Two months after telling Ziggo Sport that he would like to move to a new club for more playing minutes, Barcelona’s Jasper Cillessen got his wish. The 30-year-old Dutchman was included as part of an unusual “swap” deal with Valencia that saw him trade places with Neto.
I say “swap” with quotation marks because it’s technically not a swap deal, even though it totally is.
Here’s the gist of it. Valencia were interested in trading Neto for Barcelona’s back-up goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen. But due to Financial Fair Play rules, Valencia needed the departure of Neto and the arrival of Cillessen to happen at different times so that they can balance their books. They needed Neto gone before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, and they needed to bring in Cillessen on July 1, which is after the start of the 2019-20 fiscal year. This way, Valencia are able to bank the transfer fee for Neto in the recently completed season and then send the money back to Barcelona as part of the following season.
Barcelona, due to a lack of offers that met the €25m price tag they put on Cillessen, agreed with going through with the move in this unconventional way.
The absurdity of the “swap” deal’s method aside, seeing two goalkeepers involved in such a deal is a rare sight in football. It’s not often a team trades a goalkeeper for another player, let alone for another goalkeeper. It did almost happen between Real Madrid and Manchester United in 2015, and Keylor Navas’ name is still thrown around as potential swap deal material. But almost isn’t good enough, and it doesn’t compare to the actual deal that took place between Barcelona and Valencia.
With the “swap” deal now finalized, let’s take a look at which club came out on top.
Jasper Cillessen and Valencia
Jasper Cillessen may have never played more than 11 games in a season for Barcelona, but his place as a fan favourite is undeniable. For three seasons from 2016 to 2019, the 30-year-old Dutchman played second fiddle to Marc-André ter Stegen. Most of his appearances were limited to the Copa del Rey (which he won twice), and his three Spanish league appearances from the 2018-19 season are a career high. In total, he’s appeared in just 32 career matches for the Blaugrana; 15 less games than Neto appeared in last season alone.
Nonetheless, Cillessen proved to be a quality goalkeeper during his Barcelona tenure. His comfort on the ball made him an instant hit in Barcelona’s passing-based system. He excelled at delivering accurate passes, both long and short, and it even led to him bagging an assist in the 2018 Copa del Rey final. Cillessen was also renowned for his superb reflexes and his ability to handle shots from distance and from inside of the box, prompting him to earn “best back-up goalkeeper in the world” shouts.
Cillessen is no longer a back-up goalkeeper, though. His move to Valencia officially makes him the club’s new number one, and he didn’t come cheap. Valencia had to send starting goalkeeper Neto, who conceded just 34 goals in 34 league games last season, to Barcelona. They also had to pay Barcelona €35 million for Cillessen’s services, which is quite a substantial amount to spend on a goalkeeper. In fact, it’s the joint-fifth highest fee a club has ever paid for a ‘keeper. Cillessen’s move to Valencia actually cost more than Manuel Neuer’s 2011 move from Schalke to Bayern Munich and as much as Thibaut Courtois’ 2018 move from Chelsea to Real Madrid, and both of those goalkeepers were starting goalkeepers at their former clubs. Cillessen leaves Barcelona as the most expensive back-up goalkeeper ever.
That leads into the big question surrounding Cillessen’s move; how will he perform in a starting role? There’s no doubt that Cillessen was an elite back-up goalkeeper, but there’s a significant difference between being a back-up ‘keeper and only playing ~10 games a season, and being a starting goalkeeper and playing 30+ or 40+ games a season.
In fairness to Cillessen, this isn’t his first rodeo as a starting goalkeeper. Prior to joining Barcelona, he was Ajax’s number one goalkeeper for three seasons between 2013 and 2016. He played 30+ games in each of those three seasons, and he actually surpassed the 40-game mark twice. He twice won the Ajax Player of the Year award (2015 and 2016), and although he only won one Eredivisie title as the club’s number one, he was generally respected.
Still, that stint happened three years ago, which is a considerable amount of time away from now. It’s also fair to say that Cillessen spent his prime years at Barcelona, and with his form having seemingly taken a dip this season, I think it’s fair to suggest that Valencia are not getting the same goalkeeper that won Ajax Player of the Year in 2016.
Speaking of Valencia, they’re not an easygoing club either. Valencia are a club that expects to challenge for a European spot, season in and season out. There are also European expectations, given that they were Champions League finalists in 2000 and 2001, UEFA Cup finalists in 2004, and Europa League semi-finalists in 2012, 2014, and 2019. Valencia fans don’t welcome mediocrity, so if Cillessen expects to ease into the number one spot, he is greatly mistaken.
