How European football’s moneyball swung
How do you react to losing Antoine Griezmann, Rodri, Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, Juanfran and Felipe Luis all in one go? For Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, there couldn’t have been an easy way of answering this question.
Losing the core of your squad, that too in a single transfer window like this, can dismantle any top team. But Atletico’s reaction was such that by the time the summer transfer window shut across Europe on Monday night, they emerged one of the biggest winners, managing to assemble a squad arguably stronger than last season, when they were La Liga runners-up.
Atletico have roped in nine players, including highly-rated Portuguese youngster Joao Felix from Benfica. Reinvesting the money from transfer sales straightaway into replacements has meant Atletico are barely feeling any loss from the departures of Griezmann and Co.
Mario Hermoso, Renan Lodi, Felipe and Kieran Trippier have more than made up for the defensive outgoings while Simeone will hope Marcos Llorente’s arrival from Real Madrid will help fill the void left by Rodri in midfield. Replacing French World Cup star Griezmann with Felix could be a lot to expect but it should stand Atletico in good stead given the 19-year-old’s long term potential. Despite spending $138.6 million on Felix alone, the club has ended up making a cool profit of $76.56 million from transfers this window.
“We want to win, win again, and then win some more. It’s not easy to say goodbye to eight players, to bring in eight new players and to continue competing and that’s what we’re doing. But we must stay calm because it’s going to be a long season,” said Simeone after Sunday’s dramatic 3-2 win over Eibar. The arrival of attack-minded players is also infusing flair in the Madrid side.
With three wins out of three this La Liga season, the new-look Atletico have hit the ground running. Whether this can translate into a consistent run to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for the title remains to be seen.
At least in the transfer business, Atletico have outdone Spain’s Big 2. Both Barca and Real had problem areas that needed to be addressed urgently. However, both have underwhelmed.
It became clear last season that Real’s ageing squad, with Ronaldo having left, needed overhaul. The club did bring in defenders Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy, and young forwards Luka Jovic and Rodrygo; but in midfield, there were no signings to support Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
Manager Zinedine Zidane’s chase of French compatriot and Man United star Paul Pogba came to naught, and the club’s poor pre-season results and a slow start—five points from the first three La Liga games—have highlighted how much Los Blancos could do with some midfield reinforcements. The signing of long-term target Eden Hazard should be a major boost—the Belgian star is now injured—though Zidane failed to offload the two big players he didn’t want to keep, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.
Real’s bitter rivals Barcelona did bolster their squad by signing Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong and Griezmann but the failure to land a centre back, given their defensive frailties, will leave Barca with a few weak links.
The transfer saga surrounding Neymar also did little good to the Catalans. The club not only failed to land the Brazilian star from Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), but also reportedly tried to use unsettled Ousmane Dembele as a bargaining chip. They have thus been left with a player they didn’t want to keep while missing out on their prime target.
In Italy, Juventus landed the highly-rated Dutch centre-back Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax, beating a number of other suitors for his signature. The team, spearhead by Cristiano Ronaldo and taken over by Maurizio Sarri, also roped in midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot on free transfers while Gianluigi Buffon, 41, has returned as a back-up goalkeeper. However, the decision to let right-back Joao Cancelo go and bring in Danilo, a bit-part player at Manchester City in the last two seasons, as replacement has surprised many.
Juve also sold highly-rated youngster Moise Kean to Everton, which didn’t impress the Bianconeri faithful. Still, the Serie A champions can count themselves stronger. Napoli, a distant second last season, didn’t quite reduce the gap in terms of squad strength, though signing Mexican winger Hirving Lozano will help improve the team’s attack.
A major worry for Juventus this season could be how sworn enemies Inter Milan have regrouped under new manager Antonio Conte. The former Juve boss signed Godin on a free transfer and added Austrian Valentino Lazaro, likely to play as wing-back. The arrival of Italy internationals Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi has bolstered the midfield.
The club has also made two significant additions in attack. Romelu Lukaku, after a long drawn transfer saga, signed from Manchester United. With only one player getting into double figures for goals last season, the Belgian striker’s arrival should help improve Inter’s conversion rate. Alexis Sanchez arrived on loan, also from Man United, and the Chilean will be desperate to rediscover his form.
These arrivals have allowed Inter to ship out players Conte didn’t want—Ivan Perisic, Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan.
In Germany, champions Bayern Munich had announced the signing of full-backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez as well as young forward Jann-Fiete Arp, before the end of last season. Over the summer, the club signed young midfielder Mickael Cuisance from Borussia Monchengladbach, besides adding Perisic and Philippe Coutinho on loan.
However, considering the club’s Champions League aspirations, it remains to be seen if these transfers will be enough for a team that saw the departures of stalwarts Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund though didn’t do poorly. Lucien Favre’s side added creativity to the attack by signing Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard. Full-back Nico Schulz’s signing, the return of Mats Hummels and Achraf Hakimi’s arrival on loan has helped improve defensive options. The club though lost young defender Abdou Diallo to PSG, who have boosted the squad with an eye on Champions League.
Midfielders Ander Herrera, Pablo Sarabia and Idrissa Gueye are major improvements to the squad and should help in PSG’s quest to improve their European credentials. On deadline day, PSG also signed goalkeeper Keylor Navas from Real and Icardi from Inter, installing themselves as firm favourites to retain the Ligue 1 title.
PSG, most notably, held on to Neymar, though the club will hope its fractious relationship with the Brazilian improves. The importance of retaining a global star can’t be understated.
“When you lose one of your two or three best players in the world, the law in our world is that the following year you lose the other. It is very difficult to have players who make a difference, even when you have a lot of money. When you have them, you must keep them,” former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger told BeIN Sports. He was raising the possibility of Kylian Mbappe too leaving if Neymar had left.
Wenger should know, having lost a slew of key players in succession—Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, among others in his later years at Arsenal.
Like PSG, Tottenham too managed hold on to their best players, especially Christian Eriksen—at least for now—to the relief of manager Mauricio Pochettino.
With the window for buying players already closed in England, there were only a few departures in recent days. Henrikh Mkhitaryan left Arsenal on loan to Roma, which also got Chris Smalling on season-long loan from Manchester United.