Death, taxes, and Barcelona doing some fuck shit in the summer 2017 transfer window. These are the three constants in life, and boy does that last one keep reminding us of its omnipresence.
I’m not exactly sure why Barcelona have decided to, at nearly every turn, operate in this market as if sullying the club’s good name was leadership’s primary goal rather than improving the team, but here we are. The latest example of self-inflicted humiliation comes, naturally, from the club’s long and doomed pursuit of Philippe Coutinho.
All summer long, Barcelona have pined after Coutinho, leaking to the friendly local media that the transfer would soon be finalized. For just as long, the English press has consistently and almost without exception said that Liverpool had zero intention of letting Coutinho go, and had refused to even negotiate with Barcelona. The news cycle has been predictable and endless: First the Spanish media reports that a deal is close, then their English counterparts refute those claims, then Barcelona submits a bid, then Liverpool immediately rejects it, and then somehow the Spanish media insists once again that the deal is going to get done very soon now. It hasn’t made a lick of sense.
Usually when a player wants to leave for a bigger club, the player gets his way. This, though, appears to be one of those rare instances where the club has all the power and an iron will (even in the face of ludicrously inflated transfer fees) and thus will not sell. But Barcelona have refused to take no for an answer, and so their quixotic pursuit of the Brazilian has continued unabated. It has felt like an enormous waste of time during a summer when the team could least afford such neglect, and so far this has borne out.
So, what is a huge club like Barça to do when a slightly smaller club steadfastly denies them a player they want? Do they cut bait and move onto other targets, ones that hopefully are a better fit for the team’s style of play than the overpriced and ill-fitting one they’re after? Or do they try some transparently spiteful tactics in an effort to, I don’t know, anger the potential sellers so much that they give in and give them what they want? This post’s headline should clue you to which line of attack Barcelona seem to have taken.
The first casualty of Barça’s Coutinho pursuit was Nice midfielder Jean-Michaël Seri. Seri is something of a late-blooming player who burst onto the scene last year for a surprisingly spunky Nice outfit. His impressive array of perfectly measured cross-field passes and through balls chipped daintily over the heads of multiple lines of defenders, combined with innumerable other impressive feats of kicking the ball to a teammate, called to mind the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. These exploits naturally piqued the interest of Barça, who’ve needed replacements for those two aforementioned midfield wizards for a long time now. In turn, this interest quite naturally delighted Seri, as the prospect of stepping into that once-hallowed midfield would for any pass-loving player.
And so Seri became a target for Barcelona in the summer, at least as far as we knew. His name was brought up early on in the window, but then talk of Seri died down as the club’s efforts focused on acquiring the bizarre Paulinho-Coutinho-Dembélé triumvirate. But as Liverpool demonstrated just how firm their opposition to letting Coutinho go was, Barça went back for Seri. Just a week ago, most reports in Spain and France said Seri was on Barcelona’s doorstep, set to sign in a matter of days or even hours. Then, out of nowhere, Barcelona completely dropped all interest in him and went back for Coutinho.
This, like so many other reports of Barça’s decision-making, didn’t really make sense—at least not until you thought about it from the perspective of Barcelona’s undying commitment to embarrassing themselves. To get so close to signing Seri—a player who, while not really a like-for-like substitute for Coutinho’s skillset, at least was clearly thought of as a Coutinho alternative (Update: Previously this post said here that Seri would’ve taken up one of Barcelona’s non-EU registration spots on the roster; that is not accurate, since Ivorians do not count as non-EU players in light of the Kolpak ruling)—only to completely reverse tack once Nice tried to negotiate the fee, was odd to say the least.
But consider this theory: What if Barça never really wanted to sign Seri in the first place? What if they only got as far as they did with him so that they could make a big show of moving on from Coutinho? What if this charade was actually meant to lure Liverpool back to the negotiating table after scaring—“scaring”—them that Barça’s massive Coutinho bids were gone for good and that Liverpool might have overplayed their hand? In short, what if Barça’s plan all along was to use Seri as a big ploy to attempt to make Liverpool jealous so that when Barça came back for Coutinho Liverpool would be more open to selling? This would be a very stupid plot to dream up and then implement, yes, but it at least follows a kind of moronic logic that renders Barça’s behavior understandable rather than completely arbitrary.
The Seri situation isn’t the only piece of evidence supporting this theory. After ditching Seri, Barça doubled down again for Coutinho. The Spanish media kept publishing stories about how confident Barça’s leadership was of finalizing a deal soon, articles from all over the world reported on how desperate Coutinho was to get out of Liverpool so that he could join Barcelona, while reporters with a line in on Liverpool said nothing had changed on their end.
