Philippe Coutinho, Neymar and why Barcelona only have themselves to blame for their slow start

A summer upset by poor transfer planning culminated in a loss at Athletic Bilbao to start to the new La Liga season leaving many at the club with serious questions to answer

Dermot Corrigan
Monday 19 August 2019 09:37
Transfer deadline day summer 2019: The deals done so far

Although many at Barcelona spent the summer waiting for Philippe Coutinho to leave, the awkward timing of his exit contributed to Friday's 0-1 opening day loss at Athletic Bilbao, and highlighted the transfer tardiness which already has Ernesto Valverde's side playing catch up in La Liga.

Coutinho has had a rough time at Barca since joining from Liverpool for €145million in January 2018, and the blaugrana board have been trying for months to sell him to fund Neymar's return from Paris Saint Germain.

So there was relief when Barca director Guillermo Amor confirmed an agreement for the unwanted Brazilian to join Bayern Munich, when speaking on Spanish TV just ahead of Friday evening's game at San Mames.

Coutinho had travelled to Bilbao with the team, but in the end sat high in the stands watching as Barca dominated possession for the entire game only to be caught by Aritz Aduriz’s spectacular last gasp winner.

It is arguable whether Coutinho would really have made a big difference to Barca’s blunt attempts to unlock Athletic’s well drilled defence. And he definitely would not have been back in his own box with time almost up to head away the cross that was so athletically volleyed to the net by the 38 year old Aduriz. But uncertainty over the midfield and attacking options Valverde can use during 2019/20 definitely led to a confused Barca display which got exactly what it deserved.

Unfinished transfer business was evident in Ivan Rakitic being surprisingly left out of the starting XI - coincidentally or not with the Croatian midfielder being one of the few Barca squad members who PSG would accept in part-exchange for Neymar.

Plus it was striking how Rafinha was Barca’s most creative player on the night, after the Catalan club had spent the summer trying to sell the finally fit again playmaker. He would have already joined Valencia only for a row among transfer decision makers at Mestalla, but impressed after entering when Luis Suarez came off injured before half-time.

Not yet having finalised their squad for the new season was of course only one factor in the defeat. Clearly also important was Lionel Messi missing due to a calf injury. Although Valverde refused to accept 'Messi-dependence' as an excuse at the post-game news conference.

“We are used to Leo unblocking games like this for us, but we’ve also played great games without him,” the blaugrana coach said. “We needed other things, more runs into space, more width. We must transform possession into chances, which is what counts, and take them.”

With no Messi [or Neymar] around, Antoine Griezmann could have taken advantage to provide those “other things” in his first official game since his €120m arrival from Atletico Madrid. However Griezmann had a quiet 90 minutes, struggling to make much impact first on the left wing, then up front after Suarez left.

Barca's other new signing to start was ex-Ajax playmaker Frenkie De Jong, who was given extra responsibility on his debut with both Rakitic and Sergio Busquets surprisingly left on the bench. The ex-Ajax playmaker showed flashes of personality and ability, but expecting a 22-year-old to run a game at San Mames on his debut was too much.

Coutinho had to be moved on

Later on Friday evening, as Barca’s fans were still analysing the defeat, Coutinho’s exit was confirmed as a one-year loan by Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, with the Bundesliga side having an option to buy next summer. Their fans were probably also asking why the transfer had not been organised sooner, as Nico Kovac’s side began their campaign with two points dropped in a 2-2 draw at home to Hertha Berlin.

Sending Coutinho on loan gets his sizeable wages off Barca’s books. But it does not help raise the big money needed to bring back Neymar from a PSG hierarchy which look determined to drive a hard bargain. Especially considering the blaugrana board has already stretched financially to bring in Griezmann earlier in the summer.

Sunday’s Mundo Deportivo front page claimed that Barca were now “considering asking” to take Neymar on loan themselves, and prepared to give Ousmane Dembele in part-exchange. The report inside the Catalan paper did not convince that PSG sporting director Leonardo or especially the club’s chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi would be willing to go along with that plan. The impression given was of blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu and his fellow directors continuing to stumble through the summer's transfer activity.

Real Madrid remain another potential destination for Neymar, with more reports in the Spanish capital on Sunday that Blancos president Florentino Perez was making a renewed effort to finally sign his long-time obsession. Even after coach Zinedine Zidane insisted both before and after his team’s 3-1 victory at Celta Vigo on Saturday that he was now happy to “make do with the players we have”.

Madrid’s performance at Balaidos underlined the importance of drawing a line under transfer matters before the official action starts, with the previously ostracised Gareth Bale setting up the opening goal in an impressively all-action display on his surprise return to the team.

Real Madrid impressed at Celta 

Atletico also did their business early this transfer window, and England right-back Kieran Trippier took just 24 minutes to produce a peach of a cross to set up their opener for Alvaro Morata in Sunday night’s 1-0 victory over Getafe at the Wanda Metropolitano. That game's standout moment saw the rojiblanco side's new €126m wonderkid Joao Felix show he was settling well by hurdling four challenges in an electrifying 50 yard run before being fouled for a penalty which Morata missed.

Meanwhile, Neymar was nowhere to be seen on Sunday night as his current side were shocked 1-2 at home to Rennes in Ligue 1. While the official story is that the 27 year old is not yet fully match fit, he looked in pretty good shape in his Instagram holiday pictures from Portugal last week. PSG coach Thomas Tuchel has appeared open to Neymar ‘doing a Bale’ and staying, but winning back over the fans at the Parc des Princes looks impossible at this point.

Given La Liga’s transfer window remains open until September 2, there are still two weeks for Barca’s various transfer decision makers to sort out a workable plan. Valverde admitted last week that as coach he has little say on which players are bought or sold. And also to wishing La Liga would follow the Premier League’s example and shut the window before the games begin.

“It's inconvenient, there's no logic to it,” the Basque said. “It's not normal that we start the season with the transfer window still open. This fortnight of uncertainty isn't good.”

Valverde's attacking plans do remain very much up in the air. Suarez's calf injury is likely to keep him out for around a month. It is unclear whether Messi will be back for next Sunday’s game at home to Real Betis - the only team to win at the Camp Nou last season.

It is fair to add that the last time Barca lost on opening day, they recovered to win the title. And that Coutinho had to be moved on in whatever way possible. But the real lack of logic has come in how the chase for Neymar has upset all previous transfer planning. So the Catalan club have only themselves to blame for starting 2019/20 on the wrong foot.

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