This summer began just like any other at Barcelona, but by the end, it had dramatically altered the outside perception of the club and laid the groundwork for an almighty power struggle.
The biggest surprise of Spanish deadline day was Barcelona’s general lack of activity. The deficiencies in their squad are no secret and yet those deficiencies remain. Their pointless courting of Philippe Coutinho had become undignified long before it was over, and when the message finally came through to the higher-ups in the club, a mad scramble for Angel di Maria ensued. It’s not at all befitting a club that had seen itself as above all of that for so long.
To focus on how it ended, however, we have to go back to the start of the summer. Luis Enrique had just stepped down as manager after three seasons in charge, and Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde had replaced him. It was a new era at Barca and the signings, he was promised, would reflect that.
Top of that list, initially at least, was Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti. The seed had already been planted for this one, Andres Iniesta had already referred to him as his ‘natural successor’ in the media and that type of rhetoric tends to unsettle a player and it worked, by mid-June Verratti had told PSG that he wanted to move to Camp Nou.
What happened next was the first major indicator that this summer would very different for Barca, and it was as simple as PSG saying no. He wouldn’t be sold. It didn’t matter if he wanted to go and it didn’t matter if he rejected a new contract offer, he was a PSG player and would remain that way.
Verratti was the beginning but ultimately there were so many faux pas made by president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the rest of the Barcelona board that it’s difficult to highlight the biggest one.
The Coutinho one is interesting though because if nothing else it’s a perfect example of an under-pressure board desperate to appease an increasingly-rattled fan base by selling them mistruths and calling them facts. Liverpool were never selling Coutinho. There were no negotiations, it was never “hours away from being completed” as the Catalan press reprinted in embarrassingly frequent junctures. (Director Albert Soler even claimed in a press conference on Saturday, after the deadline had closed, that Liverpool were prepared to do business at €200m. They weren’t, and Barcelona fans will know better than to fall for that.)
It was simply never going to happen – the Premier League side’s instant rebuffing of all three bids and demands that Barca stay away from them made it quite clear they were never going to negotiate.
So why, then did general manager Pep Segura claim on national television at one point that a deal was close? Could it have had anything to do with the 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid that Barca fans had just witnessed, perhaps? Quite simply, they wasted their time with Coutinho when they could have been pursuing other targets.
On the face of it, the signings of Nelson Semedo and Ousmane Dembele are sound; they are both highly-rated prospects and will continue to flourish if the conditions are right, but even those deals, expensive as they were, don’t feel like a European giant flexing its muscles in the way that Bartomeu will insist it is.
Semedo, firstly, could end up costing over €50m if all of the add-ons in relation to his transfer are met, while Dembele’s deal could be worth €140m when Barca were reportedly quoted €90m by Dortmund (who were willing to negotiate) at the start of the summer.
The trigger for the latter’s jump in price, undoubtedly, was the departure of Neymar – another source of humiliation. Despite Bartomeu’s insistence that the forward was ‘200%’ staying in La Liga, the wheels were already in motion to take him to PSG for a world-record €222m. It was being done right in front of him and yet the president was saying otherwise.
Granted, there was little they could do about Neymar leaving but what happened in and around that was sheer chaos. It was a messy, unsavoury transfer window devoid of a plan. Bartomeu, Segura and Robert Fernandez started fires at PSG, at Nice, at Liverpool, and at their own club that will take some time to put out. It was an aimless, panicky exercise in how not to operate a football club when are deals worth hundreds of millions of euro to be done, and the club deserves better than that level of ineptitude.
They have turned their backs on what made Barca stand out from the crowd, of Johan Cruyff’s vision. They’ve gone after shiny, expensive players while La Masia suffers. It’s a horrible, bastardised version of Real Madrid’s Galacticos policy and it’s not working. (The irony being, of course, that Zinedine Zidane is having great success by moving away from that and focusing on youth at Real).
Probably the most damning critique of their summer business came from club legend Xavi, who cut to the heart of the lack of an overall plan in their transfer activity in an interview with Marca:
“They’ve fallen asleep. They have signed players that don’t fit the system.”
Aside from working out what exactly that system is supposed to be, perhaps the biggest problem for Barca right now is that Lionel Messi still hasn’t signed his new contract. Bartomeu has (twice) insisted that it will be signed and that it’s just a matter of timing, but the longer this goes on, the more worried all concerned must be feeling.
Iniesta has already been making noises about leaving soon, is it really that inconceivable that Messi takes one look at the mess at boardroom level and decides to leave for nothing next summer?
Heads will roll for this, of course they will. But they have to be the right heads. Barca have a team of directors right now, far too many to know who is actually pulling the strings and that will have to change. A motion of no-confidence has already been table against Bartomeu and the chances of his presidency lasting another term look decidedly slim as it stands.
Gerard Pique admitted recently that for the first time he now feels like Barcelona are inferior to Real Madrid. He’s right, they are – and right now it’s not even close to being a contest.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we speak to Longford boss Neale Fenn about his start to managerial life and look ahead to this weekend’s LOI fixtures and Ireland internationals.