Imagine, for a moment, that everything turns out perfectly from FC Barcelona’s point of view. Imagine that in a year’s time, the agreement to sell Arthur Melo to Juventus for €72m (with a further €10m in potential add-ons) and sign Miralem Pjanic from Juventus for €60m (plus €5m in possible add-ons) works out so well that those fees, or better still one of them, no longer look quite so inflated. Hell, imagine it becoming a bit of a bargain. Yes, even when the increased wage bill is taken into account. Imagine the whole thing starting to look like a stroke of genius.

– Transfer news: Arthur joins Juventus, Pjanic to Barcelona

Imagine that Pjanic turns out to be the exactly player Barcelona need; imagine they win the league and the Champions League with their new signing. Imagine him scoring the winner, if you like. (A brilliant goal, too.) Imagine that at the same time, Arthur handily does nothing at Juve. Not next year or any year for the next decade, long after Pjanic has retired. Imagine him hardly playing; imagine looking at him, injured and uncommitted — and make no mistake, some at the Camp Nou would love that — and thinking how clever it looks to have got rid, the blame all his.

Imagine all that, and this deal is still a defeat. However good it gets, this doesn’t stop being another expression of failure, still symbolic of a system malfunction. It’s not so much the departure of Arthur in itself that saddens some fans, and it’s certainly not the arrival of Pjanic; it’s what it all means. What it reveals, again. Imagine that this ends up being the right move — and it might — it’s still for the wrong reasons.

Since he joined Barcelona in 2018, Arthur has started less than 50% of their games. He got injured a lot. He got accused quite a bit, too, with reports of nights out filtered to local media at just the right moments. (Expect that to accelerate now as the club tries to justify the sale of supposedly ruined goods.) Whenever Arthur did play, his performance at Wembley (leading Barcelona to a 4-2 win over Tottenham in the Champions League, group stage, back in 2018) was never repeated. Nor were Xavi’s performances repeated and that, after all, is how he came. But the “New Xavi” provided just four goals and six assists. At Sevilla last week, he was forever going backwards, a metaphor of recent months.

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But that’s not why he is leaving, even if it does help. For all those problems, for all the flaws, a poll in Sport showed that 77% said it was not a good idea to sell him, and that’s despite the question being loaded and not entirely accurate. “Is it a good idea to sell him for €70m,” it read. And never mind them: Ask the people you’re supposed to ask these kinds of things and they would agree. Arthur didn’t want to go: He had to be pushed to the door. And it wasn’t Barcelona’s coaching staff pushing him that way: They did not want him to leave.

Arthur’s departure doesn’t have as much to do with football as it does with finance, which helps to explain an apparently odd deal in which Barcelona and Juventus have swapped the players over, with an extra €10m paid on top by Juventus. €70m, they said it was worth. But there are not 70 million euros anywhere to be paid — except on the spreadsheet.

The valuation of the two players looks high in a post-pandemic market, and these are not deals that would have gotten done without each other. Nor are those fees, which exist in isolation; Pjanic is only “worth” €60m because Arthur is “worth” €70m, and vice versa. By setting the price there, as high as they could, both clubs found a solution. Not on the pitch, but off it. And a short-term one at that, especially in Barcelona’s case.

Never mind the players for a moment — this is a deal that brings Juventus and Barcelona closer to be being able to post a profit before the end of the financial year, which is at the end of this month. The incoming “money” — and it’s worth repeating that the only cash on the move is €10m — is immediate income in full. The outgoing cost is spread across the duration of their contracts through amortisation. Hey, presto, close to a €50m profit. Which is handy when it comes to FFP. The accountancy is more creative than the midfielders are.

For Barcelona, that is particularly important. More to the point, for Barcelona’s board it is. Sam Marsden and Moi Llorens have explained on these pages how Barcelona already needed to raise €124m in sales this season, which put them in the position of needing to find around €60m before July 1. And that was before the effects of the pandemic were calculated. If they didn’t, the board of directors would find themselves personally liable for 15% of the loss, as per the 1990 law that governed club structures. That is why Barcelona were so desperate to get a deal done, why a seemingly strange swap deal happened.

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That Barcelona found themselves in that position was concerning enough. How they got there, and what it means, is deeply telling and more deeply worrying, even allowing for the unexpected hit from the coronavirus pandemic for which they are of course blameless. It is what it says about their ability to build a squad and construct a team, what it says about the structure, the whole institution. It is that another succession is broken, another transfer torn up, another plan in pieces. The picture is bigger than Pjanic.

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. The following summer they won the treble, which is the best thing that could happen to a club, but might not have been such a good thing for Barcelona in the long run. Since then, they have signed: Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal, Andre Gomes, Paco Alcácer, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Jasper Cillessen, Denis Suárez, Marlon, Yerry Mina, Gerard Deulofeu, Nelson Semedo, Paulinho, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Jean-Clair Todibo, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jeison Murillo, Arturo Vidal, Arthur, Clement Lenglet, Malcom, Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie De Jong, Neto, Junior Firpo, Emerson and Martin Braithwaite.

Those are the ones that did come — their pursuit of strikers this summer ended up being embarrassing — and half of them aren’t there any more. It is too early to judge De Jong. Dembele may come good, as he heads into his fourth season with the club telling him that, hey, maybe he’d like to look elsewhere too. Griezmann also might, but the doubts and debate quicken, and he knows that.

There has been bad luck, and a lot of it; blame does not need to be sought for everything. And some of those signings were always meant to be just short-term solutions. Fine. But that’s a billion euros worth of players, and how many of them can be considered an unqualified success? Seriously. None? The money they got for Neymar, which they spent straightaway, desperate to make amends and starting a spiral that they have been stuck in ever since, has all gone, and for what? So that they can try to get him back again but not have the money to do it?

Neymar was the player who was supposed to guarantee Barcelona’s future, playing alongside Messi and then taking over from him. It made sense. But they were unable to prevent him leaving — and unable or unwilling to bring back again when they realised that all those other plans weren’t working, even though he was desperate to return. They failed to buy him, but still he cost them. Much of that money had long since been spent on Coutinho. The man they suggested could be the new Iniesta, but who went away and came back again and who they’re desperate to get rid of once more — and for good this time.

For now, it is Arthur who has gone instead, mainly because among the many players Barcelona tried to put pressure on, he was the one they could finally convince to leave. Even if things unfold perfectly from here, even if Pjanic is brilliant and Arthur is not, that is a failure. It is not just that they have sold the Brazilian, it is that they sold a player who was a strategic signing, one that made sense for a player whose arrival appeared to be a sign that they were reconnecting with their identity and essence.

They had sought out the right signing not just turned to the name that drew their attention, whoever were available. They were planning for their future, but they were unable to avoid losing their religion.

People will laugh at the “New Xavi” thing now — and it was always likely to be a millstone, a title to be handled with care and best avoided — but it was not just the media who made that claim, something to be blamed on outsiders. It was the club. Robert Fernández the sporting director said it explicitly. He’s not the sporting director any more. Messi likened him to Xavi too. Oh, and Xavi himself said that Arthur had “Barcelona DNA.”

Today, he is a Juventus player.

“The money should be on the pitch, not in the bank,” Johan Cruyff used to say, but Barcelona needed it on the books, and fast. He was not Xavi, critics will say, and they’ll be right. But even Xavi wasn’t Xavi until he was 28. Arthur is 23 and was supposed to be at the club for years, but in the week that Lionel Messi turned 33, he is gone, reduced to a number on the balance sheet.

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