Barça and Real Madrid fans will always be inclined to compare the squads, form, performances, and transfers. The nature of the rivalry makes every single aspect of the game as a competitive stance by default. Currently, in addition to the nail-biting title race, there is one other situation that is ongoing and being heavily discussed. The exits of Arthur Melo and Achraf Hakimi have had both sets of fans in disappointment, but which club is dealing with it in a better way?
Barcelona announced on Monday the sale of Arthur Melo to Juventus, with Miralem Pjanić coming the other way once the season ends. Meanwhile, Real Madrid are expected to sell their young right-back and Borussia Dortmund loanee Achraf Hakimi to Inter Milan. But, in the middle of the tight title race for La Liga, who is dealing with such business in a better way?
Although the answer to that question is pretty clear, it’s essential to look at every nuance of the situations. The Catalans have already announced the departure of Arthur, while Madrid is yet to make Hakimi’s exit official. Nonetheless, Achraf is tipped to play for the nerazzurri next season, and a statement will be released soon. With both sides losing a player who could be a long-term solution to their respective club’s problems, let us now look at each stance individually.
Barça and Arthur Melo
Arthur Melo‘s departure to Juventus is arguably one of the most bizarre transfer dealings Barcelona have done lately. With Miralem Pjanić arriving at the Camp Nou in a swap deal, the fans are in shock. Swapping a 23-year-old for a 30-year-old is something unfathomable to the azulgrana loyalists.
The deal has been going on for the past three months. If you think about it deeply, you will realise that there have been numerous rumours over Arthur’s future throughout this season. The Spanish press has continually been publishing articles on Melo’s off-pitch issues and had also clawed into the fact that he wasn’t playing much. The likelihood of an inside source within the club providing news to the media is very high, as we have seen boards do this on numerous occasions to offload their players.
The sale of Arthur Melo has left most culés unhappy | Photo by Óscar J. Barroso / Zuma via Imago
The fact that the Brazilian never had a second thought on his future and was only thinking of succeeding at Barça adds more salt to the fans’ wounds. He kept saying that he wanted to stay and help the club win more trophies. But the hideous manner in which he was forced out is something that everybody finds hard to digest. Pjanić is obviously a good player, but the club is probably a year or two late in purchasing him. He is past his prime and is likely to serve the club for four years at max.
The past three months would have been massively stressful for Arthur and his closed ones. With unending speculations and an unwanted move that he was being pressurised into making, Melo must have understood the real nature of the board. He was made to feel unimportant, unworthy of staying, and unwelcomed by the hierarchy. Even the manager Quique Setién had no clarity over the entire situation. The fact that the board didn’t make its plans clear to the coach himself is an indication of how shallow and shortsighted the whole deal is.
Real Madrid and Achraf Hakimi
In massive contrast to how Barça dealt with Arthur, Real Madrid were pretty silent about Achraf Hakimi. Until last week, there were hardly any credible rumours citing the Moroccan’s departure from the club. He has been excellent at Borrusia Dortmund and was expected to return to Madrid at the end of this season. Even his agent had earlier said that they weren’t considering anything aside from returning to Madrid.
But within a span of two to three days, the rumours of Inter’s interest came up, which were soon confirmed by tier 1 transfer sources like Fabrizio Romano. The entire process went smoothly, with continual updates. There were no contrasting drama updates in Achraf’s stance that were seen in Arthur’s case. Although the madridistas were excited and anticipative for Hakimi’s return to the Santiago Bernabéu next term, his premature exit hasn’t crushed their spirits entirely.
Indeed, many fans were disappointed that Los Blancos aren’t installing a buy-back clause in his contract, but they aren’t losing their minds over this deal. The truth is, Hakimi wanted the guarantee of being a permanent starter for Real Madrid if he returned. However, coach Zinedine Zidane appears to be pleased with right-back Dani Carvajal and is said to have denied Achraf of the main role.
While Real Madrid and Barça both lose two gems, the former have dealt with such transfer in a more sensible and silent way | Photo by Christopher Neundorf / Kirchner-Media via Imago
The 21-year-old naturally wanted a promise of being used more and didn’t want to play the second stint to Carvajal after the extraordinary season he had at Dortmund. Furthermore, he was used as a right wing-back by the German outfit, and so, there were still question marks over whether he’d excel in Madrid’s tactics. Joining Antonio Conte’s Inter is actually the perfect transfer for him as a player. After being acclimatised to a back three system where he was used as a wing-back under Lucien Favre, he would fit in Conte’s puzzle with ease.
Achraf’s move to Inter was his personal choice, and Madrid’s board complied to his wishes. They will be receiving a transfer fee worthy of his capacity. President Florentino Pérez will look to use the money efficiently in areas that they require. They might be able to entirely fund the move of Stade Rennais’ wonder kid Eduardo Camavinga using the money they get for Hakimi.
The comparison is clear: one player wanted to leave the club for a more guaranteed role, the other was forced out of the club. No Madrid fan would complain about Achrif Hakimi’s departure if they spent the money properly. By contrast, in Barça’s case, they already bought Miralem Pjanić, which hasn’t gone well with the majority of the fanbase. Arthur had a bright future at the Camp Nou that was taken away from him by a superficial board. Whereas Achraf made a decision for his own benefit by leaving Real before he could get the opportunity to succeed.
