Well, that chapter’s in the books, at least.
September 1 came and went, its departure bringing the close of the summer transfer window in Spain and unfolding largely without incident for Barcelona despite all the talk. Except, Munir El Haddadi departed on yet another loan assignment, this time to the Basque wine country and Alaves, and… crickets.
That the start of September was not accompanied by any glamour signings has understandably been met by Culés with some disappointment. After all, Neymar’s shocking relocation to Paris resulted in both a gaping hole in the Barça line-up, and a monstrous pile of cash with which to address it.
Add in some embattled suits who’d love nothing more than a PR victory to distract from the increasing uncertainty – reportedly within the club as well as among the constituency – regarding their fitness for duty - and you’ve got a recipe for some conspicuous and indiscriminate expenditure.
However, in the eye of this perfect storm, amid a deluge of rumors linking the club to every talented attacking player that may or may not have been on the market, the Barcelona board stood pat.
In and of itself, that lack of activity is not a cause for concern. More often than not, reactionary spending along the lines of that which was rumored does little more than invite calamity.
More troubling, however, is the backdrop against which this frugality played out. In the weeks since PSG turned Barça’s summer upside down, the club’s management – namely Josep Maria Bartomeu, Albert Soler and Robert Fernandez – not only did little to quash the flurry of rumors, but repeatedly promised that high-profile reinforcements were imminent.
This, along with the star-studded shopping list that was taken to the market – Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria, Thomas Lemar, Jean Michael Seri, Iñigo Martinez, Riyad Mahrez, Dani Parejo, Marco Verratti… of which the club was only able to secure a 20-year-old prospect at a nine-figure cost, point to a worrisome issue.
A quick aside: this is not intended, in any way, to disparage the acquisition of Dembele. He is a legitimate superstar starter kit. A player that young, that technically gifted and adept with both feet, and both lightning quick and fast? This is a guy you simply go and get, and management deserves credit for locking him up.
No, the issue at hand is that the patience and frugality for which the board is now so quick to self-congratulate was not always consciously chosen, but imposed upon them.
These guys tried to go on a maniacal spending spree – they just couldn’t get anyone to take their money. In the apparent absence of any sort of strategy for roster construction beyond “we have Lionel Messi” (ohdearohdearohdear), the willingness of other clubs to forcibly deter these men who were seemingly intent on shooting themselves in the collective foot is much appreciated.
Coutinho, through no fault of his own, spent this summer on the verge of becoming the knee-jerk calamity of this post-Neymar period. He’s 25, a very-good-to-excellent player, possessing the talent and versatility to bolster midfield and attack.
On his day, a combination of pace, quickness and command of the dribble elevate him to the world’s uppermost tiers. It could be argued (rather convincingly), however, that, given the frequency with which “his day” occurs, a price tag closer to that of Romelu Lukaku is more in order than one creeping into Neymar territory.
And the only obstacle between the latter and reality was the monumental resolve of Liverpool’s management, who at any moment could have simply opted to accept €160 million in exchange for maybe (not certainly) their best player. Thanks guys!
While we’re on the subject, think for a moment about how nice it would have been if such a player had been available, locally, in the recent past. Perhaps available for purchase at a reasonable price at the end of a loan spell. We can drea… Wait, what??
Amid the repeated, and very public rejections in their pursuit of the Liverpool star, it appears to have suddenly dawned on Bartomeu & Friends that, gasp, prices in the transfer market have gone crazy and, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, “there’s just no value in the market”. Sure, Ferguson was referring to knee-jerk spending in the January transfer window, not to snapping up a pair of playmakers to bolster a midfield in desperate need of quality…
Barça continued to eye impact signings, reengaging with PSG (because, y’know, the Neymar and Veratti experiences were so positive), in pursuit of Ángel Di María. I admit to being more positive on that prospective move than most, not because Di María is the solution to the issues plaguing the squad, but because the club is in need of replenishing, not only with transcendent talents, but simply good players.
A skilled and experienced professional than can play out wide and pick out a pass, even one as unfathomably old as 29, can be an effective immediate-/short-term solution. Di María represents all of that. Plus, I’ll keep saying it, any friend of Leo’s…
Alas, it turns out that, having all but begged for permission to spend €160+ million on Coutinho, the powers that be determined that a player four years his senior, and frankly no less accomplished, was not worth roughly a third of that sum.
And then we have the perplexing case of Jean Michael Seri. In Nice’s Seri, Barcelona had a golden opportunity to secure the services of a 25 year-old athletic, unselfish, hardworking midfield playmaker who idolizes Xavi.
What’s more, Seri was available at a price only slightly above that of Andre Gomes, or roughly a quarter-Coutinho (yeah, he’s a unit of measure now). From any angle, this deal was a no-brainer on par with that of Dembele. Talent, age, cost… done deal. And it was! Until, inexplicably, it wasn’t, and the young Ivorian’s dream of playing at Camp Nou was snatched away before it could begin. Man, Paulinho had better be good…
Fans of Barcelona will almost assuredly look back on the summer of 2017 with profound sense of loss and disappointment – the Neymar saga alone assured that.
The unexpected loss of his combination of skill and star power will never not be gutting. However, the reaction to that loss has proven equally disappointing. The leadership of the club hit the market with fistfuls of cash and a shapeshifting list of targets, in a transparent attempt to weather the public relations storm without an outright concession of defeat, team building be damned.
They’ve intermittently had to be protected from themselves, and then boasted of self-imposed fiscal responsibility in a market gone mad, passing on opportunities – often with embarrassing effect – to strengthen the on-field product with which they’ve been entrusted. Ostensibly, their job.
I cannot wait to return to football, to an escapist world in which Barcelona sit atop the table, blissfully distracted from the terrifying reality that there may be no one at the wheel of the mother ship.