There was little Barcelona could do when Paris Saint-Germain came knocking. So determined were PSG’s Qatari owners to make the bluest of all blue riband signings that they willingly smashed the world transfer record to smithereens for Neymar’s signature. It was a deal paradigmatic of the absurd age, one whose numbers are so great they’re almost impossible to comprehend. Barça, the third most valuable football club on the planet, were perversely reduced to the most helpless of positions, mere victims in the brutal onslaught of boundless capital. If Barça supporters were angry, it was at the player rather than their club, as personal loyalty sunk beneath tidal waves of gold.
But while Barça chiefs emerged from the loss of one of the sport’s most valuable assets with their reputation still intact, their actions elsewhere in the transfer market suggest they could yet come in for some serious criticism. For while losing Neymar was excusable — perhaps entirely unavoidable — their other summer business has been firmly within their control. So far, it’s looking like it will be a baptism of fire for new coach Ernesto Valverde, who oversaw a 3-1 home defeat to El Clásico rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Supercopa de España on Sunday.
Replacing Neymar is clearly impossible, but the Supercopa defeat will have done little to convince supporters that Gerard Deulofeu can prove an adequate stopgap. Brought back to the club this summer two years after a permanent move to England, the 23-year-old winger was handed a start out on the left side of Barça’s attack. Not surprisingly, the man who struggled to make an impact in spells at Sevilla, Everton, and AC Milan turned in an underwhelming performance before being hauled off to make way for another homegrown talent, Denis Suárez. Things got no better in the half-hour that he was on the pitch; like Deulofeu, he failed to make possession count in the final third. Damningly, there’s as much reason to think that it’s not merely experience lacking, but quality.
It’s not only up top that Barça’s business has raised eyebrows: Monday’s news that they had signed 29-year-old one-time Tottenham Hotspur flop Paulinho from Guangzhou Evergrande proved almost as surprising as Neymar’s exit. He joins a growing bunch of Barcelona midfielders ranked firmly outside the top tier: André Gomes has failed to impress since arriving from Valencia last summer, while there remain question marks over the likes of Ivan Rakitić, Arda Turan, and Rafinha. Signing squad players is sensible, but building an entire squad of them is worrisome to say the least. With Andrés Iniesta’s retirement just around the corner, Barça could really do with some more creativity in the centre of the field. Even veteran midfielder Sergio Busquets has called for reinforcements, urging the club hierarchy into action in the aftermath of the defeat to Madrid.
Spending big to sign Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho would placate supporters in the short term, but there’s reason to remain skeptical about whether he’s really good enough. Flickers of brilliance at Liverpool have only ever remained flickers, his unquestionable technique betrayed by his all-too-questionable decision-making. He’d be a big-name capture, no doubt, but there’s the risk he’ll remain the perennial wunderkind, forever on the margins of the elite.
Rather more promising are recent rumours linking Barça with a move for Ousmane Dembélé — rumours all but confirmed by Borussia Dortmund after they suspended the player indefinitely for trying to force the move through. At 20, Dembélé is five years Coutinho’s junior, and is as close to a like-for-like Neymar replacement as the Catalans are likely to find. He seems destined for stardom, and signing him now would avoid a season spent relying on the evidently inadequate Deulofeu. With Dortmund playing hardball, that could prove easier said than done, but it would undoubtedly move some way towards redeeming what has so far been an undeniably concerning transfer campaign.
Of course, Barça still have Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. Aging they may be, but they remain two of the very best players on the planet. And as mentioned in the intro, Barça are wealthy enough that they’re unlikely to fall into a long-term decline of the orders of Liverpool or AC Milan. Even the suggestion of crisis is, like reports of Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. But it seems increasingly evident that the club is approaching a period of transition, in which every decision does hold particular weight. Barça supporters won’t be expecting another Neymar, but they will be expecting to remain competitive on all fronts. At the moment, Madrid look streets ahead.