January 7 marked two years since Philippe Coutinho arrived at Barcelona. He was the second in Barça’s triumvirate of (over) €100 million signings, with Ousmane Dembélé joining six months before him and Antoine Griezmann following suit in 2019. Since then, the three have failed to live up to their lofty price tags. Admittedly, it’s difficult for any trio to fulfil expectations that come with costing over a combined €350 million. To put their price tags into reference, the Bayern Munich starting line-up that humiliated Barcelona 8-2 last August only cost a combined €100 million.
As we reflect, it’s clear to see the shortcomings of each signing, but hindsight is 20/20. On the anniversary of Coutinho’s arrival and as we enter a new transfer window now is as good a time as any to look back at each of these blockbuster-signings and examine their time at Barcelona.
Summer of 2017
August of 2017 hit Barcelona like a ton of bricks. Weeks of speculation and controversy culminated with Neymar Jr. departing to Paris Saint-Germain, and suddenly the Blaugrana were left with €222 million and a gaping hole to fill on the left flank. The transfer seemingly came out of nowhere, and the club had less than a month before the end of the transfer window to try and find his replacement. Neymar was the one Barça banked their future on, the one who would take over after Messi rode off into the sunset, but now that plan was ruined.
Nevertheless, the club had more than enough money to find an ample replacement…
Ousmane Dembélé put the world on notice after a breakout 2016/17 campaign. He tallied ten goals and 19 assists with Borussia Dortmund and attracted attention from big clubs across Europe, notably Barcelona. What followed was another long played-out transfer saga where Dortmund took clear advantage of the Catalans’ newfound wealth. Refusing to sell, the German outfit consistently raised their asking price until finally accepting an initial bid of €100 million that would rise to an estimated €130 million.
Dembélé arrived in late August with no shortage of expectations. He fit a clear need as a creative and pacey winger and could play on both left and right-wing.
Barcelona’s new number eleven made his debut in the Catalan derby against Espanyol. He came on as a sub and assisted Luis Suarez’s final goal in a 5-0 thrashing. He made his first league start a week later against Getafe, but suffered a hamstring injury that ruled him out for four months. Dembélé came back in January 2018, but after playing for two weeks, he was the victim of another injury that kept him out for almost a month. On a positive note, he made it through the rest of the season without an injury.
His first season was marred by injury and an apparent lack of faith from head coach Ernesto Valverde. The Frenchman showed sparks of brilliance every now and but it was hard to be consistent as he was in and out of the lineup so often. His highlight of the season came in March of 2018 when he scored a brilliant goal (his first for Barcelona) against Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-finals. Across 23 appearances, he had four goals and seven assists.
Dembélé was a part of the French team that won the 2018 World Cup in Russia — albeit on the ropes, but he came back to Barcelona motivated to prove himself. His second season with the Catalans got off to a great start as he scored the winning goal in Barça’s 2-1 defeat of Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup.
He followed that up with four goals in four consecutive games. In December, he scored what might still be his best goal in a Barcelona jersey against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League group stage. He was a one-person counter-attack as he picked up the ball at the halfway line, dribbled past multiple defenders, and rocketed the ball into the top corner. He was a constant in the starting lineup, and his versatility helped that.
The more Dembele played, the more certain things became clear. Although he had injury problems, he more or less always performed whenever available. His talent and potential were evident, and he gave the team a creative spark from out wide.
On the other hand, he did not fit Barça’s playstyle enough for some. The 2016/2017 Bundesliga Rookie of the Year’s playstyle is more accustomed to wide-open spaces that give him the ability to use his pace, but Barça do not often have the luxury of playing against expansive teams.
The 2018/2019 campaign was fairly successful for Dembélé as he had 42 appearances, nearly doubling the season prior, and scored 14 goals to go along with eight assists. He also completed a whopping 4.63 successful dribbles per game.
Unfortunately, injuries came back to haunt Dembélé in the 2019/2020 season as he suffered a hamstring injury in the opening La Liga match against Athletic Bilbao. He subsequently missed five weeks and then had another injury in the fall. He tore a leg muscle and missed six months, including the rest of the season.
The 2018 World Cup winner got off to a rough start to the 2020/2021 season, but that was natural given his lengthy spell on the sidelines. Once he found his footing, he had four goals and two assists and was vital to the team as Barça continued to lack natural wingers. His good form was short-lived, however, as he had yet another injury. This time he was on the sidelines for a little under a month.
Investment Return Rating: 6/10
Although he can certainly improve his passing acumen and decision-making, the questions about Dembélé have always involved availability, not ability. Since arriving in 2017, he’s missed 85 games due to injury and played 90. On a positive note, he’s only 23, so there’s a chance he can shake off the injury bug as his career progresses. If he were to leave, Culés would be left wondering what could have been.
Out of the players on this list, Coutinho was undoubtedly the most hyped. After another drawn-out transfer saga, the Brazillian moved to Barcelona in the winter transfer window of 2017/2018. The fee of 160 million euros made him the third most expensive player of all time, after Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
At the time, Coutinho’s signing made plenty of sense. He was coming off monstrous seasons at Liverpool and could replicate the Andres Iniesta’s creativity, not to mention Neymar’s too. Once again, Liverpool knew Barça were desperate and they managed to hike Coutinho’s transfer fee all the way to €145 million, including add-ons.
