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.