If you're looking for a soundtrack to go with Barcelona's search for a striker, maybe the Benny Hill theme is your best bet. In the final, quiet moments before last week's 2-0 defeat at Valencia, Quique Setién was sitting on the bench watching his players warm up. He was watching a player whom most people thought would soon be his, too.
A few metres away stood Rodrigo, stretching. It was almost like one last look at the goods before buying. "Are you taking him off us?" someone asked. Setién smiled and shrugged. Hope so.
Poor Rodrigo: He must have been wondering where he was... again. As for Setién, he was wondering whether he was coming: this was his wish, but not his work. In the summer, Rodrigo had been so close to going to Atlético Madrid that the then coach, Marcelino García Toral, had publicly complained about an imminent sale and Rodrigo had cleared out his locker and said goodbye to his teammates, only to end up saying hello again. This time, he was so close to joining Barcelona that the now coach, Albert Celades, publicly admitted negotiations were ongoing and he was preparing to pack his bags again.
"I hope he doesn't go. I wouldn't understand selling him," complained full-back Jose Gaya after the game, which Valencia won 2-0. "There are few like him."
Barcelona were about to find that out for themselves. Negotiations were not going well. They sought formulas but found no solution and no way of signing Rodrigo. Valencia wanted €60 million; Barcelona didn't have that, not in this year's accounts, anyway. They would have to find a way to stick it into next year's instead, always chasing their tail. All the while, they scrabbled about trying to sell players to raise as much cash as they could. Some went, but it was mostly quite small change in the grand scheme of things. Some refused. Again. Getting rid of players can be as hard as getting them in.
Still, the two teams talked. Valencia wanted to sell -- Valencia always want to sell -- but at a price. A loan deal was floated, but the option to buy had to be obligatory, which was one of the points that caused Barcelona to hesitate. After all, in the summer, there would be other strikers (Inter's Lautaro Martinez at the top of the list) and they would need that money. No, no, what they needed was a fix now.
Jorge Mendes, who won the way he always wins, proposed a three-way deal in which Barcelona would sign Bruno Fernandes from Sporting, who they didn't want, and then they could swap. That might just work, they thought. But then Manchester United announced that they had signed Fernandes. Negotiations with Valencia came to a close, no deal. Rodrigo was staying. Barcelona had to turn elsewhere.
And then it really started. Suddenly, there were names everywhere. Some were real, some weren't. Some were contrived, almost none convinced. Crank up that theme tune.
One story said Everton had turned down an £85m bid for Richarlison, which -- let's face it -- drew a response made up of a single, two-letter word repeated often: ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Barcelona didn't have €60m for Rodrigo but now they had €101m for Richarlison? Hmm. And Everton would turn it down if they did? Aye.
On it went. The message leaked out: Barcelona didn't want to do what they did with Kevin-Prince Boateng; they didn't want to look that silly. Last year, they signed Boateng on loan at a considerable cost. He played just four games and didn't score a goal. They wouldn't make that mistake again, oh no. One line in a newspaper said it neatly: they wanted a proven goal scorer who was cheap. The rest of us, meanwhile, would quite like a Ferrari for a fiver.
In the summer, Barcelona wanted (or said they wanted) Neymar for almost no money. Some players even agreed to put their salary on hold to help, but it still didn't happen. They didn't sign him, though he still cost them.
This time, Barcelona had been forced into a corner by circumstances not of their own making. No one anticipated Luis Suarez getting injured, of course, but it's not just about this time. It's about all of those times. It's about the fact that the absence of a back-up striker, which they had identified as a need last winter and again in the summer, made it worse, the search that little more frantic. And this window feels like a sped-up version of what they have been doing for too long now: there's a feeling that they are reacting to circumstance as much as following a plan.
Nor is it just players, which is part of the point: Look at the shifting catalogue of names coming in and then the shifting catalogue of names supposedly deciding who comes in, too. Sporting directors, technical secretaries, presidential advisors and the rest and, in the end, the president and the vice president -- who are the same man, Josep Maria Bartomeu. It can feel like they have been reaching for some solution since Neymar departed and left them exposed. They're chasing a fix. Something, anything. There's even something odd in the way that circumstance seems to become crisis so easily. An irrepressible urge to do something, anything, and for it to get played out in public.
Back when Neymar left for PSG, there was an argument that they should have done nothing. Four years on, that argument feels weightier. Something started then that has not been successful, a scramble that never quite ends, always chasing something just out of reach. That money -- all of it and more -- was spent. So far, through many factors from bad luck to bad judgment (and bad management too), the return is limited.
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At the time, Barcelona said it would be irresponsible to spend €300m, but that's pretty much what Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele cost. One of them has gone; the other is coming back, Quique Setién said last night, "and he's going to be flying." Dembele has become their hope, and perhaps he will be their solution, but not because that was always the plan.
You can trace it even beyond that summer. In 2014, Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-Andre ter Stegen signed. That was the last market managed by Andoni Zubizarreta as sporting director, before he was sacked. Since then, they have signed: Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal, Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Jasper Cillessen, Denis Suarez, Marlon, Yerry Mina, Gerard Deulofeu, Nelson Semedo, Paulinho, Dembele, Coutinho, Jean-Clair Todibo, Boateng, Jeison Murillo, Arturo Vidal, Arthur, Clement Lenglet, Malcom, Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Neto, Junior and Emerson.
A billion euros' worth of players. Half of them aren't there anymore. And while it's too early to judge Griezmann and de Jong; while Dembele may yet be brilliant, three years in; while some of those signings make perfect strategic sense and could, under different circumstances, have given much more; while some of them still might; while injury and misfortune have played their part; and while some were supposed to provide only short-term solutions anyway, how many of them can be declared an unqualified success? Seriously. None?
Speaking of Griezmann, on one level it can feels like there's an obvious solution to this current search, no need for this chase and no crisis at all: He is a €120m striker. And if he's not that, what was he bought for? Nor is he a left winger. His role is, well, Messi's. Barcelona might well already have had the only player in the world better at doing what Griezmann did than Griezmann. That they didn't see him (and still don't) as a No. 9 was underlined by the fact that still they looked (and in the summer they will look again), chasing round and round only to end up back at the same place and in a worse state than they were, maybe feeling a little silly too.
As the window closes, Barcelona's squad is weaker than it was a month ago. As the window closes, the club appears weaker too, unable to sign the players they pursued. On Thursday, Barcelona confirmed that they wouldn't be signing anyone and that same night, their final chase was revealed.
Cedric Bakambu was stuck in Hong Kong, with nowhere to go. He had flown from Korea, told that he was going to the Camp Nou. When he got off one plane and prepared to get on another bound for Spain, he was told that he wasn't. He saw the funny side, at least, requesting that his online club status be updated to "almost Barcelona." He closed his tweet with "see you another time, Griezmann."
Barcelona didn't have the striker they'd decided they needed. Still, at least they had those two promising Masia talents to fill in, the heart of their identity. This could even be the perfect opportunity for Carles Perez and Abel Ruiz. Oh, right, yeah. That. Barcelona didn't sign a striker, but they did sell two of them to help make room.