In the last week both Real Madrid and neighbours Atlético Madrid were found guilty of violating ‘Article 19’ by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee. Article 19 relates to the signing of international players under the age of 18 years old. A violation that Barcelona were recently found guilty of also, with their two transfer window ban finishing at the end of 2015. Both Atlético and Real now face the same fate as Barcelona with sanctions imposed preventing the clubs from registering new players to their squads for the next two transfer windows beginning summer 2016. Of course both clubs will look to appeal this decision in the hope mainly of buying themselves more time but the general consensus is that the appeal system will not take as long the Barcelona case and a delay in the transfer sanctions won’t be necessary. Barcelona famously managed to appeal and give themselves an extra transfer window to conduct business while the appeal process was in action, the Madrid clubs may not be so fortunate.
So what does this mean for La Liga? The key here lays with the ban handed out to Atlético Madrid, who are currently the only club in the league that can even compete on the pitch with the giants of Barcelona and Real. When Barcelona were handed their ban they assembled a small but immensely talented squad that would collect every trophy in front of them. Messi, Neymar, Suárez, Iniesta, Busquets and Piqué all in the team, the ban restricted and hurt the club but on the pitch they were still able to compete at the highest level. Real Madrid will be in a similar situation, ok it may mean the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and Isco are kept at the Santiago Bernabéu when in an ideal situation Madrid would have perhaps liked the option to cash in if the right offer came in, but these are World class players who can still do a job. The Madrid squad is packed full of stars, Bale, Modric, Kroos, Varane and James, plus quality youngsters on the books like Ødegaard, Asensio, Casemiro, Jesé and Vallejo. So Real Madrid, like Barcelona will be fine, they will no doubt fight the transfer ban until the end and don’t be surprised if they go big in the remaining weeks of the current transfer window just to make sure. Atlético Madrid however, well that could be a different story altogether.
For the last few seasons, under Diego Simeone, Atlético have been the only Spanish club to rival the big two. Reaching the Champions League final, winning La Liga and the Copa del Rey, they have brought competitiveness to a product that was lacking it. As much as people enjoy El Clásico and the battle of the World stars, seeing Atlético beat both sides to the title came as a huge joy to neutral fans. It had been a long time since the likes of Valencia and Deportivo de La Coruña were competing at the top of the league, and a two horse race had started to become a league unto itself. Under Simeone, Atlético can now compete with the very best. They don’t have the star power, and their game is built around hard work and being difficult to beat. A two window transfer ban could now pose a very serious threat to their continued ability to compete with the big boys.
I’m not referring to them being unable to bring in big names, that is not Simeone’s style and when tested in recent windows it hasn’t really paid off. Jackson Martinez, Mario Mandzukic, Alessio Cerci and Stefan Savic are recent examples of big money signings that didn’t, or haven’t yet in some cases, settle into the Simeone system. Instead signings tend to be slow burners, with Griezmann, Oblak and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco all having slow starts to their time at Vicente Calderón before becoming big performers. A transfer ban now restricts Simeone’s opportunity to do this, he may have to go for a marquee name and hope it works out. Then there is the risk that his talented young squad could be targeted by Europe’s big spending clubs, especially with a European Championships showcase on the horizon. Will Griezmann, Koke, Saúl, José Giménez and Ferreira-Carrasco still be at Atlético when the transfer ban ends, can the club say “no” to what will be huge money offers from other clubs for their assets?
Whether Atlético ‘stick’ or ‘twist’ in this transfer window now is unknown, what is evident is that the embargo will overstretch their hardworking squad of players and they look set to lose ground on Real and Barcelona as La Liga once again falls back into a two team league. There are a number of other good teams in the division, Sevilla are a strong unit and can beat anyone on their day, but consistency is lacking and they can’t maintain a championship challenge. Villarreal are playing great football and are flying high, but can the Yellow Submarine keep up with the teams above, it’s very unlikely. Then there is Valencia who have a lot of money backing them, and a new stadium in the works, but they are a team in huge transition and with or without Gary Neville at the helm they are a long way away from presenting a real threat.
Another major issue facing the league has presented itself because of Atlético’s success against the big two. Simeone’s tactics of men behind the ball, high intensity and then looking to score with counter attacks and set pieces has been incredibly effective. This has been noticed by the sides in La Liga and more games against Real and Barcelona see this resolute defensive game plan deployed. As Espanyol showed last week it can work on occasion even if you’re team isn’t full of quality, as they literally fought Barcelona to a goalless draw. As more and more teams play in this manner during big games, the general spectacle of the league drops, especially if Atlético do now fall back into the pack. What draw is a league of two teams, even with Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo? The alternative tactic to defensive was deployed by Sporting and Athletic Club this weekend, ok Athletic were not helped by a red card, and the two sides shipped 11 goals between them. Great viewing for Barcelona and Real Madrid fans, but a spectacle it was not. The teams trying to play football against the big two are often destroyed, so what incentive is there to playing football? Not every coach is Paco Jémez who always plays the right way despite how many goals go against his Rayo Vallecano side. Attack against defence could be the immediate future for La Liga.
Of course in all this I’m not suggesting the Madrid clubs should avoid a ban, they were found guilty just like Barcelona and should suffer the same consequences. It’s just a shame for the league that one of the major plus points, that of another title challenger, could be lost for a long time. It must be particularly frustrating for the heads of La Liga, having just agreed a huge TV deal for the league that would see a greater share of revenue spread out to all clubs in the hope of breaching the gap. Now that gap could grow bigger than ever, they’ll be hoping that somehow Atlético can hang on over the next 18 months.
The ban is a just ban, you can argue over guilt or innocence, but if it’s the same offence of Barcelona and they served the two window ban, then this ban is also just. Ultimately as Barcelona showed, it won’t damage Real Madrid on the field too much. For Atlético though they’ll need to dig in more than ever, as a fan of the league I hope they can keep up with the big two and keep the league interesting. La Liga can be fantastic to watch, my favourite league in World football, it’ll be a shame if the competition part of it is lessened even more.