Four years ago, La Liga’s trio of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid were firmly on top of the football landscape.
Real Madrid had just won their 2nd of what would be four Champions League trophies in a five-year span over city rivals and fellow La Liga opponents Atletico Madrid. Despite falling to Atletico in the quarterfinals, Barcelona marginally won the La Liga title that season, tallying a phenomenal 91 points—just one above Real and three above Atletico.
Furthermore, Sevilla defeated Liverpool in the Europa League final that season. Spain’s giants had never been stronger, and any threat from teams from other leagues seemed petty, at best.
On the other hand, the outlook in England was much less promising.
Manchester United failed to make it out of the group stage of the Champions League, while Arsenal and Chelsea were thoroughly battered by Barcelona and PSG, respectively, in the round of 16. Manchester City did well to reach the semifinals, but their struggles that season were highlighted by the fact that they only secured a Champions League spot based on goal difference.
Chelsea finished in 10th (their lowest finish in 20 years), Liverpool finished in 8th (tied for their worst ever finish), and Arsenal finished with their lowest points tally in five years.
Oh, how the tables have turned. In the past few seasons, Barcelona, Real, and Atleti all look a shell of their former selves, while Liverpool and Manchester City have ascended to the peak of the football food chain.
You can’t blame it on shortage of money, as Barcelona, Real, and even the normally frugal Atletico have splashed enormous figures on signings in the past few seasons. Actually, you CAN blame it on money—not the lack thereof, but the misusage of it.
In fairness, each club has lost major figures in recent years (Neymar, Ronaldo, and Griezmann for instance) that have forced the club to spend on replacements. However, based on recent performance, the money has clearly not been spent wisely.
Despite not sporting the illustrious history of Barca and Real, Diego Simeone has made Los Rojiblancos a household name in European football.
Rather than spending large sums of money, the dogged, disciplined side was built around prudent signings. Just prior to Simeone’s appointment, Atletico purchased defensive mainstays Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, and Juanfran for a combined €24 million, along with Diego Costa for under €1 million.
The club continued their shrewd financial approach under Simeone with the €12 million purchase of Arda Turan, €3 million for Gabi, €7 million for Toby Alderweireld, and €900 thousand for Jose Gimenez. Even when they did spend large sums of money, it paid off, as no Atleti fan would regret the €40 million purchase of Falcao or the €30 million fee for Antoine Griezmann. Along with the development of youth prospects Koke, Thomas Partey, Saul, and Lucas Hernandez, the core of the team was cleverly and sustainably assembled.
The first piece of unwise business was the €35 million purchase of Jackson Martinez in 2015, who scored a grand total of just two goals in his lone season at the club. Luckily for them, they were able to miraculously sell him for a €7 million profit the following season.
Unfortunately, their luck wasn’t to persist. Building off their success in the Champions League, the club spent €40 million on Kevin Gameiro and €25 million on Nico Gaitan—both of whom were complete failures and have long since left the club. The reunion of Diego Costa for €66 million hasn’t fixed the club’s striker problems, nor has the permanent purchase of Alvaro Morata for €49 million.
Probably the worst of these purchases has been that of Thomas Lemar, who has yet to score a goal this season after coming in from Monaco two seasons ago for €70 million. Despite showing promise, the fact that Joao Felix was left on the bench in Tuesday’s crucial La Liga match against Barcelona shows that he still has some work to do to justify his €126 million price tag.
All in all, the purchases of Gameiro, Gaitan, Costa (the second time), Morata, and Lemar have cost Atleti €250 million, with very little return. The saving grace for Atletico is that they’ve still been able to sell their talent for large sums of money. The sales of Antoine Griezmann, Falcao, Costa, and Lucas Hernandez alone have given the Madrid side nearly €300 million of spending power.
After Samuel Eto’o departed Barcelona in 2009, the club struggled for several seasons to pair Lionel Messi with a ruthless striker to complete the team alongside the La Masia core of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Pique, Busquets, etc. When Luis Enrique was appointed in 2014, Barcelona quickly fixed this by purchasing Luis Suarez from Liverpool, proceeding to win the treble.
Albeit expensive, the signings of Neymar and Luis Suarez for €75 million and €82 million respectively (although the true sum of Neymar’s fee is hard to determine) elevated Barca to a new level. These two signings were the perfect example of how a big club should spend money: on proven players who can make a team go from good to great.
However, Barca were also able to pair these expensive transfers with some bargains. They secured Ivan Rakitic’s services for just €15 million, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s for just €10 million, and Javier Mascherano’s for €17 million.
Again, in 2016, we started to see the mind-boggling spending of money by La Blaugrana. Their list of embarrassing signings began with those of Arda Turan for €41 million, Andre Gomes for €55 million, and Paco Alcacer for €30 million.
Barca fans would be happy if this was the worst of it. Just two years ago, to replace Neymar, the club shelled out €142 million for Philippe Coutinho and €105 million for Ousmane Dembele. This is approximately €90 million more than they spent on Suarez and Neymar combined, yet the club would be delighted now to offload the two for cheap just to rid themselves of their wages.
Throw in the €120 million signing of Antoine Griezmann this past summer and the club have ultimately paid out over €365 million on attacking players that are either one foot out the door or two cheeks on the substitutes’ bench. Incredible.
There’s no need for a deep analysis to determine how successful Real Madrid have been in the past decade. Put simply, the club did the unthinkable by winning 4 Champions League titles in 5 seasons.
Often in Barcelona’s shadow in the early part of the decade, the club took advantage of the shrewd signings of Angel Di Maria for €26 million, Raphael Varane for €10 million, Luka Modric for €35 million, and Isco for €30 million.
Their answer to Barcelona’s signing of Neymar was their signing of Gareth Bale for €100 million. Although Madrid fans don’t carry the same admiration for the Welshman now that they did a few years ago, there’s no doubt he was one of the best players in the world in his first few seasons in Spain, scoring so many crucial goals in key games.
The first rotten transfer was James Rodriguez from Monaco in 2014 for €80 million, an obvious overreaction from his World Cup performance. To their credit, the club avoided similar back-breaking transfers for several years.
But after a transfer ban and fear of decline after the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, Fiorentino Perez decided it was time to open up the checkbooks. To replace Ronaldo, they have signed Mariano Diaz for €23 million and Luka Jovic for €60 million, who have produced just 6 goals in all competitions thus far. Other unconvincing transfers include Alvaro Odriozola for €40 million and Eder Militao for €50 million. Thus far, Eden Hazard is yet to replicate his stunning form at Chelsea to justify his €100 million price tag.
Ultimately, these three teams have shown that money does not necessarily equate to success. More than ever, it seems that prudent teams across Europe are the ones exhibiting the most success.
Liverpool have put forward arguably the best season in Premier League history in a summer where they spent about €8 million. Tottenham reached a Champions League final last season following a summer transfer window where they purchased zero outfield players. Borussia Dortmund have thrived on a model of purchasing and developing youth players such as Dembele, Jadon Sancho, and Erling Haaland.
Maybe it’s time for these teams to go back to the strategies that originally made them successful. Rather than spending exorbitant amounts of money and crossing their fingers in hopes that they pan out, these clubs should consider investing in the youth setup, allowing them to produce the Iniesta’s, Koke’s, and Asensio’s of the world without breaking the bank to do so.
When this happens, maybe we’ll see the return of La Liga to the forefront of European soccer. For now, they’ll just have to look up admirably at their English counterparts.