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It is sure to be a soccer quiz question in years to come: “Which Barcelona player scored twice in their 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals of 2019/20?” The answer, of course, is Philippe Coutinho, whose two goals came while wearing a Bayern shirt towards the end of a season-long loan with the giants of the German game.
It was a particularly embarrassing moment in an all-round ignominious defeat for Barcelona. The weeks that followed were not much better for the club, who have retained the services of Lionel Messi only because the Argentinian did not want to force through an exit via the courtroom. Ronald Koeman has been appointed as manager, seemingly more for his credentials as a former Barcelona player than his coaching achievements, and Luis Suarez looks set to join Juventus before the transfer window closes next month.
It is safe to say that Barcelona’s preparation for the 2020/21 campaign has been less than ideal, but the last few weeks have been kinder to Coutinho. Despite his contribution to their Champions League triumph, Bayern Munich opted against making his loan move permanent at the end of the last term. Links with Arsenal appeared but quickly faded, despite reports in Spain and England suggesting that Coutinho was keen to return to the Premier League, where he had previously built his reputation with Liverpool.
However, unless something changes drastically in the next three weeks, Coutinho’s short-term future lies at the Camp Nou. Koeman has decided to give the Brazil international one more chance to make his mark in Catalonia, and the man himself has still not given up hope of becoming an important player for the club who paid an initial £105 million for his services back in January 2018.
That deal was celebrated by Barcelona at the time, but the last two-and-a-half years have shown that Liverpool were the real winners. Barca seemingly signed Coutinho as a long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta, but although he occasionally played in a deeper role during the latter part of his time at Liverpool, Coutinho has never been a true midfield player.
The Brazilian does his best work wide on the left, but he was not a great fit in that role for Barcelona. With Lionel Messi on the right and an ageing Suarez up top, there was not a great deal of pace in attack. Coutinho’s presence in the front three exacerbated the problem, and it will be interesting to see where Koeman intends to deploy him this term.
“Well, I am very happy. I missed playing in this stadium,” Coutinho told Barca TV after a man-of-the-match performance against Elche in a pre-season friendly on Saturday. “First game back in the Camp Nou and the official competition will start in one week, we are working really hard and we are focused on the new season.
“I was really looking forward to playing at Camp Nou again. I am very happy and working hard to start the season well. I have been feeling great and just hoping that my return to Barcelona goes well. I’m highly motivated.”
The Brazilian will hope to carry his promising form into the season proper, which begins for Barcelona with a game against Villarreal this weekend. A failure to impress this term would surely spell the end of Coutinho’s career at the club, but the ex-Liverpool man seems determined to make the most of the lifeline he has been handed by Koeman.
Regardless of whether or not Coutinho belatedly comes good, Barcelona must change its recruitment strategy. In recent years they have spent huge sums in the transfer market and got very little by way of return on investment. The Blaugrana have brought in too many players in their late 20s with little room to grow, and their transfer activity does not point to any sort of overarching on-field or long-term plan.
Three of the six most expensive signings in soccer history have been made by Barcelona in the last three years, yet the club has not even come close to winning the Champions League in that period. And on an individual basis, none of Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, or Ousmane Dembele can be considered successful signings at the time of writing.
Barcelona should use the seismic shellacking by Bayern Munich and Messi’s near-exit as an opportunity to press the reset button. Doubts remain over Koeman’s suitability to the role, but it has long been acknowledged that Barcelona’s problems run far deeper than whoever happens to be occupying the managerial hot seat. The club’s supporters used to mock Real Madrid’s ‘Galactico’ transfer policy, but in recent years it is Barca who has chased after high-profile superstars with little thought to how they might fit into the collective.
The structure of the modern game insulates Barcelona and other superclubs like them; an unspeakably terrible season at the Camp Nou would probably still see the Catalans finish in the top four in La Liga. Despite all their problems of late, Barcelona is available at a relatively short price of +110 with DraftKings Sportsbook to win the La Liga title this term. Madrid is favorited at -112, but Barcelona’s recent track record in Spain’s top tier is excellent and they could easily finish on top of the pile again in 2020/21.
Yet the Holy Grail for Barcelona and clubs of their size is the Champions League. And if they want to get their hands on that trophy again, they cannot just throw big-name players into a team and hope they sort things out by themselves. That is not what Liverpool or Bayern Munich, the two most recent winners of the competition, have done to reach the pinnacle of the European game, and Barcelona must understand that it is not an adequate strategy for them either.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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