Coutinho and Dembélé, Barcelona’s two record signings.
Imagine walking into a casino and putting a sum in the region of €250m all on red
The roulette ball starts spinning. And spinning. And it keeps spinning. It’s still going. All you want to know is whether your bet is successful or not and you want to know immediately, but the ball is still going. You now have a bad feeling about the ball, even though it hasn’t settled into a pocket yet. So you start getting angry at the ball, even though it hasn’t had time to prove you right or wrong. You now hate the ball and take to Twitter to rant about what a waste of money this whole experience has been. Meanwhile, the ball is still spinning…
Okay, so the ball is a metaphor for Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé, Barcelona’s two record signings. The former arrived in January and the latter touched down in Catalonia last summer and both are yet to hit double figures in the appearances made column – in the Brazilian’s case because he only signed last month and in the Frenchman’s case because he has suffered two lengthy muscle injuries.
But despite the small sample size, both are already being intensely scrutinised and even criticised in the local media. There’s no margin for error when the price tag is so eye-popping.
In Coutinho’s case, he started life at the Camp Nou by hitting the ground running, turning in a couple really crowd-wowing showings as a second-half substitute in the Blaugrana’s run to the Copa del Rey final. Yet he was left on the bench last weekend against Eibar, which surprised everyone given that the former Liverpool man was cup-tied for the midweek Champions League clash with Chelsea, meaning the logical option would have been to start Coutinho in this LaLiga trip to the Basque Country and to keep Andrés Iniesta fresh for Stamford Bridge.
“It’s a bad sign if Coutinho starts to become a backup in LaLiga,” argued one opinion piece in the aftermath of that match, in which Coutinho finally came on in the second half.
“I simply don’t understand it,” said another.
“It was for the good of the team in order to try to win,” was Ernesto Valverde’s surprisingly honest explanation.
At the age of 25, Coutinho finds himself in a strange sort of holding bay. He was purchased as the long-term heir to Iniesta’s position on the left of midfield, but he is already sufficiently experienced that many expect to be contributing in the here and now too. However, as long as Iniesta remains at the club and remains in good form, which is currently the case, then Coutinho won’t be able to play in that role and will instead have to wedge himself into other positions in which he might not be quite as effective. His positional flexibility could actually make life trickier for him, as his dot will be the one shifted across the tactics board like a rogue checkers piece. As for Dembélé, his situation is similar, although there are some key differences.
First, there’s the fact that he is just 20 years old, so there isn’t quite as much pressure on him to perform straight away. There’s an understanding that Barcelona was investing in his potential and there’s an understanding that he’ll need more time to mould his game to suit Barcelona’s style, with the player having looked a little like a solo artist during his early performances. Yet it’s undeniable that Dembélé cost the club a huge fee, essentially half of the Neymar earnings and potentially more if certain add-ons are triggered. That he was given Neymar’s No.11 shirt will have some in the Camp Nou stands and in the local newspaper offices expecting similar greatness within a few seasons, even though there’s no guarantee that Dembélé will reach that level of quality or that he’ll mature as quickly.
Second, there’s the language issue, one which is more serious than it may appear at first. “For Coutinho maybe it’s a bit easier because he already speaks Spanish,” explained Marc-André ter Stegen in an interview with ESPN. “But this is what Dembele needs to do. He needs to learn the language as soon as possible to be able to communicate in the locker room.” While there are some French speakers in the squad, they tend to play in the defensive positions. The players Dembélé really needs to communicate with are the attacking ones and this is where he’ll have some difficulties. As such, the 20-year-old will need to be afforded some time to learn the lingo.
Thirdly, Dembélé’s first season in LaLiga is one which has been blighted by injury. While fans and media understand that these injuries were out of his control, the youngster will have seen that patience with respect to injuries can only last for so long, as Gareth Bale can testify. If he keeps missing games because of his muscles, he’ll find sympathy to soon be in short supply and that could lead to a vicious cycle given that Sakari Orava, the Finnish doctor who operated on the player’s first hamstring injury of the season, admitted that stress may have played a role. If he’s stressed now, then how will Dembélé feel when the last grain of patience trickles through the hourglass?
Furthermore, the injuries have naturally reduced Dembélé’s bedding-in period. Even though the first months of the 2018/19 season will be some of his first months of regular Barça first-team football, some fans won’t be able to help but think “okay, you’ve been here for over a year now, why do you still need to play with stabilisers?”.
The crazy inflation of the transfer market means that clubs around the continent are breaking their record fees in every window and this is piling extra pressure onto the shoulders of the new arrivals. At a giant club like Barcelona, this pressure is magnified and the patience is limited. Barcelona fans and journalists want to know ASAP if the roulette ball will land on red.