Barcelona swapping Arthur for Pjanic was a business move but for all the wrong reasons

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.

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.

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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