Over $1 billion has been spent on transfer fees by Barcelona over the past five years. For such an astonishing outlay, the Catalan club has got very little. Big names have arrived at the Camp Nou - see Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann - but few have been truly intreated into the Barca side. Money certainly hasn’t been the solution to their problems.
If anything, these signings have only added to Barcelona’s problems. The global Covid-19 pandemic only accentuated a financial bind that was already tightening at the Camp Nou, with the club’s wage bill the highest in European soccer. On top of this, the political turmoil around Barca president Josep Bartomeu has deepened the sense of malaise.
New head coach Ronald Koeman has been handed a difficult hand heading into the 2020-21 La Liga season. The Dutchman has inherited an aging team at a club that is being pulled in a number of different directions. Koeman somehow has to change the culture in the Camp Nou dressing room and with very little money to spend such is the financial situation at the club at present.
Memphis Depay is one new signing seemingly set to arrive, though. Barcelona have reportedly agreed a €30 million fee with Lyon for the forward, with the Dutchman set to be reunited with Koeman having worked with the coach in the Netherlands national team. Some fans and pundits see this deal as a sign of how far Barca have fallen.
The addition of Memphis could be a shrewd move, though. The 26-year-old is a very different player to the one who flopped earlier in his career at Manchester United, becoming a far more rounded forward in three years at Lyon. Memphis has scored 58 goals in 141 appearances for the French side and has also become a key figure for a Netherlands team expected to be among the favourites at next summer’s European Championships.
In terms of the approach Koeman will take at the Camp Nou, Memphis’ signing also reveals a lot. With Lionel Messi staying at Barcelona for the 2020/21 season, it’s up to the new boss to come up with a system to harness the Argentine. While Messi remains as brilliant as ever, he has faded as a physical force. Others now need to do the running for him and this is where Memphis will come in.
Versatility is arguably Memphis’ greatest quality. He is capable of playing in every position across the forward line and that gives Koeman a great deal of tactical freedom. While some big signings, such as Griezmann, have been asked to play in unfamiliar positions in order to accommodate Messi, Memphis won’t suffer the same issue. He will comfortably fit around the Barcelona number 10.
Coutinho was another one of those big signings who arrived at Barcelona without a clear role for him to perform. The Brazilian struggled badly in the 18 months following his club record transfer from Liverpool, but found a new lease of life on loan at Bayern Munich last season, playing a key role in the Bavarians’ 8-2 demolition of Barça on their way to winning the Champions League.
Indeed, Coutinho’s brace and assist proved to Barcelona that the 28-year-old is worth persevering with. Whether as a direct result of this performance in the Champions League quarter finals or not, Coutinho looks set to be given another chance at the Camp Nou. He is another player capable of operating in a number of positions, of taking some of the burden off Messi, earning him a spot in our list of La Liga players to watch this season.
Koeman also has Miralem Pjanic to integrate into his team, with the Bosnian midfielder signed from Juventus this summer. Down the age rung, there's a contingent of promising, young players for the new Barcelona manager to give a platform to. Ansu Fati is widely seen as the natural heir to Messi. Riqui Puig has been tipped as the next Andres Iniesta.
Make no mistake, Koeman has a lot of talent to work with at Barca, but it’s how he arranges that talent that will determine his success or failure in the job. There isn’t a club in world soccer with a more romantic vision of how the game should be played than Barcelona, but in recent years they have lacked an identity on the pitch.
Players like Coutinho and Memphis could help them in this regard even if their worth is not immediately obvious. Koeman needs players who can help Barcelona become more than the sum of their parts again. The time for big name signings has passed. Now, Barcelona must make the right signings.