Around Europe this summer, there have been a few club officials fearing the call. That is because one of the biggest remaining questions in this transfer window is which star Real Madrid will sign to replace Cristiano Ronaldo. That the European champions have not yet done anything along those lines has surprised many, but also kept them on edge.
It is why, once the English window closed, Premier League officials could switch attention but couldn’t switch off. Some are still braced for a late run or bid for their players in the last two weeks of the window.
After all, Madrid haven’t signed any forward to even stand in for Ronaldo, despite Julen Lopetegui specifically asking for a goalscorer.
There is a strong argument that they really need one. Such a signing for once isn’t about Madrid’s profile, but about necessity.
But what actually happens next might be about capability, about clout and about making a point. Because one of the big persistent themes from this transfer window is how subdued it’s been, how relatively restrained it’s been.
Two of the six biggest signings – Kylian Mbappe to Paris Saint-Germain and Naby Keita to Liverpool – were actually agreed last summer.
The biggest deal actually struck this summer remains Ronaldo to Juventus, and that at €117m – a price from 2009 to 2013 rather than post-Neymar. All of this is very pointed.
The Portuguese’s move was expected to be the signing that exploded this window, bringing an ongoing escalation from Paris Saint-Germain’s purchase of Neymar last year, potentially leading to the Brazilian going to the Bernabeu.
That has not happened and does not appear likely to happen this summer. Despite Madrid’s ongoing interest in Neymar – and consistent contact between the two camps – all of this may well be a response to that 2017 move.
Because, when that sensational deal from Barcelona was done last summer, sources close to the PSG hierarchy maintained that one of the plans was to “short-squeeze” the European market. Some officials were apparently aware that if they pushed fees and wages up to ever-higher levels, only Manchester City and maybe United would be able to compete with them, and that at levels they were uncomfortable with.
The man who negotiated the original Madrid purchase Cristiano of Ronaldo, Ramon Calderon, meanwhile told Spanish media that it’s a particular problem for the big Spanish clubs.
“Real Madrid and Barca are not companies, they’re sporting associations,” he said. “So they have to try and use money from ordinary means. That’s a problem. In other countries, they have other routes to money. They can resolve problems that Real and Barca can’t. Of course it’s a handicap.”
The current situation, however, might be a response and solution to the PSG problem. The big clubs are essentially wary of exploding the market further, so are very much holding on to what they’ve got.
This is not to say there is any kind of pact or official agreement or anything so co-ordinated. It is known, however, from various sources that, in his natural summer meetings with other club officials in Miami, current Madrid president Florentino Perez has been preaching the sense in keeping fees down. The reality is that many of his counterparts see the logic of this.
Some believe this is why the Ronaldo deal was a mere €117m despite that reported €1bn buy-out, and why there’s been no explosion.
There’s been no escalation, no big Madrid signing, no big Barcelona transfer to follow on from last summer.
You only have to look at the make-up of the Catalan club’s bid for Paul Pogba, at £50m and two players who ended up at Everton in Yerry Mina and Andre Gomes. It’s a far cry from the bid for Ousmane Dembele. But then this has been from a position of calculation, rather than panic, unlike last year.
The only real effect of Ronaldo has been inward, such as sending Gonzalo Higuain to AC Milan.
This is also why Juventus and Atletico Madrid have so far had more bombastic windows than both, which is the type of situation we haven’t really seen for over a decade.
The next two weeks may thereby tell a lot about how things will play out for the next few years, especially given there are still tell-tale signs of weakness in some of the big squads.
There is genuine wonder around Madrid now about where the goals will come from. There are high hopes for 18-year-old Vinicius but it says a lot that Atletico – with Diego Costa, Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa, Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins and Vitolo – suddenly seem to have so much more firepower.
Madrid, meanwhile, don’t seem to have the market firepower – either in resources or, now, will – to just go and try and prise Eden Hazard from Chelsea or Mo Salah from Liverpool.
And Barcelona still want Pogba, but are already bracing themselves for a longer-term campaign that may hopefully drive down the prices and allow a better deal for them.
This may be the medium-term future of the transfer market, just a year after Neymar was supposed to change everything.
It may have actually brought a more influential change in the usual market leaders.