Barcelona and Madrid’s Role Reversal

Spanish Madrid
Real Madrid’s Ramos, Isco, and Asensio playing for Spain. Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Barcelona’s purchase of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool stoked the January transfer window into life. The Brazilian’s move from Merseyside was the latest in a number of expensive transfers for the Catalan team. However, one club that has remained unusually dormant this month is Real Madrid.

Even though the capital side find themselves dangerously adrift of Barcelona in La Liga and with a difficult tie against PSG awaiting them in the Champions League, manager Zinedine Zidane has repeatedly denied that Madrid will splash the cash in the next few weeks.

Since taking the job two years ago from Carlo Ancelotti, the Frenchman has established a new transfer philosophy for the club with an emphasis on young, Spanish and Cantera players over expensive, international footballers. In contrast to Zidane’s own transfer to Madrid, today’s “Galacticos” have a distinctly local flavor. Meanwhile, now almost six years after Guardiola left Barcelona, the Blaugrana have switched its focus from La Masia to pursuing big-name stars seemingly regardless of cost. The last half-decade has been witness to an amazing role reversal of these bitter rivals.

This change began in the summer of 2013 when Barcelona purchased highly sought after Neymar, and Madrid brought in Welshman Gareth Bale as well as Spaniards Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad and Isco from Malaga. Although Neymar’s glitzy move seemed incongruous with the homegrown ethos of the team at that point, Gerard Pique still asserted that a fundamental difference remained between the Blaugrana and los Blancos.

Real Madrid don’t win titles for a year and they spend 160m euros on three players: [Asier] Illarramendi, Isco and [Gareth] Bale. Barcelona can’t do that, we know that we are different because we can compete with them without having to spend so much. Obviously, we can sign Neymar for 60 or €70m, but not three or four players. We are not a poor club, but we are competing with the richest club of all.”

Today, this quote seems ironic, but at the time, Neymar looked to be an exception not the rule. However, since that summer, while Barcelona have pursued foreign players for large fees to questionable effect, Madrid have doubled down on the policy that acquired Isco and Illaramendi to parallel success to the Guardiola era at Barcelona.

Since Neymar’s arrival and departure from Catalonia, FC Barcelona has bought footballers such as Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, and Lucas Digne for a combined fee of €85.5 million. Not only have these players – especially the former two – added little to the team’s performance with Turan set to leave after making only 55 appearances for the club and being frozen out by Valverde, but also their presence has hindered the progression of La Masia players such as Rafinha Alcantara, Sergi Samper, and Alex Grimaldo. Since leaving Barcelona for Benfica, Grimaldo has seen his stock soar and is now being linked with a £27 million move to Napoli. The past five years have borne witness to Barcelona spending big dollars on largely ineffective squad players at the expense of youth development.

Madrid have done the opposite. In a similar path to Guardiola, club legend Zidane rose from managing Madrid’s Castilla team to running Real Madrid itself. Having come from the youth system, the Frenchman brought increased scrutiny to los Blancos Galactico system. For example, he lost faith in James Rodriguez, the last true Galactico now of Bayern Munich, and placed it in favor of young Spaniards. Since the summer of ‘13, Madrid made it their mission to purchase the best and brightest Spain has to offer. Isco, Dani Carvajal, Jesus Vallejo, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Theo Hernandez, and Dani Ceballos have all come to don the white shirt at reasonable prices. Zidane has also given opportunities to youth players like Achraf Hakimi, Borja Mayoral, and Marcos Llorente. Whether or not it’s coincidence that since then Madrid have won three Champions Leagues, akin to Guardiola’s two, is up for debate. Today, Madrid’s bench is almost entirely Spanish, and while Barcelona players formed the backbone of the World-Cup-winning Spanish national team of yesteryear, Madrid now owns the future of La Furia Roja.

The question becomes does this role reversal matter? Is it a bad thing that these philosophies have changed, and does the transition somehow shift a supposed moral high ground from Barcelona to the capital club? In a political sense, the switch may if people perceive that without as many La Masia players Barcelona has lost contact with its Catalan roots. From a sporting perspective, as long as the change in transfer strategy does not compromise how Barcelona or Madrid win, then this phenomenon is simply an evolution of the biggest rivalry in sports. Players like Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele have played with such beauty and grace up to this point in their careers that it would be unfair to suggest Barcelona have betrayed its roots with their purchase. The context of transfers is an important element of fútbol culture, but at the end of the day, what happens on the pitch matters most.


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