After sustaining a minor injury upon arrival, he hit the ground running in his first season with the Blaugrana. The Brazillian was deployed most often at left-wing, rather than his preferred number ten role, but excelled nonetheless. In only half a season, he tallied nine goals and seven assists. He was unable to play in the Champions League due to registration constraints, and that was unfortunate given Barça’s early exit to A.S. Roma.
Coutinho’s second season, however, was not as promising. He featured as a left-winger in 44 of his 53 appearances, and his shortcomings in that position were exposed all season long. Coutinho lacks the pace of a winger and prefers to do his damage centrally. His movement often nullified his productivity as it would interfere with Messi, who roams the pitch as well. He was also a defensive liability when played in midfield due to poor positioning and pressing, which has admittedly improved since then. As previously mentioned, he was a lacklustre winger and didn’t have the natural attributes for the role.
Throughout the season, he was passive and lost a lot of confidence – it did not help that fans would boo him either. Overall, he lacked consistency and was clearly not living up to his price tag.
After a disappointing season, Coutinho was loaned to Bayern Munich for the 2019/2020 season. Barcelona hoped he could regain his form and either come back rejuvenated or have more potential suitors. He played well with the German side, scoring 11 goals and having nine assists but was often given a bench role. He notably scored a brace when Munich beat Barcelona 8-2 and won the treble with them.
Coutinho returned to Barcelona for the 2020/2021 season new and improved. He was determined to prove himself in the Garnet and Blue. Under Ronald Koeman, Coutinho was deployed in a number ten role for the first time with Barcelona. He thrived in that role and got off to a blistering start. In his first five games, he had two goals and two assists. The 2019 Copa America winner played with more confidence and energy, but unfortunately, an injury sidelined him for a month.
After his return, he was curiously deployed on the wing and was behind in the pecking order to youngster Pedri and Griezmann. Naturally, he failed to perform as he did at the start of the season. Some fans clamoured for him to be given a chance as a number eight in the 4-3-3 with his newfound work rate and physicality, but he was never given the chance.
He suffered another injury on December 30 and is set for a multi-month spell on the sidelines. He might get the chance to play as an interior soon in Koeman’s 4-3-3 but that hypothesis will take time to come into play.
Investment Return Rating: 4/10
In many ways, Coutinho’s signing initially made sense. He was a creative spark who could change a match in a second and could help ease the pressure off Lionel Messi. Nonetheless, for a multitude of reasons, he has not yet lived up to his price tag. Even if he were brought in for half of his fee, he still hasn’t lived up to expectations. It might not be too late for Coutinho to redeem himself but with reports of Barcelona needing to pay Liverpool an extra €20 million if the Brazillian plays in 100 competitive matches (only ten away), the two parties could go their separate ways.
After infamously denouncing a transfer to Barcelona the summer prior, the Catalans activated Griezmann’s release clause of €120 million and pried him from rivals Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019. Like Coutinho before him, Greizmann looked like a natural transfer target. He’s a hardworking and intelligent player with an eye for goal and is extremely versatile too. At Barça, he was poised to fit in for Suarez at centre forward or even out wide on the left or right. Suffice to say, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to real life.
Griezmann had a difficult start to his Barça career. He was deployed at left-wing in a 4-3-3, alongside Suaréz and Messi, but constantly looked out of place.
Suaréz suffered a multi-month injury in the middle of the season which gave Griezmann playing time at centre forward, but he flattered to deceive. It was clear that he needed to play in his natural position, as a second striker alongside a natural number 9. Although his position did not exist in Barça’s 4-3-3, he was a workhorse who always tracked back and fulfilled his pressing and defensive duties admirably. Even if he lacked a killer instinct in front of goal, his work rate was always a positive takeaway.
That campaign, he was notably the first Barça player other than Messi to score an away goal in the Champions League since 2015. His highlight of the season, however, came against Villarreal in a 4-1 win in July. Coach Quique Setien deployed a 4-3-1-2 formation, plotting Griezmann behind Messi and Suarez. He excelled with his passing and playmaking and scored a brilliant goal, a chip from outside the penalty box.
The ex-Atletico Madrid forward scored 15 goals in his first season to go along with four assists, which was not terrible, but far from the return, Barcelona were expecting from a player carrying a €120 million price tag.
There was optimism heading into the 2020/2021 season for Griezmann as he could be deployed in his favoured position, but it has been more of the same from him. Although he has seemed more comfortable than ever, he still lacks the lethality in front of goal that Barça need in their forwards. He’s been fairly inconsistent, but his best performances eclipse everything he did last season, which is at least something Culés can be optimistic about.
He has seven goals and five assists this season and is looking to be more of a leader on and off the pitch, and might still have time to do damage as the season wears on. If not, it will not be too difficult to look for suitors for the Frenchman.
Investment Return Rating: 5/10
There’s no doubt Griezmann is a great teammate and a hard worker, it’s just about whether he’s the right fit for Barça’s front line, particularly as he and Messi fulfil similar duties on the offensive end. For some, he’s been atrocious for Barcelona, but for others, he’s been decent, so it’s safe to say he lies somewhere in between. The off-the-field issues seem to be behind him, but he still has to be more consistent on the field.
These three signings represent some of Barcelona’s most careless transfer activity. With Coutinho and Griezmann, there was clearly not enough planning and thought put into how they would fit on the pitch. Dembélé’s situation is unfortunate due to constant injuries, but with his contract soon expiring, the club will have to make the right decision. Culés are still holding out hope that their blockbuster signings will turn the corner, but only time will tell.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.