Barcelona and Real Madrid struggle to sign players given their world-class squads

Samuel Umtiti is one of Barca's summer moves, but there's a notable lack of star power in their targets.

What do you get the man who has everything? It often seems like teams have to sign in the summer, or feel like they have to. But sometimes there's really not much point. And although that doesn't always stop them, maybe this is one of those times.
Maybe this time circumstance has conspired to mean that only real needs will be attended to. After all, how do you improve on Lionel Messi/Neymar/Luis Suárez or Gareth Bale/Cristiano Ronaldo/Karim Benzema? Where do you find players better than Luka Modric or Andrés Iniesta?
As Zinedine Zidane put it on Monday, with the calm certainty that always makes him worth listening to: "It's difficult to improve on this squad."
When you buy the best players every year, it's inevitable that there comes a time when there's not much left to buy. When your rivals do pretty much the same thing, it becomes even harder, and in an era dominated by two men, it's close to impossible.
The original galáctico policy was simple: every summer, Madrid bought the best player in the world: Luis Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo. But how do you buy the best player in the world if you already have him? You can't sign your own footballer. You can't present him, either, however much a contract renewal can be dressed up.
Every year, players move to Madrid or Barcelona, but every year in recent memory, the best players in the world have been the men who are already there: Messi and Ronaldo have won the last eight Ballon d'Ors between them and no one has seriously suggested they're not the best. Not until recently, anyway. Last season, others challenged them; there might have been a case for saying that there were players who performed better. But then Madrid and Barcelona already have Gareth Bale and Luis Suárez too.
And so here we are. Last summer, neither Madrid nor Barcelona signed a star -- Barcelona had the transfer ban and Madrid tried with David De Gea -- and this summer, despite the ban looming for Madrid, the early signs are that something similar might be repeated. There is sport and there is strategy; in an ideal world both come together. But this summer they haven't, not exactly.
The summer signing needs to be a star. The power of the presentation matters; that's the moment. Sometimes it's tempting to conclude that the actual football then has a nasty habit of getting in the way. Fans are voracious. Manager Juanma Lillo is fond of saying that the garnish has eaten the steak: that the sideshow has become bigger than the supposed main event. There is no sideshow bigger than signings.
There is a word Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez uses a lot: ilusión. It means "excitement," "dream" or "enthusiasm," and you have to maintain it. Some clubs deliberately time signings to hit the campaign for new season tickets; others want players turning up to wear the new kit. Superstars tip the balance when it comes to presidential elections; in fact, it can feel like they are presidential elections.
It's not always possible to achieve those goals but that's what they seek. You have to generate interest. You have to feed that ilusión. New signings allow you to, more than anything else, but for there to be new signings, there need to be new men; you need renewal. 

Major tournaments offer that, thrusting new players into the spotlight. Madrid were interested in James before 2014 but the World Cup brought him more sharply into focus. This time, there were two players whom they followed above all others: Robert Lewandowski and Paul Pogba. There had been conversations with both men's camps. The Euros could have helped tilt the balance; instead, there's a case for suggesting that Euro 2016's best players were already at Madrid, including Toni Kroos, whose role would be most at threat if Pogba came. (Then there's Antoine Griezmann, now valued at €100 million and at the wrong club. Certainly for Madrid.)
Neither Pogba nor Lewandowski emerged from Euro 2016 having reinforced his status as a star. Perhaps that should not matter, but it does. They are still brilliant footballers; they may be among the very few players whose arrival would improve Madrid or Barcelona. But getting them out of their clubs is not easy. Signing them would in all probability require a world record fee.
Madrid could afford to pay, but it becomes a harder sell now, less strategically significant and more difficult to justify. Their arrivals would be big, but it's not quite the same.
Zidane admitted on Monday that he "likes" Pogba and hope is not entirely extinguished. He likes Pogba's dynamism and character; he brings something Madrid don't exactly have. Convincing the board would have been easier had he bestrode Euro 2016; experience says they were waiting for someone to do exactly that. But with Manchester United so keen, the price looks set to be well in excess of €100m, and that's a big step now. It was too big a step for Barcelona last summer, even as he was used in the electoral battle, even if Barca's international director of football, Ariedo Braida, supposedly had him under control then and is silent now.
And so, much of the focus turns elsewhere. Strength in depth becomes a key target: variety and alternatives, the ability to assimilate injuries and suspension. Actually, let's rephrase that: it was always a target. 

