Pitchside

The Barca-Madrid arms race has peaked – and it could damage both clubs

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Miguel Delaney will be covering Europe's super clubs for us this season. He kicks off his regular column with a look at the ongoing transfer war between Barcelona and Real Madrid...

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Barcelona felt they had to respond. Not to a goal, however, nor a Real Madrid victory - at least not on the pitch. It was a signing. Back around the turn of the millennium, when the Spanish sports papers would annually proclaim their domestic title “the league of stars” on account of the latest mega-purchases, the Catalans felt they urgently had to make a statement.

One former player confided that, in discussions with Barcelona, he realised their officials were “desperate” to match what Real had done in the market. Of course, Real's own transfer manoeuvres were themselves a response to Barca’s recent trophies. An all-encompassing race had been set, and was a long time running.

We continue our extensive live coverage of Europe's top teams this season with ALL of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich's matches this season getting the live commentary treatment. We will also be covering the biggest matches in Italy and France across the 2014-15 campaign.

It has become one of the defining aspects of their eternal rivalry, now offering almost as much energy to the clasico divide as political history and a century of silverware. Probably more than any other pairing in football, Barca and Real are in a constant high-end arms race in terms of transfers.

You can almost plot where the clubs were at a given point in time from the signings they made that summer alone. There has nearly been a pattern, and the highest profile signings do not always come after the most successful seasons. They tend to be the shiniest band-aids, or the most dazzling distractions. If not quite bread and circuses, they offer broken transfer records and sensation. Look at it like this: the number of the world's top attackers who do not play for Barcelona or Real Madrid is rapidly dwindling.

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This summer was an apt example. A chastened Barcelona just went and signed the most exciting player on the market in Luis Suarez, while Real Madrid responded with the newest in James Rodriguez. The arms race reached another of its customary peaks.

Given the players that both clubs have looked to sell in order to facilitate those deals, as well as the adjustments to the teams then required, it isn’t a stretch to say neither were needed. Names were favoured over necessity.

It all shows that the arms race keeps revolving too. This summer is remarkably similar to the period around 2001, for both clubs. Then, they would attempt to buy the best and worry about the rest later. That ultimately culminated in one of the worst spells of both their histories.

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The disasters of 2003 caused Barcelona to reassess the entire structure of the club. The end of the 2003-04 season saw Real Madrid collapse in stark fashion, and effectively ended the first Galactico project to produce a half-decade of dysfunction.

Valencia won the league that season and it is not difficult to draw a parallel between that period and this, even if it took Diego Simeone to produce a miracle. Atletico Madrid became the first club outside the clasico duo to win the title since that Valencia 2004 victory.

Despite getting stripped for parts this summer, too, Simeone’s side have arguably completed the most balanced transfer business. There have been solid signings across the board.

Of course, the Spanish league is now a very different entity to what it was a decade ago, as a consequence of all the extensive financial changes in between. No matter how bad their issues, it’s highly unlikely either Barca or Real will ever return to the problems of 2003-04.

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The current transfer policies aren’t necessarily the most positive, though, and may eventually cause another re-assessment. The point is those in charge of transfers don’t seem so concerned with building actual teams, or projects with a proper sense of balance. It is a far cry from the peaks of Pep Guardiola against Jose Mourinho. For all the rancour of that period, both sides had broader designs, especially Barca.

Now, consider the contradictions of Real. Carlo Ancelotti tactfully overcame the problems that saw them finish just third in the league in order to navigate the knock-outs of the Champions League, but now must start again. Having subtly discovered a way to link the team through the positioning of Angel Di Maria, he now has to figure out how to incorporate James without the Argentine, while maybe reshaping his midfield after the inclusion of Toni Kroos.

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The talent of these players is not in question, just the quirks of Madrid’s system.

Then there’s Barca. They've almost become the new Real Madrid. There’s an inconsistency between the status of the striker they’ve signed, and then the level of the defenders, especially in the context of their long-term pursuit of appropriate centre-halves.

Their FIFA-imposed transfer ban - due to come into effect for two windows starting this coming January if a CAS appeal is unsuccessful - may yet transform the landscape again, but nevertheless, this summer another leg of an intense and unrelenting race has been set.

Miguel Delaney - @MiguelDelaney

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