The day after the summer transfer market closed Barcelona’s sporting director, Albert Soler, and their director of football, Robert Fernández, ran through a PowerPoint presentation, specially prepared for the occasion.
They sat in the press room at the Camp Nou but might as well have sat in the dock. As they talked their way through it, player by player, deal by deal, those that happened and those that did not, they sought to justify what some considered the unjustifiable. Barcelona were in crisis and they stood accused. The interrogation was intense, the explanation not always convincing.
Instead it was contradictory, as if they could not always get their story straight. More importantly they had not got their man. Neymar had left for Paris, barely a fortnight after the vice‑president, Jordi Mestre, declared himself “200% sure” the Brazilian was staying and they had been unable to stop him. In his place there was no sign of Philippe Coutinho, the man they had so publicly pursued. Everybody demanded that someone take responsibility for a summer that most judged disastrous.
The €222m PSG had deposited in their account did not help. It might even have made matters worse and, Soler insisted, they would resist being drawn into wild spending – even if they did sign Ousmane Dembélé for €105m, rising to €145m. He and Fernández bemoaned an “inflated market” while the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, called for a limit on signings, describing the market as “mad”. Soler even claimed Liverpool had offered Coutinho “at the end” for €200m. “Logically,” he insisted, “we did not accept that.”
Some had called for resignations, a complete restructuring of a model in which eight different men had a say on signings – only for the signing that really mattered not to happen at all. “There will be no resignations,” Soler said. “We could have signed two players for €270m – and we could have – but then we would have to resign for being irresponsible. We’re not going to be drawn into that game.”
Four months on they have been drawn into exactly that. Dembélé could cost €145m, Coutinho €160m. Counting only easily achievable add-ons, that sack-inducing €270m outlay will surely be reached. But no one is seriously calling for sackings now and the pressure on the president has receded. Instead there is excitement at this signing, a belief that it strengthens Barcelona enormously. And, even as the price rose, even as Barcelona unexpectedly reached this market eight points clear at the top, 14 ahead of Real Madrid, the determination to sign Coutinho remained.
That is not to say there have not been doubts and debate. One high-ranking board member wondered whether it was financially responsible to commit to such an expensive signing and asked what impact it might have on other players within the squad. Even after the deal was done, even with the satisfaction of the signing finally complete, another of those involved privately expressed his belief the fee was too much.
That may, as José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp have said, simply be an inescapable reality: either you pay that or you do not have the player. And Barcelona were determined to have this player, a fundamental, strategic piece.
At 25 his role is part of a longer‑term project, part of the error is seeing him through the prism of Neymar’s departure. That is where Dembélé comes in – even if, because of injury, he is only just coming in now. As for Coutinho, he can play in a front three and Neymar’s departure may have made the need to sign him feel more pressing, especially amidst summer fears, but more significant is the need to replace Andrés Iniesta, who is 33 (Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi are both older than 30 as well), to find someone who can help secure some continuity in the model, the idea.
“Coutinho has a Barcelona ‘profile’,” Iniesta says. Suárez, who was at Barcelona airport to collect him on Saturday night, said of their 15 months as Liverpool team-mates: “Philippe was incredible. He changed us completely. He’s the one that gave us the faith in having the ball because his technical ability is so good. You knew he wouldn’t lose it, you knew that he would produce something special with it, that he would always choose the right pass … you could see straight away that he was different.” Those qualities are the ones that mean Barcelona feel he is the best equipped for their future.
Suárez, like Messi, wanted Coutinho at Barcelona. Signing him sought to satisfy those demands, as well as those of the fans. It sought, too, to fulfil a commitment to Coutinho himself, who had rebelled as he tried to force the deal through and whose environment and relationships at Anfield had shifted, even though he has continued to play well. And of course it “fixes” the sense of failure in the summer, justifying what they sought to justify back then. Better late than never; yet the sooner the better, too. If the football is good, the fee is quickly forgotten.
In part that helps to explain why they wanted to sign him now, even if it is not really about this season, even if, on the face of it, doing so may seem unnecessary, perhaps even daft: he cannot play in the Champions League and the advantage in the league is such that the need is hardly pressing. Yet signing him now also affords Iniesta rest, Ernesto Valverde strength and variety, able to rotate three or four roles across the middle and the front line, and Coutinho himself what could be seen as an extended settling-in period virtually pressure free.
It also avoids the problems associated with another potential shift in the market. Even now, in this window, other clubs sought to prise him away. It is easy to imagine Liverpool welcoming the opportunity to sell him elsewhere. Instead they eventually sold Coutinho to Barcelona. Whether he arrives a few months later or a few months early, he has arrived. He cost them over €150m but will not cost anyone his job.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010