Replacing one of the top two players in the world is difficult, even more so when you don't even care to try. Last year, Real Madrid sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus for $ 117 million and barely reinvested the money back into their squad. Somehow, the prevailing wisdom of the club was that they could endure the loss of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner – as it turns out, they were wrong. Real Madrid finished in third place in La Liga last season – 19 points behind champions Barcelona and eight points after second place Atlético Madrid – and left the Champions League in the round of 1
Barcelona, meanwhile, has no such illusions about the importance of their superstar, Lionel Messi. They have won two league championships in a row – and four of the last five – and the idea that any player could somehow replace Messi is treated as a sanctuary at Camp Nou. Barcelona will rely on the 32-year-old as long as he is physically capable. Messi is increasingly urged to overwrite the cracks in Barcelona's aging squad. It has worked in La Liga, but he has not been able to prevent Barcelona's spectacular breakdowns in the Champions League over the past two seasons. Barcelona have tried to correct the trajectory by adding a dynamic young star to Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong from Ajax, as well as a superstar in his premiere in Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have each made significant changes to their squad on their way to this season – Barcelona open to Athletic Bilbao on Friday; Real Madrid play Celta Vigo on Saturday – and there will be more potential changes before Spain's transfer window closes on September 2 (including the prospect of Neymar's return to La Liga via a surprising move to Barcelona or, possibly, to Real Madrid).
Let's start with Real Madrid's makeover. The attacking chart below shows the differences between their teams from the 2017-18 season (highlighted in red) – the last with Ronaldo – and last season's team (highlighted in blue). As you can see, last year's unit was simply inferior to everything.
Real Madrid took fewer shots of all kinds in 2018-19 compared to 2017-18: fewer clear shots (shots taken without defenders between attacking players and the target), fewer counter shots and fewer shots generated from a high press. They also took worse shots, as their expected target per shot also decreased.
To fix the problem, Real Madrid has spent $ 348 million on players under the transfer window so far (which was offset by $ 131 million in sales). The biggest ticket item was Eden Hazard, Chelsea's 28-year-old border, although he does not necessarily solve their main problem. Hazard stands out on the wing, moves the ball up the field and sets others to score.
His impressive goal scorer is largely a result of the amount of penalties he takes, rather than his ability to create chances.
The danger is the kind of world-class player Madrid needs – and Zidane has long been an admirer of the Belgians – but they are looking for another big money signing to provide the goals. Luka Jovic, the 21-year-old Serbian, arrives from Eintracht Frankfurt for $ 68.4 million. He is a pure striker and a shooting monster – he is good with his head and both feet and he is built to show up in the box and throw goals at home.
But Zidane's job is more complicated than it was during his last full season that was responsible, when he succeeded largely by simply putting his best players on the pitch and getting out of the way.
It remains to be seen about Jovic and Real Madrid's long time. 9 Karim Benzema can play together, especially with Hazard who needs to be integrated into the team. Hazard's preferred position is on the left wing, which has shifted Madrid's lone bright spot from last season, 19-year-old Vinícius Júnior, who moved to the right side during the preseason. And there is Gareth Bale, whom Zidane is desperately trying to haunt, despite Real Madrid owner Florentino Pérez's seemingly insistent on keeping the Welsh wing around.
In defense left back Ferland Mendy and center back Éder Militão were for a fee north of $ 50. million. A summer chasing Paul Pogba has not landed the Manchester United midfielder (at least not yet), but Real Madid have sent promising young midfielders like Dani Ceballos to Arsenal on loan and Marcos Llorente to Atlético, while Mateo Kovacic moved to Chelsea permanently. If a midfielder's contract doesn't work before the transfer window closes – Tottenham Hotspurs Christian Eriksen has long been rumored, and Ajax's Donny van de Beek has also been linked – Real Madrid will find themselves short and rely on stalwarts Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos .
It is never a good idea to read too much into pre-season matches, but throughout the summer the record of pre-season trips, Zidane has mixed and matched and changed formations at every opportunity. He has gone from one striker to two, playing flat midfield and trio, even switching between a back three and a back four when he gets the feel for his new players. He has to find out which of his megastars fit where and how to get the best out of everyone if Real Madrid is to benefit from their serious spending money.
Barcelona is focusing on fine-tuning their sputtering squad with a pair of awning signings. They did not find a replacement for Andrés Iniesta and Neymar despite spending a lot to get Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé to fill these voids in the last two years.
The midfield has become more functional with Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and often Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto combining to lock it while Messi does the creation. Barcelona went from a swinging front three to relying on Messi to relentlessly swing the ball wide to fullback. The table below maps each pass that Messi played to left-back Jordi Alba last season.
Two players have been brought in to fix it. At Atlético Madrid, Griezmann was the one who made all the striker in Diego Simeone's extremely defensive team, and now he will be released to be part of a more dynamic, aggressive attack. His ability to play on either wing next to Luis Suárez and Messi, or to spell Suárez as the central striker, is appealing, and the hope is that he will be able to gel better than Dembélé. As Messi and Suárez age and push less forward, Griezmann's willingness to sacrifice on the defensive side of the ball will be crucial. As the defensive heatmap below shows, he worked his tail without the ball and pushed opponents across the field.
However, the more important signing for Barcelona may be midfielder de Jong, who led Ajax to a shocking run to the Champions League semi-final last season. He is a prime example of what a modern, dynamic midfielder looks like: an athletic freak who can cover huge ground in the midfield, but whose athleticism is secondary to his ability on the ball. The 22-year-old should be the perfect antidote to a Barcelona midfield that has become old and outdated.
De Jong combines two things at an absolute elite level. He is incredibly good at winning the ball back from opponents (and in fact played in the middle of Ajax early in his career) and is extremely skilled at bringing the ball up the field either by himself or with his suitable area.
Although it is difficult to see how Real Madrid's talent can be put together, De Jong's fit in Barcelona is crystal clear. He will record in the middle of midfield three with Busquets and either Rakitic, Arthur, Vidal or Roberto. Instead of letting Busquets in to stop his passing, opposing teams must prevent De Jong from moving the ball forward, which makes 31-year-old Busquet's life happily easier. In the same way, de Jong will cover Busquet's declining range defensively, while also being able to make his own progress.
If it all works, they allow Jong Messi to leave the ball progression to the midfields. It's a lot to squeeze the shoulders of a player entering his first elite racing season, but after last season's Champions League run, it's hard to believe he won't do the job.
It is worth noting that Barcelona quietly began to prepare for the future by purchasing a couple of young fullbacks. Formerly of Real Betis, 22-year-old Júnior Firpo fits the profile of a young but accomplished player that Barcelona must target, especially when Alba hits the wrong side of 30.
It is a brave new world in La Liga. The days of Messi and Ronaldo are truly gone, and this season will define what the next chapter will look like. Expect Atlético Madrid, fresh from its own makeover, to compete with the two Spanish giants. Perhaps no team in Europe has experienced as much player turnover as Atlético: Griezmann, Rodri (Manchester City), Lucas Hernández (Bayern Munich) and Diego Godín (Inter Milan) are among those who left and were replaced by young Portuguese star João Félix, among many other.
Finally, the season will be defined by how well Zidane can integrate all his new pieces in Madrid, how well Griezmann and de Jong fill the holes in Barcelona, and whether a new look Atlético can step into the gap should either falter. Although the top three look likely to maintain their top spot, they are likely to be different than ever before.