Football Features

Saul to Barcelona? The big winners and losers if Atletico Madrid agree Griezmann swap deal

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:30, 15 July 2021

Despite their financial woes, Barcelona are preparing a massive transfer deal with Atlético Madrid.

The deal is one of those rare sightings in the footballing world: a player swap! So often mooted, but so rarely coming to pass. This time, however, the rumours say it will happen. The deal will supposedly see Barcelona sending Antoine Griezmann back to the Vicente Calderon while Atletico will in turn send Saúl to the Camp Nou to play for Barcelona.

After initially being linked with Liverpool, Saul is now priced at 1/6 to join Barcelona with Sky Bet, with the Reds back on 5/1.

Who would be the winners and losers if such a move came to pass? We’ve had a look and come up with a list!

Winner: Joan Laporta

Thanks to the fiscal negligence of Josep Bartomeu’s now-deposed presidential term, Barcelona are a financial disaster right now. One of the most pressing issues is that they are currently exceeding La Liga’s salary cap; and if they want to register new signings like Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia, they will have to reduce the wage bill significantly.

Well, new president Joan Laporta seems to have found two massive ways to do just that. The first is to renegotiate Lionel Messi’s contract, allegedly bringing the best player on the planet’s salary down by 50%.

That alone would be a massive achievement but then there’s this swap deal, getting rid of Griezmann who has never really shown anything like his true potential in a Barcelona shirt, and at the same time recruiting Saúl, a phenomenally talented all-around midfield talent who is as bad a fit with Diego Simeone as Griezmann is with Barcelona, who also happens to earn less than the Frenchman.

Getting rid of your expensive misfit forward and bringing in a potentially world-class midfielder and saving (allegedly) €15m a year on the wage bill at the same time? Gold star, Joan!

Loser: Barcelona

However, as much as Laporta comes out of this looking good, Barcelona as a club are as messy and dysfunctional as ever. They have signed three players for over €100m and every single one of them has been a flop. And while Ousmane Dembélé can use injuries and youth as an excuse, no such balm can soothe the pain of Coutinho and Griezmann.

There still exists a slim chance that Coutinho could redeem himself (he is currently fit and training with the side) but the Griezmann chapter would, if this deal goes through, be closed. A two-year experiment that cost a fortune. Going back to sign a player who a year earlier had rejected Barcelona very publicly, only to jettison him two years later in a swap deal? After only winning one Copa del Rey in that time?

Yikes.

Winner: Saul

Everyone remembers the goal Saúl scored in the 2016 Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich. The Spaniard ran through half the Bayern team and slotted a beautiful finish beyond Manuel Neuer. At just 22 years old, he had the world at his feet.

But then he just sort of stalled. He was trapped by Atletico’s own stagnation following defeat to Real Madrid in that year’s Champions League final. Sure, they won the 2018 Europa League but Saúl had bigger targets in mind. And when Atletico finally claimed those targets, winning LaLiga in 2020/21, Saúl couldn’t even enjoy it as he was either on the bench or shunted out wide in Simeone’s new system. He looked frustrated, destined to leave the club — but where would he go?

Barcelona? To play with Messi? And Sergio Busquets? And Pedri? Goodness gracious, this move would be a colossal win for Saúl. Barcelona are a team that play through midfield so, for once, Saúl would be able to truly express himself creatively. His hard-working, box-to-box style is a profile that Ronald Koeman covets and having failed to land Gini Wijnaldum, he will surely put bundles of trust in Saúl which means plenty of minutes in central areas only. A huge win.


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Loser: Antoine Griezmann

You could argue that Griezmann returning to the safety blanket that is Simeone is a big win for a player who looked exposed and unable to cope with the intense spotlight and expectations of being a forward for Barcelona. And maybe it is.

But it’s also a huge loss as well. Griezmann is a world-class superstar, one of the biggest names in football. His move to Barcelona felt overdue by a year or two but finally, at an elite club, Griezmann would show the world what he was capable of. This is a guy who was upset that he didn’t win the Ballon d’Or in 2016 and 2018 (justifiably so in 2018), so you know he thinks of himself as elite.

If this move goes ahead, however, that self-image will be shattered. There are no two ways about it; Griezmann flopped at Barcelona. 35 goals in 99 games is profoundly not good enough. His record in the big games was not good enough. His record in difficult games was not good enough. Nothing was good enough. Forget goals, how often did he showcase the genius in his boots?

Too often Griezmann looked intimidated by the size of the club, the size of the team, hell, the size of his teammates. Meanwhile, you had teenagers Ansu Fati and Pedri showing up and handling the pressure of Barcelona with ease. And new signings like Frenkie De Jong, a player who didn’t even speak Spanish when he arrived in the same summer as Griezmann, settle in to become a key squad player.

Now he’s going back to the safety net of Simeone with his tail between his legs. And what’s more: he’s not even really what Atletico need, which is a replacement for Luis Suárez. It’s amusing, he joined Barcelona to replace Suárez and did a bad job of it so now he’s off to Atletico to try again! Will he fail again? Well, his profile is that of a No.10, which should put him in direct conflict with Joao Felix and Angel Correa, two players essential to Atletico’s incredible La Liga win.

So, he flopped at Barcelona, and now he’s going back to Atletico where he will either displace one or both of two of the young studs that helped guide Simeone’s side to winning La Liga or get another chance to fail at replacing Luis Suárez? Yikes. Take The L, Antoine.

Winner: Barcelona’s midfield

Barcelona’s starting midfield last season was the sublime trio of Busquets, De Jong and Pedri. The trio was incredible, each having incredible seasons (and continuing on into the Euros), but their back-ups were various stages of underwhelming or undercooked, so they had to play all the time.

De Jong, Pedri and Busquets were four of Barcelona’s top five appearance-makers in 2020/21, each playing at least 50 games. That is an absurd workload and the Blaugrana were lucky none of them got injured. That all changes with Saúl’s recruitment, as he is a world-class talent just bursting with skill, just like the starting trio.

Saúl has the physical profile of De Jong with a similar penchant for goalscoring. He is just as defensively responsible as well and while both men aren’t as deft and perceptive passers as Pedri and Busquets, the quartet all compliment each other and the ability to keep one of them on the bench every week and ensure no one plays too much is going to make Barcelona’s midfield play so much more consistent. And when Barcelona’s midfield is consistent, the entire team is consistent.

Loser: Liverpool

Atlético Madrid were interested in selling Saúl regardless of this transfer deal with Barcelona or not, and although Simeone would be grateful to be able to get Griezmann for him instead of money; they would definitely be happy with money, too.

The side that looked in pole position to secure Saúl’s signature was Liverpool, who had coincidentally lost Wijnaldum for free (they had assumed to Barcelona, before PSG swooped and ended up, if the swap goes ahead, scuppering Liverpool’s plans twice).

The Reds have been in need of a top-class midfielder to provide thrust and goals in exactly the way Saúl can. It was meant to be Naby Keita and/or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but injuries and poor form prevented that from happening, and with Wijnaldum gone there is now a significant hole in the Liverpool midfield.

Fabinho is an obvious starter at the base, while Thiago and Jordan Henderson are great picks for the “creative” types, but the third role? The role Wijnaldum held? Liverpool only have Curtis Jones who doesn’t really fit that profile and is young and inconsistent. Saúl would have been a perfect fit with Liverpool’s squad and Klopp’s style of play. But if this swap deal goes ahead and Saúl joins Barcelona, then the Reds will have to start their search from scratch.

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