Something is off. Something is different.
Take a look at the transfer balance of La Liga’s 20 clubs. No, really, go and take a look.
As of this writing, 11 La Liga teams have either a zero or positive balance, meaning they have broken even or sold players for more money than they have spent themselves. And of the nine teams that are running a deficit, five have spent less than $11.8 million. Getafe and Granada barely made it into eight figures. Atletico Madrid is the biggest spender at $97 million. Sevilla follows at $52 million.
Mighty Barcelona has spent only $10 million, although Lyon’s Memphis Depay is reportedly on his way for much more. Real Madrid, the defending champions, are running a profit of $78 million. Zinedine Zidane’s side hasn’t bought a single player, although a few have returned from loans. Instead, it has offloaded a few burdensome contracts like that of James Rodriguez, who left for Everton.
By universal consensus, La Liga is one of the world’s best and most popular leagues. Its financial might, fueled by the top-heavy oligopoly of Barca, Real and Atletico, is surpassed only by that of the Premier League. Certainly, La Liga was hit hard by the pandemic, but so was everybody else. And the lack of activity in the Spanish market is conspicuous given that the biggest clubs reportedly still made profits last season.
At present, La Liga as a whole is running a transfer surplus, while the Premier League is $591 million in the hole, as you would expect. Then again, Spain’s transfer deadline isn’t until Oct. 4.
Still, one of the foremost buying leagues seems to have become a selling league. Temporarily, at least.
That, counterintuitively, presents opportunity to the reigning champions. Most transfer windows, Real Madrid is among the world’s biggest spenders, smashing transfer records again and again. But there might be an upside to the lack of activity.
The only major title Real Madrid has successfully defended in the last 12 years is the biggest trophy of them all, the Champions League. From 2016 through 2018, Real were European champions three seasons in a row, the first team to pull that off since Bayern Munich in the mid-1970s. Perhaps you consider the Club World Cup to be a major prize; if so, Real won that in those same three years as well.
But Real Madrid hasn’t managed to win La Liga in consecutive seasons since 2006-07 and 2007-08. Since then, it has won the Spanish championship three times, finished second six times and placed third three times. In that span, arch-rival Barcelona has won consecutive titles on three different occasions.
The status quo that seems to have settled over La Liga with the first few games already played favors Real Madrid. Certainly, Real has issues, namely that the 32-year-old Karim Benzema is still leading the front line, the 34-year-old Sergio Ramos continues to anchor the defense and the 35-year-old Luka Modric still pulls the strings in midfield. That’s problematic for a team perpetually fighting for three or four different trophies.
But then Martin Odegaard has returned from three loan spells a fully formed footballer and still only 21. Fellow midfielder Fede Valverde, at 22, continues his growth into a world-class player. The Brazilian attacking prodigies Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, 20 and 19, have matured another year. Last summer’s mega-signing Eden Hazard is almost like a new recruit after a season mostly lost to injury. Real is, in equal measure, old and experienced but also young and talented.
That was good enough last season. With an undefeated run after the restart as Barcelona self-destructed, Real climbed to the top spot and it wasn’t particularly close after that. And in a league where everyone is more or less stagnant, or declining, Real Madrid’s lead should hold up another year, if it doesn’t get bigger with the seemingly inevitable breakout of several promising young stars.
Because the competition simply hasn’t closed the gap. Barcelona is in complete disarray. Atletico spent many millions refreshing its team last season but has, at best, treaded water. Sevilla, the Europa League champion once again, poses a threat, but its squad doesn’t look nearly deep enough to sustain that over the course of a 38-game season and a Champions League campaign.
Things have largely stayed the same in Spain. And that means Real Madrid is still on top.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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