Javier Aguirre is one of the most experienced managers in La Liga. Throughout his illustrious career, he has survived vicious relegation battles with Espanyol, and taken Osasuna to the Champions League. Aguirre led the Mexican national team at two World Cups and lost the 2001 Copa America final by the slimmest of margins. From coaching in Japan and winning trophies in the United Arab Emirates, there isn’t much in football he hasn’t seen. Yet, the baffling transfer off Martin Braithwaite even took even him by surprise.
So, what happened and why?
Following Mauricio Pellegrino’s sacking, Javier Aguirre took the helm at Leganés in November and wasted no time steadying the ship. By the end of the year, the squad was more rigid and disciplined at the back, while Martin Braithwaite and Youssef En-Nesyri were working hard to exploit every gap in opposing defences. Following a resurgence in form in December, safety once again seemed within reach.
Then, the winter transfer window saw the departure of En-Nesyri to Sevilla. The Andalusian club paid the striker’s €20 million release clause, leaving Leganés powerless to stop the move. A transfer which clearly dealt a severe blow to Leganés’ survival chances, but one they must have seen coming. Given the 23-year-old’s undeniable talent, experience in La Liga, and relatively low buyout clause, it was always a matter of time before he was on the radar of the big clubs.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the table, Barcelona were going through a crisis of their own. Ousmane Dembélé had suffered yet another long-term hamstring injury and had been ruled out for the rest of the season, and Luis Suarez was also a regular in the treatment room. The Catalans suddenly found themselves uncharacteristically short of attacking options.
Ansu Fati seized the opportunity to burst onto the scene and provide crucial support to Leo Messi and the struggling Antoine Griezmann. Still, Barça were down to just three healthy first-team forwards ahead of the most physically draining part of the season.
The Spanish football authorities allow clubs to make ‘emergency’ signings outside of the transfer window if a player is ruled out for more than five months, provided that the new signing is a free agent or already playing in the country.
The Blaugrana applied and were permitted to sign a replacement for Dembélé within 15 days. They immediately deposited Martin Braithwaite’s buyout fee and, just like that, Leganés’ leading goalscorer disappeared in a puff of smoke. For the second time in two months, Los Pepineros were helplessly forced to watch a key player leave Butarque. This time, as it was outside of the transfer window, they were even denied the chance to sign a replacement. None of their remaining centre-forwards had found the net by this point of the season.
“I haven’t lived in a situation like this before,” Javier Aguirre told ESPN after the move was announced. “As they say in Mexico, they’ve screwed us.”
The move was controversial, to say the least. Barcelona were by no means mere victims of bad luck. Ousmane Dembélé has had constant fitness problems since signing from Borussia Dortmund for a fee that seems even more outrageous in retrospect. Luis Suarez suffered his injury in January, long before the end of the transfer period.
Not only did Barca decline to reinforce their already ageing squad, but they also chose to part with Carles Pérez and Abel Ruiz, two of the most promising La Masia graduates of recent times. Last summer, Malcom was inexplicably sold to Zenit despite the obvious need for a back-up winger given Dembélé’s persistent issues. In the least surprising turn of events, Dembélé’s injury left the Catalans understaffed.
To call this an ‘emergency’ absolves Barca of any responsibility for their own decisions. Pérez, Malcom and Ruiz were presumably sold to balance the books and comply with Financial Fair Play regulations. So why was one of football’s wealthiest clubs in a position to worry about FFP? For years they have spent outside their means, maintaining the most substantial wage bill in any sport, and paying money they don’t have for players they didn’t need.
The Blaugrana had to borrow over €100m to afford Antoine Griezmann’s s price tag. Since his arrival, the World Cup winner has looked out of place alongside Suarez and Messi, and the new attacking trio has struggled to find its rhythm. In fact, the team didn’t click into gear until the French superstar was substituted in their last game against Bilbao. The former Atleti forward was signed to replace Philippe Coutinho, another record-breaking signing that hasn’t paid off. Despite their undeniable quality, both players have so far struggled to fill the Neymar-shaped hole in the Barca attack, costing the club hundreds of millions in the process.
Presidential candidate, Victor Font, has expressed his dismay at the club’s “economic bankruptcy and moral decay” under Josep Maria Bartomeu’s leadership. With the endorsement of club legend Xavi Hernandez, Font looks like the frontrunner for next year’s election. In April, six board members resigned and expressed their concern over the way the club’s mismanagement. The Bartomeu administration is imploding that much is clear. Sadly, other clubs are getting caught in its shrapnel.
“We can’t understand the current rules that mean a club, suffering a long-term injury, can unilaterally carry out an operation and pass the problem onto another club,” Leganes director Martin Ortega told the media back in February. “Barcelona knows the damage it can do with the signing of Braithwaite.”
Barcelona didn’t break any rules, but they were willing to doom another team to near-certain relegation just to paper over the cracks for a few months. He was a panic buy to solve a temporary problem for Barcelona, while creating a permanent one for Leganés.
Ironically, due to the COVID-19 break, Braithwaite’s intended role now seems obsolete. Messi and Griezmann had a long break, and Suarez had plenty of time to recover from his injury. The playing time that was reserved for the Dane has mostly evaporated. He has signalled his intention to stay for the full duration of his four-year contract, but that seems unlikely.
Ousmane Dembélé will be back for the start of the new season, Francisco Trincão will join the club from Braga, and according to Spanish media reports, so will Lautaro Martínez. Barcelona’s attack will be crowded once again, and Braithwaite will struggle to find his place among the superstars.
Meanwhile, at his former club, his absence has been evident during every game. Leganés have scored the fewest goals in La Liga. They have conceded as many goals as Valencia yet find themselves eleven places below Los Che.
The missing part of the machine is painfully evident, and it doesn’t take a tactical genius to notice. On Monday, Miguel Angel Guerrero missed a penalty against Granada, and Los Pepineros put one foot in Segunda División. Aguirre’s team created half a dozen excellent chances in the game; they just needed someone to put them away.
After Eibar’s impressive win over Valencia on Thursday, Leganés’ fate appears to be sealed. With seven games to go, Los Pepineros find themselves seven points below Eibar and eight below Celta Vigo. The latter used the emergency signing rule in an even more controversial way, signing striker Nolito to replace their injured goalkeeper, Sergio Álvarez. In their remaining games, Leganés are set to face Sevilla, Valencia, and Real Madrid.
The task seems impossible. Maybe it was always unlikely, even if their strikers had stayed, but the club deserved a fighting chance. Either way, Martin Braithwaite’s move to Barcelona remains a perfect monument of everything wrong and cruel in La Liga’s economy.
Smaller clubs already have reason to feel as if they don’t matter. They receive a substantially smaller proportion of the TV rights revenues, even though they are more reliant on that income stream. Now they also know they can lose key players at any time, even if the transfer window has expired.
Of course, smaller clubs can take advantage of the emergency signing rule as well, and they often do. However, most teams in Spain cannot afford to pay the full buyout clause price for the players they desire. It’s hard to see how the rule works to the benefit of anyone but Spain’s richest clubs.
Leganés achieved plenty during their three years in the top division. The 2-1 win against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu to reach the Copa Del Rey semifinal in 2018 was a phenomenal moment, arguably the most significant night in the club’s history.
Now, they can leave another permanent mark on Spanish football. In the wake of the Braithwaite saga, FIFA has called for the emergency signing rule to be scrapped, and the pressure mounts on La Liga to do so. Leganés might get a fairer shot next time they are around.
Written by: Anton Velchev – @AntonVelchev