In the time of football behind-closed-doors, Camp Nou feels like the emptiest stadium of all, with more vacant seats than almost any other arena.
The training ground also looks emptier than the new Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman would have liked, now that the transfer window has closed with an apologetic whimper.
Koeman wanted more buys than the club managed. There are employees, on vast salaries, he would have preferred to wave goodbye to. As Monday’s transfer deadline neared, Barcelona baulked at the cost, an initial €20m ($23m), of a new striker Koeman had petitioned for, Lyon’s Memphis Depay.
They stalled at the similar price asked for a central defender who wanted the move, Manchester City’s Eric Garcia.
So it was that a summer of trading which began with a bombshell – Lionel Messi’s request to leave – ended with the sound of fireworks fizzling out before they launched.
The good news, for the trophy-winning potential of Koeman-era Barcelona is that Messi remained, at least for one more season. The bad news is that he will lead a squad that looks lop-sided.
Koeman knows Memphis from working together with Holland’s national team. He was the preferred choice to fill a large gap left by Luis Suarez, who joined Atletico Madrid for a nominal deferred fee, easing a Barca a wage-bill that last season was the highest in club football.
After extended negotiations, Lyon lowered the asking price. Still there was no deal, and it became clearer to Koeman the Barcelona board, led by a beleaguered president Josep Maria Bartomeu, were only ready to take on Memphis if another high-earner could be shifted – Ousmane Dembele.
20 most expensive transfers of the summer
Dembele, who was offered to Manchester United on loan, ahead of a possible permanent deal, proved too hard to move on. The gifted France winger’s fitness record is why: In three seasons since his €145m arrival from Borussia Dortmund, he has started a mere 35 matches.
So Memphis stayed in France, while Dembele lingers in Catalonia, an awkward reminder of a time when almost every transfer window brought into Camp Nou a €100m-plus star and money was plentiful. After Dembele, came Philippe Coutinho, at over €160m, from Liverpool; and Antoine Griezmann, €120m from Atletico.
Griezmann has worked out better than his French compatriot Dembele, although not so well that his national head coach, Didier Deschamps, does not see him as a round peg in a square hole at Barca. “I can’t understand why he is not playing in a more central role,” said Deschamps just as the transfer window was closing. “I don’t think Antoine is happy with his situation at Barcelona.”
That central role will always be Messi’s as long as Messi chooses. And Suarez will always be remembered as Messi’s favourite striking partner. Just ahead of Neymar, whose 2017 sale for €222m to Paris Saint-Germain partly funded the extravagant spend on Dembele, Coutinho and Griezmann. Griezmann’s unenviable challenge is try to meet the standards set by Suarez and Neymar.
He has some new allies. Barcelona did sign Sergino Dest, an attacking right-back; Miralem Pjanic has arrived, in what was effectively a swap for midfielder Arthur with Juventus, and his midfield vision should be an asset.
But overall the club look like losers in the transfer window, after a season of many losses. They lost their hold on the Liga title; they lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League; they have lost their home crowds, thanks to the pandemic, which is a key income stream.
They have lost a troop of worldly footballers, from Suarez to Arturo Vidal to Ivan Rakitic, in order to lighten the salary load, and, just as the window closed, they lost the midfielder Rafinha, who left for PSG for a nominal fee.
That’s the same PSG who have been outplaying Barcelona in the transfer market for three years, who snatched Neymar and have rebuffed Barca bids for Angel di Maria, Marquinhos, Marco Verratti and, last summer, blocked a flimsy effort to bring Neymar back.
City looked at Barcelona’s bid for Garcia the same way: they firmly told the bidders they were not offering enough, even though Garcia seems set on running his contract down so he can leave for free next June.
One bright spot may be Coutinho, who spent last season unwanted and on loan at Treble-winning Bayern Munich. Barcelona had tried to offload him. No other club would match his vast wage.
But the Brazilian has started this season well, and looks ready to make a fresh start, seize his second chance to make that massive transfer fee look less misguided.