Author's note: This article was written at the same time, but without knowledge of, Sebastian's editorial over on Managing Madrid. Check that out for a similar take on these issues.
Feel free to dismiss this article—I’m giving you that permission up front, because as a card-holding member of the Real Madrid Club de Fútbol (and the Editor-in-Chief of SBNation’s Real Madrid site no less!), I’m sure I have no credit on your site whatsoever. Sebastian asked me to write a guest editorial comparing Real Madrid and Barcelona’s recent history with transfers, and while I was more interested in debating whether Angel di María or Sergio Busquets would win "Best Actor" at this year’s academy awards, I nevertheless agreed.
The thing is this: in the past few years, Real Madrid has done a very good job (with one notable exception, to be discussed later) at acquiring outside talent, while Barcelona has struggled mightily.
This can be chalked up to various reasons (or a combination of some number of them): Florentino’s resurgence as a much more savvy chairman after the chaos of the galáctico years; Mourinho’s string of institutional victories with Real Madrid which has given him unprecedented control over transfers; Mourinho’s acute eye for talent—or at least talent that fits his system; the fact that players who don’t grow up in the tiki-taka style have a hard time transitioning to it once they’re thrust into a prominent role (unless they’ve already experienced it—as in David Villa with Spain); mistakes in talent evaluation on the part of Barcelona’s scouts; or even, dare I say it, an incorrect financial and sporting strategy created by misguided officials in Barça’s upper echelons.
In the past couple years, Real Madrid has gone from a lineup that featured a number of over-the-hill, injury-prone veterans who could barely lift a finger against Barcelona’s mighty army of la Masia graduates, to a team made up of young (the youngest team, on average, in the entire Liga in fact), fast, strong, up-and-coming talent, that despite only playing together for one year, managed to give a Barcelona side that many consider to be among the best to ever play the game a very serious run for their money (winning the Copa del Rey, and coming within a couple 50-50 calls of eliminating them from the Champions League).
On the other hand, Barça has thrived despite their transfer policy. The famous example of dropping Samuel Eto’o (valued at around €25 million), plus €50 million and the rights to Aleksander Hleb ("valued" at €4.5 million) for Zlatan Ibrahimovic (which, in total, makes him the second-highest transfer of all time) overshadows the myriad other terrible transfer decisions that Barcelona’s higher-ups orchestrated: Keirrison (€14 million), Aleksander Hleb (€16 million), Dmytro Chygrynskiy (€25 million), among many others, all represent money that the powers-that-be at Barça didn’t need to spend.
The fact that Barcelona has remained at the forefront of the game despite their abysmal transfer record is a testament to the power of la Masia, and of the tiki-taka system (and, of course, of Xavi, Iniesta, and Leo Messi).
Perhaps the most obvious example of the disparity between the two clubs in terms of their transfer records has come just this summer: los blancos addressed a couple of important weaknesses (they needed a multi-use wing-back defender, some long-term replacements for Xabi Alonso and Ricardo Carvalho, and a serviceable backup wing-mid with pace and goal-scoring ability) by acquiring 23 year-old Fabio Coentrão for €30 million (LB, RB, CDM, LM), 20 year-old German sensation Nuri Sahin for €10 million (long-term replacement for Xabi Alonso, possible short-term partner), 18 year-old Raphaël Varane for less than €10 million (one of the most highly regarded CB prospects in Europe), and reacquiring la Fábrica product José María Callejón for €5.5 million (pacey wing mid backup with goal-scoring ability). All of that for a total of €55 million (not counting money coming in to the club from player sales).
In contrast, Barça did not devote any money to a glaring weakness (their lack of depth at CB, especially in light of Puyol and Piqué's injuries, and what seems like a failed la Masia callup in Fontás), and instead allotted €37 million to buy a semi-redundant--albeit supremely talented--backup player in Aléxis Sánchez (after they allowed quite a few promising, young and cheap la Masia graduates that played that same position to leave for greener pastures), while purchasing** (for €45 million) the rights to another redundant player—Cesc Fábregas, who will become a very talked-about backup, first to Xavi, then possibly to Thiago Alcántara. This will ultimately cost the culé's about €80 million (not counting money coming in to the club from player sales).
There’s no doubt that Barcelona are the best team in the world at the moment—and it really does pain me to say that. But their transfer record over the past couple years is appalling. The only example of a player who actually returned Barça’s original investment is Dani Alves, who blossomed into one of the best RB’s in the world; even David Villa, while he has been fantastic in spells, essentially came to the club for €70 million (his transfer cost of €40 million, plus the left over value of the Ibra deal).
I would know a thing or two about bad investments: I lived in Madrid during the galáctico years. That policy was based on excess, on buying redundant luxury parts in an effort to meet financial (rather than sporting) goals. And forgive me if I see that pattern being repeated again in the capital of Cataluña: while the result might, finally, be different, the mechanism--the thought-process behind the signings--is strikingly similar.
Still, Barça is going to be OK: but that’s not because of the idiotic decisions of some of their higher ups (and, dare I say, of beloved, do-no-wrong, Saint Pep--if he's behind these signings). It’s because of their fantastic cantera, and of the brilliance of their system. I will say one thing for Pep: he’s about as good at managing a team (incredible, one of the best ever), as he is bad at judging outside talent (again, if these were his decisions).
Madrid, on the other hand, has had to rely on a combination of factors in order to create a competitive team immediately (because sustaining a period of Barça’s dominance was too much for most madridistas to bear): while la Fábrica is on the rise, the days of extravagant, buy-the-best-players-no-matter-their-position-or-cost, galácticism, are over. While Florentino has made some notable mistakes in his second go-around as Chairman (Kaká, unfortunately, springs to mind), he has been on the right side of nearly every trade or acquisition he has made so far. Mesut Özil? A+. Di María? A+. Sami Khedira? Xabi Alonso? Nuri Sahin? These aren’t trivial transfers. They’ve rocketed los blancos back to the tip-top of the world soccer ladder, while creating a base of players that will ensure that the team will be competitive for years and years to come.
What is certain, however, is that these two teams have achieved their success in very different ways; it is also certain, however, that despite Madrid’s reputation as a horrible behemoth that pays unfathomable sums for over-the-hill faux-superstars is no longer deserved. Ironically, FIFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, which were designed with Real Madrid in mind (because Michel Platini hates Real Madrid—this isn’t a conspiracy theory, he has literally said so), are actually much more likely to negatively impact Barcelona. But that is for a different article (for more information, check out this piece by the Swiss Ramble, a fantastic soccer economics blog).
Again, as I said at the beginning of this article, feel free to discount everything that I said: I’m a registered madridista, and I’m sure I’m going to be told that I’m not the right person to be saying this kind of thing on your blog. Unlike many of my "kind," however, I have the utmost respect for your club, the way they play, and the players they have produced. I hope you all have a good weekend, and enjoy the Supercopa (but not too much!).
**At the time of writing, the Cesc Fábregas transfer had not been officially completed.