At the end of the day, how one player received continuous pressure from the board, the biased press, while the other player calmly got to a switch sums up how both clubs are run. Arthur’s departure has caused massive unrest within the fans who want the current regime to step down as soon as possible. Nonetheless, Madrid’s fans aren’t particularly disappointed with what’s going on. They are aware of the fact that an impatient player will come no good. All eyes will be on Dani Carvajal in the coming days to see if he justifies the manager’s preference.
Thus, one club managed to silently get its deal done. The other has taken the off-pitch distractions too seriously and began to lose focus on footballing matters. One might argue that Arthur is currently a player at Barça and Achraf is on loan from Madrid. But judging by how the board is, they would have pulled off some sort of dumbfoundedness even if the situations were reversed.
Culés should now try to move on and look ahead to the future. They should warm up to the signing of Pjanić and accept him as their footballer once the current campaign ends. Else, it would only cause more unnecessary problems for the manager, who is unfortunately powerless in this situation.
Barcelona under Ronald Koeman: Trusting the youth
How has playing time been distributed to different age groups in the squad? What does it mean for this season and the future?
It is no secret that Ronald Koeman’s first season at the helm has seen the integration of many young players into the team. Even with the long-term injury to starlet Ansu Fati, the likes of Pedri, Sergiño Dest, Óscar Mingueza, and Ronald Araújo have injected new life into key areas and turned in some crucial performances.
With some of those names in mind, how youthful actually is this Barcelona team? To get a better perspective of this, let us look further into the makeup of the squad, and then see how this version of Barça stacks up to other elite European sides, as well as past versions of Barça.
Minutes going to both ends of the age spectrum
When examining the squad as a whole, the abundance of young players who have made league appearances bodes well for the future. A total of 13,363 La Liga minutes have been played by outfield players age 25 and younger – a very impressive 6,283 of those coming from players 21 and younger.
However, it is also important to note that many key pieces of the squad are at the tail end of their careers. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, and Sergio Busquets, Barça have given 9,805 minutes to outfield players age 30 and older. These two ends of the spectrum make for an interesting squad dynamic.
This also means that very few minutes have been played by those in what are usually considered the prime years of a footballer’s career. Less than 3,000 minutes have been given to the 26 to 29 age group, with the players in that range largely being used as rotation pieces and some even being linked with moves away from the club.
Nonetheless, there is clearly plenty of reason to be optimistic. Yes, members of the old guard are taking up a large chunk of minutes, but there are a vast number of players breaking through and developing to be ready to take on increased responsibility when that older generation finally does move on.
Even Ilaix Moriba, a talent who has only sparingly received minutes, seems to be among the most promising footballers at the club. Giving him and other youngsters like Konrad de la Fuente, who has only appeared in the Copa del Rey and Champions League so far, time around the first team is very beneficial.
Of course, young players coming into the side from La Masia and overseas is nothing new. However, how does 2020/21 Barça compare to other Blaugrana sides over the last decade when it comes to giving these players time on the pitch?
The youngest side in the club’s recent history?
Looking back over the last ten La Liga seasons, some interesting trends appear for Barça’s young players. The start of the 2010s saw a multitude of talent in the 22 to 25 range, including younger versions of Messi, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fàbregas, and Thiago Alcántara.
As members of that generation started to age, and more established stars like Luis Suárez, Javier Mascherano, and Ivan Rakitić were brought in, there was far less young talent on the pitch throughout the middle of the decade. The squad, in some ways, peaked together, as reflected by the treble win in 2014/15.
In more recent years, the side has started to get younger. The 2018/19 campaign saw an impressive amount of playing time given to players 21 and younger. It should be noted, though, that those 5,005 minutes were split amongst ten players. Of those ten, only Ousmane Dembélé and Riqui Puig remain in the first team now, just a couple of years later.
This season, however, the number of young player minutes has surpassed the 2018/19 tally by a comfortable margin, and it is even more impressive when considering how the current crop of young talent are occupying key spots in the team.
In 2018/19, Dembélé was the only 21 or younger player to play over 1,500 minutes. This season, Pedri and Dest have already hit that mark, while Mingueza is only 31 minutes away.
Looking at things all together, this current Barça side clearly stands out. It should be noted that this is through only 29 matches this season, not the full 38 that the other teams played. At this current pace, Koeman will have given over 8,000 minutes to players age 21 and younger by the end of the La Liga campaign and over 9,000 to players age 22 to 25 (closest to 2013/14 and 2019/20).
Overall, this definitely seems to be the youngest Barcelona side, at least since early on in the 2010s. The number of teenagers and players barely into their twenties, not only getting cameos but holding down places in the side, is very admirable.
Barça vs Europe’s elite
We can see that Koeman’s Barça are more youthful than past sides at the Camp Nou, but is the same true when compared to other top European clubs?
The same trend is shown. Among Europe’s best-performing sides, Barça rank near the top for minutes played by those 21 and younger. Interestingly, the three times ahead of them – AC Milan, Lille, and Monaco – were not in the Champions League this season.
Barça have given far fewer minutes to the 22 to 25 age range than the likes of RB Leipzig, Leicester City, and Manchester United. However, the club are still considerably ahead of Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid – the other two sides in the La Liga title race – for both age ranges.
Taking this information about the squad into account should help add context to this season’s performance and the future of the club. Barça are fielding very young players at an unprecedented rate in the club’s recent history, and more so than many of Europe’s elite.
In this regard, Koeman should be given credit, as he successfully integrated many of these players and fast-tracked their development. Most importantly, though, these numbers reflect a vast amount of talent at the club’s disposal for the future. If this young core develops, Barça should be looking at great success in the coming years.