After Barcelona failed with three bids to sign Philippe Coutinho last summer, director Albert Soler claimed the club ducked out of negotiations on the final day of the transfer window due to Liverpool’s demands. They apparently wanted €200 million for the 25-year-old.
Liverpool quickly knocked back that suggestion. Throughout the summer they had maintained that Coutinho was not for sale. Their stance contrasted with Soler’s take on the issue that they were holding out for ridiculous money and that Barca would not indulge a “crazy market”.
But Barca had already indulged that “crazy market” when they broke their transfer record by paying an initial fee of €105m — rising to €145m — for Ousmane Dembele.
To sign Coutinho, they will have to break that record again. Diario Sport reported on Thursday that Liverpool will hold out for more than Barca paid for Dembele. Earlier in the week, The Times claimed the Premier League side want €150m, if not more. Could Barca, for the second time in six months, go that high?
Do Barca have the cash for Coutinho?
Barca, and in particular president Josep Maria Bartomeu, have to be careful when it comes to throwing money around. Bartomeu has been one of Paris Saint-Germain’s staunchest critics and has questioned and criticised how the French club’s — and Manchester City’s — spending is funded. Therefore, having called for UEFA’s financial fair-play rules to be more rigidly applied, he has to be careful with Barca’s cash.
At the beginning of last summer, Bartomeu said Barca had €60m to spend on signings, plus any money which came in.
With the sales of Neymar and Cristian Tello, that figure inflated to roughly €287m. The Catalan club have since signed Dembele, Paulinho, Nelson Semedo and Gerard Deulofeu. Taking into account the maximum potential cost of each deal, those four players arrived for around €227m, leaving Barca back with a €60m budget.
That was in the summer, though, and Bartomeu may have budgeted more money for January. He’s always maintained that for the right player, the budget can be broken. After all, Barca made a pre-tax operating profit of €31m last season and say it will rise again this year.
“We are financially prepared to sign Coutinho or any other player the technical staff request [in January],” CEO Oscar Grau said in October.
“We want to have the most competitive squad possible. The club will be sustainable; we don’t want losses. If that is the case, we will look for means to generate income.”
The suggestion is that to sign a player of Coutinho’s stature and cost, others will have to leave. However, that doesn’t have to be now. Grau hinted that things could be restructured in the summer.
But would Coutinho fit into the club’s increasing wage bill?
Finding the cash for Coutinho, which would be paid in instalments and variables, is the smaller half of the problem. A bigger issue for Barca is controlling their spiralling wage bill.
Their sports costs (which the club’s financial report for 2016-17 says includes “the total amount of sports salaries, including players’ salaries, technical staff, variable premiums for titles, image rights, sports agents, social security, as well as the amortisation of signings”) last season were €432m, less than in 2015-16. It equated to 63 percent of the club’s revenue (€708m), with the recommended security threshold 70 percent.
However, the club’s own budget prediction for this campaign says sports costs will rise to €588m this year due to, among other things, contract renewals and signing fees for Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and others. Based on last season’s revenue, that’s 84 percent of the club’s revenue and is unsustainable.
Writing in El Pais in October, Juan Irigoyen said they were “alarming” figures.
Luckily, the club predicts a surge in revenue, too. Predictions say they will bring in €897m this season. But there’s a massive caveat to those earnings: Neymar. The club’s own financial report even notes that “transfers increased significantly [from €73m to €198m] due to the revenue from the outgoing player, Neymar Jr.”
Therefore, it’s expected that revenue will dip next season, which is bad news if sports costs continue to rise. And they will if players such as Coutinho — and possibly Antoine Griezmann in the summer — continue to arrive. Players will have to leave.
With that in mind, Barcelona are working on cutting the wage bill. Javier Mascherano’s move to China will free up around €130,000 each week, while the club are also keen to shift Deulofeu (€75,000) and Arda Turan (€85,000). Others may also be available for the right price, but moving those three along should create room for Coutinho — who would earn more than €200,000 a week — although a replacement for Mascherano would also be needed.
And everything is suggesting Coutinho will arrive. Soler also spoke in September of how the Brazilian did all he could to push the move through, including handing in a transfer request, and Barca will do all they can now to repay those efforts.
A summer move, on many levels, makes more sense, but the finances are just about in place to do a deal now.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.