Neto and Barcelona
For the third time in the last five years, Neto is on the move. This time, he’s swapping Valencia—a club he joined in 2017—for Barcelona. In the process, he’s also swapping a starting role with a back-up role, since he’s unlikely to overtake Marc-André ter Stegen in the pecking order.
This is not the first time Neto has traded a starting position at a top European club for a bench role at an even bigger one. In 2015, Neto joined Juventus from Fiorentina on a four-year deal. He had made 101 appearances for the Viola prior to his move, and he backstopped the club to top four finishes in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. With Juventus though, he only made 22 appearances across two seasons, including a Juventus career-best 14 appearances in 2016-17. In other words, Neto has been here before.
Neto is currently coming off of arguably his best season ever. In 2018-19, he made 47 appearances, including 34 in La Liga. In those 34 league games, Neto conceded just 34 goals. It was the season’s joint-third lowest goals conceded record, and his goals against average of 1.00 was bested only by Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen, and Getafe’s David Soria. But all three of those goalkeepers made less saves than Neto despite playing more games. In fact, according to NBC Sports, Neto is actually the only 2018-19 La Liga ‘keeper to have finished in the league’s top five in goals conceded, goals against average, saves made, save percentage, and clean sheets. This is clear proof of his reliability.
In terms of Neto’s on-field attributes, he’s not as good of a ball-handler as Jasper Cillessen, so Barcelona is losing something there. He also has some issues with positioning; it’s not uncommon to find him placed a step too far to his right or left. But he does have a good mix of height and agility. At 6 ft 3, Neto is two inches taller than Cillessen and one inch taller than ter Stegen, but he boasts similar quick reflexes to both goalkeepers. He’s an agile goalkeeper who can assess actions quickly, and that greatly benefits his reaction time and overall play.
For Barcelona fans, the focus doesn’t seem to be on the quality of Neto; I believe most of them know that he’s more than good enough to fulfill a back-up role. What’s seems to be drawing most of their concerns are the financial numbers involved, including his contract.
Per their website, Barcelona signed Neto to a four-year deal that expires following the 2022-23 season. This is likely due to Barcelona B’s Iñaki Peña being not quite ready to take on a larger role at the club, so the four years gives him enough time to fine tune his skills. But Neto will turn 30-years-old next month, and a four-year contract is a long deal to give to a goalkeeper who will unlikely have much value left by the end of it. His €200m buyout clause is also an eye-catcher; are Barcelona really that desperate to keep other clubs away from him?
Some rumours on social media suggest that Neto received a significant raise in his wages compared to what Valencia paid him last season, and that’s one of the big reasons why he decided to move to Barcelona. Although I couldn’t find a legitimate source that corroborated this, it’s been clear that he’s wanted an improved salary for a while. It was also something that Arsenal reportedly offered to try to lure him to North London earlier this month, so it’s probable Barcelona bumped his pay.
There have also been questions asked about his fee. Spending €26m plus €9m in add-ons is quite a fee to pay for a back-up goalkeeper. Even Jasper Cillessen, who was one of the most expensive goalkeepers in history at the time of his move, only cost Barcelona an initial transfer fee of €13m plus €2m in add-ons. As good as Neto was last season, paying €35m (add-ons included) seems like a bold move. Will it pay off in the end, though? Only time will tell.
Despite his contract and reportedly high wages, I think Barcelona are getting the better deal here. Neto is a solid goalkeeper who is coming off of a career season, has experience as a back-up goalkeeper with an elite club, and is willing to cut his playing minutes and take on a bench role. Very few goalkeepers in his place would do the same, and the fact that Barcelona have unearthed such an asset (yet again) is solid business.
This isn’t a dig at Cillessen, of course. After all, he was that same asset back in 2016. He’s been the best back-up goalkeeper in the world for the last three seasons, and he was instrumental in Barcelona’s last two Copa del Rey wins. But more questions will be asked of him, especially if he doesn’t live up to the “top 10” standards he’s been hyped up to be at.
Interestingly, neither fan base seems completely happy with the deal. Some Valencia fans are unconvinced by Cillessen’s tenure as a back-up goalkeeper and don’t see a need for swapping their starter with him. As for some Barcelona fans, they claim that Valencia pulled the rug out from underneath them and that they could’ve received more than they got had they just sold Cillessen to another customer.
Ultimately, I think both sides are getting good goalkeepers. Barcelona are adding one of La Liga’s top goalkeepers to their already stacked roster, and Valencia are getting a goalkeeper determined to prove he’s among the elite. If both ‘keepers deliver on their expectations, it’s a win-win situation for all parties involved.