Major tournaments offer that, thrusting new players into the spotlight. Madrid were interested in James before 2014 but the World Cup brought him more sharply into focus. This time, there were two players whom they followed above all others: Robert Lewandowski and Paul Pogba. There had been conversations with both men's camps. The Euros could have helped tilt the balance; instead, there's a case for suggesting that Euro 2016's best players were already at Madrid, including Toni Kroos, whose role would be most at threat if Pogba came. (Then there's Antoine Griezmann, now valued at €100 million and at the wrong club. Certainly for Madrid.)
Neither Pogba nor Lewandowski emerged from Euro 2016 having reinforced his status as a star. Perhaps that should not matter, but it does. They are still brilliant footballers; they may be among the very few players whose arrival would improve Madrid or Barcelona. But getting them out of their clubs is not easy. Signing them would in all probability require a world record fee.
Madrid could afford to pay, but it becomes a harder sell now, less strategically significant and more difficult to justify. Their arrivals would be big, but it's not quite the same.
Zidane admitted on Monday that he "likes" Pogba and hope is not entirely extinguished. He likes Pogba's dynamism and character; he brings something Madrid don't exactly have. Convincing the board would have been easier had he bestrode Euro 2016; experience says they were waiting for someone to do exactly that. But with Manchester United so keen, the price looks set to be well in excess of €100m, and that's a big step now. It was too big a step for Barcelona last summer, even as he was used in the electoral battle, even if Barca's international director of football, Ariedo Braida, supposedly had him under control then and is silent now.
And so, much of the focus turns elsewhere. Strength in depth becomes a key target: variety and alternatives, the ability to assimilate injuries and suspension. Actually, let's rephrase that: it was always a target. 

Zidane admitted that it would be hard for Real Madrid to make moves this offseason, but they always need depth.

Barcelona have signed a central defender (Samuel Umtiti) and left-back (Lucas Digne), although the sporting director claims they do not need a right-back despite the departure of Dani Alves: to do so would be to block Aleix Vidal and Sergi Roberto, he says. Denis Suárez gives them more depth in the middle. Up front, they want an extra striker.
With Nacho possibly leaving, Madrid seek a central defender, too, as well as a full-back and a midfielder of energy and talent. Up front, Álvaro Morata is an impressive backup for Karim Benzema, although a really big bid for him might change that. Madrid have already turned down offers close to €60m. Beyond the headline figures, they have also been carefully signing up young players who will play an important part of the squad in the next few years, belying the suggestion that there is no planning.
It's a delicate balance. Someone has to accept a secondary role, and the best players rarely do for long. Even when signing squad players, the demands are enormous, the level so high.
Both Madrid and Barcelona have expressed an interest in André Gomes, for example, whose likely cost is over €50m. A record fee for every other club in Spain for a player who would add to the squad but perhaps not the team ... at least to start with. James and Isco are already likely to begin on the bench. Arda Turan, a €40m signing last season, rarely played for Barcelona. When you accumulate so many good footballers, stars become subs and the squad strengthens anyway. Emotions, meanwhile, can be strained.
Barcelona are looking for a striker who knows that he will be behind Messi, Neymar and Suárez. How could he not be, of course, but how do you persuade a player like Kevin Gameiro to accept that? And for how long? Even if you do buy the very best out there, does he really get into the team? There are only so many places. You want a player who is good enough to start but who won't. 


You have to get rid of players, too, even if you like them, they're talented and they may go elsewhere and excel. No wonder loans and buybacks have become so common. They're a useful tool. Zidane admitted that while he likes Jesé and thinks he is a good player, if he were a friend of his or a member of his family, he might advise him to leave in search of the minutes that he, Zidane, cannot guarantee. How could he guarantee him those minutes with the men in front of him?
And so the biggest clubs become some sort of victims of their own success. It sounds absurd -- it is absurd, and the biggest victims of course are all the rest -- but there is an element of that. The problem with buying the best is that there comes a time when you can't anymore.
Barcelona and Real Madrid will sign players this summer, some very good ones; they will sign players they need. But maybe not the stars, and in some odd way, it may feel a little disappointing. Fans always want more. If Pogba signs for Manchester United, supporters in Madrid and Barcelona may well be thinking: that should have been us.
But is there really that much more out there? And is there really much more that can be done to raise the level with new signings?
"There's a long way to go until Aug. 31," Zidane said, and a lot may happen. There have been arrivals already -- Umtiti and Digne at Barcelona, Morata at Madrid, for a start -- and there will be more. Important players, useful ones who may play big roles. Necessary ones. Players who will win things, but they won't win on their own. Others will go. They will mostly be good players too; almost everyone at the Bernabéu and the Camp Nou is.
There may be surprises, but when the window shuts, one thing's for sure: the best players in the world will be at Barcelona and Madrid, because they already are. 
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