It’s been nearly three years since Neymar bid the azulgrana colours farewell, but the indecisive board of Barcelona is yet to replace and find a suitable successor for him. Various players have been brought in, though, none of them have quite done their enormous price tags justice.
Header image by Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images
Although Barcelona’s brainless board has made several foolish decisions over the years, Bartomeu’s inability to find a suitable replacement for Neymar has to be considered as one of his biggest failures. By no means is it easy finding a player of such high stature, but ever since Neymar departed the club, the blaugranas have been witness to three major signings, with, unfortunately, neither of them having lived up to their staggering sums. That being said, let’s take a look at the those player and discuss how they’ve fared at the club.
Dembélé is undoubtedly hankering for success at Barcelona. Though fragile, his flamboyant feet and excellent skills on the ball surely earn him a lot of praise. However, injuries seem to never let go of this young prodigy. While it could be argued that Dembouz simply lacked discipline at the start of the season, at this point, he just seems like a lost cause with his recurring injuries hampering his growth. Almost everytime he builds some solid momentum, setbacks come crashing his way. Notwithstanding the fact that his progress as a player is something to be content about, a gentle knock on the thigh is enough to make his established foundation collapse in an instant.
Quique Setién seems to fully trust Ousmane Dembélé, who is yet to recover from his latest injury and could be staying for the upcoming campaign | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
The Frenchman has been the only legitimate left winger and actually provides the team with width. He can burst forward with speed and disorient defenses with his explosive play style, but considering he barely gets the opportunity to construct some rhythm, the former Borussia man hasn’t fully adapted to the club yet. The potential in this boy is unlimited and he could very well be the ideal heir to Neymar’s throne. Unfortunately, with all these injuries disrupting his flow, he’s failed to fill the Brazillian’s boots. Of course, the board has little to be blamed for, but its fair to assume that all that money spent on Dembélé has practically gone down the drain. He’s been a failed signing and there’s simply no arguing with that.
Price tag: 105 million euros
The former Liverpool man arrived with high expectations. He came for an astronomical fee and was a huge investment by the club. His first season concluded quite well and he seemed like he had always belonged at Barça, however, his form took a dramatic shift in the 18/19 campaign. With Dembouz mostly having to spend his time on the sidelines, Coutinho was given the duty of starting at left wing. That position brought the worst out of the Brazilian as he virtually lost all his flare and charisma. Stationing Coutinho in midfield would have made far more sense, nonetheless, with the competition in midfield rising, he just wasn’t deemed worthy enough to start in such a role.
In spite of having a good first half a year, Coutinho became inconsequential in his second season at Barcelona | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
For someone who looks to drift in the center and possess certain privileges, life was never going to be easy on the flanks. Messi and Suárez seemed really keen to help him out and made an effort to combine with him, but the 27-year-old was too demotivated with his persistent goal droughts and uneasy atmosphere that surrounded him. He was never a winger and proved to be another failure at Barcelona. It made no sense to make such a signing when he was not offered a place in midfield and also never was the most exemplary winger. That cash could have been spent a lot wiser, but in reality, it just went onto show how poor the board’s decision making can be.
Price tag: 120 million euros, 145 with add-ons
Griezmann, during his tenure at Barça, has been quite productive. Despite not being gifted with sheer pace, dazzling dribbling skills or a killer cross, his intelligence has allowed him to read Suárez and Messi’s movements beautifully. His will to succeed is unmatched and credit must be given to him for coming in clutch already several times this season. Whilst he will never be able to create the impact Neymar had, out of all the players who were asked to own the left flank, Griezmann seems to be the best fit. However, it could very well be argued that the money spent on Griezmann could be used a lot more sensibly.
Reportedly, Barça could be looking to include Griezmann in a swap deal for Neymar himself | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Not only is the Frenchman unfamiliar with the left wing role, he also prefers to operate with freedom on the pitch. Occupying the same spaces as Messi is proving to be a little problematic so far, despite there being some steady improvement. If the club truly wanted to play him in a role he has little experience with, the same old question is brought up: what was the point? Surely, a natural winger like Sané or Jadon Sancho would be far more suited for such a position. Griezmann was originally meant to be starting in Suárez’s position, but has barely had the opportunity to feature in the center.
Price tag: 120 million euros
There seems to be a major rift between the board’s ideologies and the manager’s. All these record signings were made in the Valverde era and while he is no longer part of the Barça family, his inability to question the board’s decisions and claim his authority on certain signings are still costing us dearly. It’s evident that Bartomeu and his gang want a manager who doesn’t ask for too much influence in external affairs. However, being a coach of Barcelona means you simply can’t be deprived of such jurisdictions. It seems like the board blindly splashes cash on big name signings just to please the fans, when in reality, those players have no purpose in the squad. There’s a reason Xavi declined and there’s a reason Valverde was spared for so long; the hierarchy simply wants puppets as their pawns. One can only wish that Quique isn’t forced to deal with players he never wanted and is simply given the control to make calls that benefit the team.
Riqui Puig will fight for his place, but the message sent with him is discouraging
While Ronald Koeman has other options in mind, Riqui Puig has decided to stay at Barcelona for another year. Still, the message sent by the club and coach is disappointing for the youngsters.
The thing about the circus is that it never ceases to surprise you. You barely have time to reflect on what you have seen before the next bizarre and astonishing thing is demanding your attention. And that’s exactly how it feels at Barcelona at the moment.
Although the morality of both have come into question in recent years, it is the succession of absurd events which Barcelona appears determined to mimic. Barely had the dust settled on a historic motion of no confidence against the board, plunging the entire direction of the club into doubt again, when journalist Gerard Romero of RAC1 reported that Ronald Koeman had told Riqui Puig that he should look for an exit. On rolled the circus.
