barcelona’s aging squad. It’s worked in La Liga, but he’s been unable to prevent Barcelona’s spectacular meltdowns in the Champions League the last two seasons. Barcelona have tried to correct course by adding a dynamic young star in Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong from Ajax, as well as a superstar in his prime in Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have each made significant changes to their squad heading into this season—Barcelona opens against Athletic Bilbao on Friday; Real Madrid plays Celta Vigo Saturday—and there’s more potential changes coming before Spain’s transfer window closes on September 2 (including the prospect of Neymar’s return to La Liga via a surprise move to Barcelona or, possibly, to Real Madrid).

Let’s start with Real Madrid’s makeover. The attacking chart below shows the differences between their team from the 2017-18 season (marked in red)—the last with Ronaldo—and last season’s team (marked in blue). As you can see, last year’s unit was simply worse at everything.

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Real Madrid took fewer shots of every kind in 2018-19 compared to 2017-18: fewer clear shots (shots taken without a defender between the attacking player and the goal), fewer counterattacking shots, and fewer shots generated from a high press. They also took worse shots, as their expected goals per shot declined as well.

To fix the problem Real Madrid has spent $348 million on players during the transfer window so far (which was offset by $131 million in sales). The biggest-ticket item was Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s 28-year-old winger, though he doesn’t necessarily solve their main problem. Hazard excels on the wing by moving the ball up the field and setting others up to score.

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His impressive goal-scoring record is largely a result of the amount of penalties he takes, rather than his ability to create chances.

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Hazard is the kind of world-class player Real Madrid need—and Zidane has long been an admirer of the Belgian—but they’re looking to another big-money signing to provide the goals. Luka Jovic, the 21-year-old Serbian, arrives from Eintracht Frankfurt for $68.4 million. He’s a pure striker and a shot-getting monster—he’s good with his head and both feet, and he’s built to pop up in the box and slam goals home.

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But Zidane’s job is more complicated than it was during his last full season in charge, when he succeeded in large part by simply putting his best players on the field and getting out of the way.

It remains to be seen whether Jovic and Real Madrid’s longtime no. 9 Karim Benzema can play together, especially with Hazard needing integration into the team. Hazard’s preferred position is on the left wing, which has displaced Madrid’s lone bright spot from last season, 19-year-old Vinícius Júnior, who moved to the right side during the preseason. And there’s Gareth Bale, who Zidane is trying desperately to ghost, despite Real Madrid owner Florentino Pérez’s seeming insistence on keeping the Welsh winger around.

In defense, left back Ferland Mendy and center back Éder Militão each arrived for fees north of $50 million. A summer spent chasing Paul Pogba hasn’t landed the Manchester United midfielder (at least not yet), but Real Madid have shipped out promising young midfielders like Dani Ceballos to Arsenal on loan and Marcos Llorente to Atlético, while making Mateo Kovacic’s move to Chelsea permanent. If a deal for a midfielder doesn’t materialize before the transfer window closes—Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen has long been rumored, and Ajax’s Donny van de Beek has also been linked—Real Madrid will find themselves shorthanded and relying on stalwarts Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos.

It’s never a good idea to read too much into preseason matches, but throughout the summer slate of preseason tours, Zidane has been mixing and matching and changing formations at every opportunity. He’s gone from one striker to two, played flat midfields and trios, and even switched between a back three and a back four as he gets the feel for his new players. He has to figure out which of his megastars fit where and how to get the best out of everybody if Real Madrid are to capitalize on their serious outlay of money.

Barcelona is focused on fine-tuning their sputtering squad with a couple of marquee signings. They haven’t found a replacement for Andrés Iniesta and Neymar even though they have spent big to bring in Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé to fill those voids in the last two years.

The midfield has become more functional with Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and often Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto combining to lock it down while Messi does the creating. Barcelona went from a swashbuckling front three to relying on Messi to relentlessly swing the ball wide to the fullback. The below chart maps every single pass Messi played to left back Jordi Alba last season.

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Two players have been brought in to fix that. At Atlético Madrid, Griezmann was the do-it-all attacker on Diego Simeone’s extremely defensive team, and now he’ll be free to be part of a more dynamic, aggressive attack. His ability to play on either wing next to Luis Suárez and Messi, or to spell Suárez as the central striker, is appealing, and the hope is that he’ll be able to jell better than Dembélé. Also, as Messi and Suárez age and press less from the front, Griezmann’s willingness to sacrifice on the defensive side of the ball will be crucial. As the defensive heat map below shows, he worked his tail off without the ball, pressuring opponents all over the field.

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The more important signing for Barcelona, however, might be midfielder de Jong, who led Ajax to a shocking run to the Champions League semifinals last season. He’s a prime example of what a modern, dynamic midfielder looks like: an athletic freak who’s able to cover immense ground in midfield, but whose athleticism is secondary to his ability on the ball. The 22-year-old should be the perfect antidote to a Barcelona midfield that’s gotten old and stale.

De Jong combines two things at an absolutely elite level. He’s monstrously good at winning the ball back from opponents (and, in fact, played center back at Ajax early in his career), and supremely skilled at advancing the ball up the field either by himself or with his range of passing.

While it’s hard to see how Real Madrid’s talent might mesh together, de Jong’s fit at Barcelona is crystal clear. He’ll slot right into the midfield three with Busquets and either Rakitic, Arthur, Vidal, or Roberto. Rather than keying in on Busquets, 31, to stop his passing, opposing teams will have to stop de Jong from moving the ball forward, thus making Busquets’s life blissfully simpler. Similarly, de Jong will cover for Busquets’s declining range defensively, while also being able to get forward himself.

If it all works, de Jong will allow Messi to leave the ball progression to the midfielders. That’s a lot to pin on the shoulders of a player who is entering his first season of competition at an elite level, but after last season’s Champions League run, it’s hard to believe he won’t be up to the task.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona began quietly preparing for the future by purchasing a couple of young fullbacks. Formerly of Real Betis, 22-year-old Júnior Firpo fits the profile of a young but accomplished player whom Barcelona needs to target, especially as Alba hits the wrong side of 30.

It’s a brave new world in La Liga. The days of Messi and Ronaldo are truly gone, and this season will define what the next chapter looks like. Expect Atlético Madrid, fresh off their own makeover, to contend alongside the two Spanish giants. Possibly no team in Europe experienced as much player turnover as Atlético: Griezmann, Rodri (Manchester City), Lucas Hernández (Bayern Munich), and Diego Godín (Inter Milan) are among those who left and were replaced by young Portugese star João Félix, among many others.

Ultimately the season will be defined by how well Zidane can integrate all his new pieces at Madrid, how well Griezmann and de Jong can fill in the holes at Barcelona, and if a new-look Atlético can step into the gap should either falter. Even as the top three look likely retain their places atop the league, how they do it will likely be different than ever before.