However, at the start of this week, things finally did seem to shift. All of the sudden Liverpool came out swinging, looking to spend a huge amount of money after weeks of relative quiet on the transfer front. They had reportedly gone back after RB Leipzig’s Naby Keïta (a target they’d pushed hard for earlier in the summer but eventually gave up on after Leipzig did to them what they are doing to Barcelona), returned for Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk, started pressing to sign Monaco’s Thomas Lemar, and also went after Arsenal’s suddenly available Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Most reports out of Liverpool claimed that none of this explosion of transfer moves (which combined projects to cost well over €200 million) had anything to do with any impending Coutinho sale, but it did smell a little fishy that Liverpool would all of a sudden decide to throw all this money at players, a few of which filled the very roles in the squad that Coutinho was expected to hold down. This, coupled with reports that Barça planned to submit a new €160 million bid for Coutinho, and news that Coutinho, who had allegedly been suffering from a back problem that kept him out of Liverpool training for most of the past month, had been declared fit and available for Brazil duty during this international break, felt like the dam breaking. Maybe Liverpool finally had relented and made the (wise) decision to snatch the stupid money Barcelona were waving in front of their face and move on.
Barcelona’s leadership presumably believed this was the case. This was why the club’s sporting director, Robert Fernández, saw fit to hint at the advanced stage of Barça’s Coutinho negotiations during Ousmane Dembélé’s presentation press conference, and why the Spanish journos, and even one fairly reliable reporter in the English press, ratcheted up the noise about Coutinho’s impending arrival. But then the reporters closest to Liverpool shot all this talk down for the umpteenth time, and nothing really made much sense.
Now we get to more of Barcelona’s dumb reverse psychology. Right as Liverpool seemed on the brink of signing Keïta in a deal that would go through next summer, Barcelona reportedly planned to swoop in with a late bid for the midfielder. Why on earth they would wait this long in the window to go after a target whose transfer was obviously going to be very difficult, even if he actually would’ve been a great player to pursue earlier if the team really had targeted him all along? A good question, though one that didn’t ultimately matter once it became clear that Barça’s completely random bid had failed:
Beaten to the punch once again. Next on Barcelona’s haphazardly assembled list of transfer targets was Thomas Lemar, who just so happened to be linked heavily with Liverpool this week. To be fair, Lemar had been mentioned in passing earlier in the summer as someone Barça might try to sign, so that name isn’t quite as random as Keïta’s. But it’s close, and the way the club turned to these two difficult transfers this late in the game right when Liverpool got serious about signing the same players is at the very least eyebrow-raising.
What to think about this, then? I believe that, similar to the Seri situation, Barça’s reported interest in both Keïta and Lemar actually stems from their Coutinho pursuit. I bet Barcelona thought they could use their name and prestige to unsettle these two players right as they were on the cusp of choosing to go to Liverpool, in hopes that while everything was up in the air, Barça could return to Liverpool and say something like “Oh I heard you were interested in Keïta/Lemar, eh? Yeah, turns out we are, too. Sucks for you, doesn’t it? However, if we were to, say, sign a player like Coutinho, we probably wouldn’t be interested in Keïta/Lemar anymore. So ...”
If the ploy worked and they convinced Liverpool to listen to their Coutinho offers, it would mean they had finally found a way to conjure some leverage out of thin air in a negotiation in which they previously had none, and they’d eventually wind up with the player they’ve always wanted. If it failed and Liverpool signed both Keïta and Lemar anyway while keeping Coutinho, then at least they’d tried. And if Liverpool didn’t let Coutinho go but Barça beat them out for Lemar, then it would have proven a pretty smart Plan B, as Lemar is a pretty similar player to Coutinho with lots of upside. From Barcelona’s perspective, there isn’t much to lose with a plot like this, and there is potentially a whole lot to gain.
The only problem here is that, no matter which way this winds up going, this is a terrible look for Barcelona. Even if Barça’s actual thinking isn’t exactly as I’ve hypothesized, it’s obvious that there’s some kind of Liverpool-focused shenanigans going on, and it comes off as incredibly desperate. This is supposed to be Barcelona, for christ’s sake! Més que un club! Home of the biggest stars and the most beautiful play and the most noble club! It’s appalling to watch a club of this stature debase itself in such a shameless fashion just because one player decided to leave!
For the love of god, will one self-respecting board member call a meeting with the club president and the sporting director, slap both of them in the face, shake the hell out of their shoulders, and shout at them to get a grip? Or at least will the club members vote these clowns out of office as soon as possible so some actual adults with a sense of dignity can take over and save the day? You’re doing way too much right now Barcelona, and it needs to stop. For your own sake as much as anything else.