Neymar’s €222m world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain threatened to irreversibly break the transfer market. It set a huge new precedent for transfer fees and was conducted in a ruthless and aggressive fashion that left Barcelona reeling, for they had no say once his release clause was met.
One or two other relentless sagas between elite clubs happened after that. Barcelona themselves were the aggressors when pursuing Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho and Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic obliterating revenue and transfer budgets, there has been a shift among the big clubs in terms of how they view transfer business with each other.
Since the summer of 2019, when Barcelona unscrupulously pounced on Griezmann, it hasn’t happened in the same way since, with clubs dialling back their aggression in the transfer market.
Real Madrid didn’t relentlessly pursue Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba in the same way they went after David de Gea in 2015 or Cristiano Ronaldo in the build up to the summer of 2009. Barcelona’s interest in re-signing Neymar also seemed to lack any real drive.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid waited until Eden Hazard had one year left on his contract at Chelsea and he made clear he wanted to move on before they solidified their pursuit. Los Blancos are expected to use the same tactic with Kylian Mbappe this summer, with the Frenchman waiting to decide – if he opts to sign a new contract with PSG, Real are expected to back off.
It all stems from what Marca describes as a ‘non-aggression’ pact between the top clubs, with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and a handful of others informally signing up to the idea that they won’t go hard for each other’s players.
The point is to keep transfer fees, which spiralled out of control after the Neymar saga in 2017, under control. That Barcelona are so badly struggling with enormous debt is only partially the result of the pandemic and can more strongly be traced to poorly planned overspending.
It may also serve to put clubs back in a degree of control, taking some power away from players and agents, who are less able to proposition suitors that may be unwilling to engage.
If elite clubs aren’t aggressively targeting each other’s players, as has obviously happened in the past, it won’t drive up prices when teams refuse to sell until the offer is too good to refuse. It should also serve to improve relations between top sides because it has eliminated underhand moves.
A prime example of the ‘pact’ in action is Manchester City and PSG backing off Lionel Messi when Barcelona refused to accept his request to leave. Messi likely won’t get any formal offers this year unless he makes a decision about whether to stay or go, which won’t happen until summer.
Similarly, Real Madrid only went for David Alaba when Bayern conceded that he wanted to move on and was running down his contract, while there has been no scramble for Sergio Ramos like there might once have been at a time when contract talks at the Bernabeu are still ongoing.