Twitter meltdowns have become something of a specialty subject for culés in recent years and this was the latest episode – yet this time the journalists seemed almost unanimous in their distaste too. An overreaction? Even prospective presidential candidate Víctor Font felt compelled to react to the news – “another example of why it is imperative this club has a new project as soon as possible”. The consistency of opinion indicates it is not.
Koeman would later water down his own words claiming that he suggested thee young Riqui Puig seek a loan, rather than leave outright. “He has a future here” caveated the Dutchman, but not an immediate one apparently. Twitter reaction, press criticism and the words of an opposition candidate are all predisposed to condemn an under-pressure board and manager. Yet this decision is so baffling that even the most single-minded Grupo Godó journalist would struggle to defend it. To discard Barcelona’s brightest prospect, alongside Ansu Fati, just makes no sense.
“It’s not true that [Riqui Puig] is not in our plans. I spoke to him yesterday. I speak to the young players – they have to play. They can’t not be playing. Him, [Carles] Aleñá, Pedri…I have told them that it’s difficult for them and there’s lots of competition. Nothing more. I have told [Riqui Puig] that he has a future here, but it depends on the player. I would recommend that he went out on loan. At 20 years of age, the young players have to play. They can’t get stuck for a period of time”Ronald Koeman, after leaving Riqui Puig out of the squad for Saturday’s Trofeu Joan Gamper against elche
Of course, Koeman is right. The competition in his positions will be ferocious this season. In a squad which has so often found itself on its knees by April, handicapped by a lack of depth, Koeman has an abundance of midfielders. The 4–2–3–1 formation appears non-negotiable in an attempt to extract the best of Frenkie de Jong. Miralem Pjanić, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Carles Aleñá will compete for the place alongside him. The mediapunta contest further ahead includes Barcelona’s most expensive player ever, their third most expensive player ever and one or two more.
On what basis Koeman is so certain that Puig wouldn’t even come second in either of these contests demands some explanation. Despite Puig’s smooth performance in the first friendly against Gimnàstic de Tarragona alongside De Jong. Despite him playing the mediapunta role so successfully against Atlético de Madrid last season.
Koeman’s great virtue was supposed to be that he would impose a meritocracy once more, that reputations were no longer important. Yet he appears to be continuing the recent Barcelona tradition of distrusting its own academy products. Following a policy which would have left football without its current best right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold, or Koeman’s own favourite jewel, De Jong.
Riqui Puig brings virtues that are sorely lacking in this squad too, which was evident in the improvements last season whenever he played. Hunger, aggression, mobility and tempo – an obsessive desire for a hulking physical presence in midfield makes sense to a degree, yet nobody has demonstrated these qualities more than the minute man from Matadepera. For a club that so recently said goodbye to Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, to doubt him due to his supposed lack of defensive capabilities bends the mind beyond comprehension. It also ignores the fact that what he does on it, he does better than anyone else.
It wasn’t just that he looked at home in the first team when called upon, he stood out. His manipulation of the ball and the opposition in tandem suddenly changed the rhythm of games for Barcelona, the increase in speed also parallel to the increase in threat. Because of his supreme understanding of space, teammates began making runs again and, consequently, the pitch increased in size as Barcelona were once again capable of using all of it.
Aggression isn’t purely a defensive trait either. The blaugrana squad is one of the most experienced in Europe but also one of the most risk-averse. Scared of their own weaknesses off the ball, as a general rule, only Lionel Messi attempted dangerous passes last season. The result was that Barcelona were far less dangerous for the opposition too. What Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati brought last season was a fundamental belief in themselves as footballers rather than just aides to Messi, taking on responsibilities neglected by their seniors time and again.
Riqui Puig has impressed whenever given the chance | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Last season the young midfielder was held up as a sign of all that was wrong at the club. Virtuoso performances for the B-team were ignored in favour of a labouring midfield by Ernesto Valverde. The excuse for his omission was that he was untested at that level. Quique Setién did facilitate his introduction into the first team and duly employed him to great effect in the final stages of the season. Finally, it appeared he had broken the glass ceiling, he had definitively shown his value to the first team.
This made the non-selection of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati in the Champions League, where Barcelona seemingly had little to lose, so maddening for fans. Whatever they did have to lose, they lost all the same against Bayern Munich. Any excuse for not starting Riqui Puig or Ansu Fati was obliterated that night – and yet Koeman, without any tangible reason, has decided to trust seven or eight others but not Barcelona’s best midfielder after lockdown.
It’s true that positionally the 4–2–3–1 doesn’t lend itself as kindly to Puig, but this argument has not been presented about others, who equally haven’t played in it before.
Beyond what Barcelona would miss on the pitch though, what makes Koeman’s decision so fundamentally problematic is what it signals off it. Barcelona’s largest problem has never been the lack of quality players – far less talented sides have achieved far more. The quintessential change that Koeman needed to make was a cultural one. By loaning Riqui Puig out, this would only pick up from where Valverde and Setién left off, compromising the team in order to select the senior players.
One of the few reasons for optimism in a dejected Can Barça this season was Riqui Puig. Firmly extinguished by Koeman when it seemed there could be no doubt he would feature heavily, if not start. On the pitch, Puig is one of Barcelona’s best midfielders based on last campaign’s evidence. Symbolically, he is the face of the rejuvenation that Barcelona desperately need, in terms of style and profile. It is worth asking the question: if a Barcelona manager that can’t trust Riqui Puig right now, should they be trusted with the Barcelona job?