What does a Neymar return say about Barcelona's plan?

The sh**show that has been the rumor mill of a Neymar return to Barcelona from PSG presents a number of issues on the surface, but might also be a worrying sign of the current sporting plan over the next few years.

Let's start with a contrarian idea; success in modern football takes great players in their peaks, with this season's Ajax being a rare exception to that rule. One of the critiques of the Neymar and Antoine Griezmann transfers is that it seems irrational to pay such huge fees for players in their late 20s. Barcelona only has Lionel Messi for another five years at most, and the idea that a player(s) not even 25 can replace so much production is naive. If Ousmane Dembélé, Riqui Puig, Frenkie de Jong and Arthur are the future of the club, history tells us that Barcelona will still need some talent at peak footballing ages to bridge the gap. All that said, the fatigue of transfer buzz makes a fan base that had the greatest player ever come up through their academy rue the moments when the board feels like it must rewrite history to bring in a megastar.

All the negativity surrounding Neymar's exodus to PSG, coupled with the shady dealings of his arrival, his current legal battles, for varying reasons, along with his price tag and injury history make the Brazilian almost a nonsensical transfer. Yet, why would some at the club be nostalgic for a return of that boy from Santos that became a superstar at the Catalan club? Maybe it's just that; Neymar is the last big name to go from what-if to icon at the Camp Nou.

Ousmane Dembélé is still only 22-years-old. This isn't about him. Or Philippe Coutinho. The two men that the club bought with all those Neymar funds haven't lived up to the impact that the PSG man had in Barcelona, but that might have something more to do with their development then it does the big shoes he left to fill.

Last fall, there were countless reports about the behavior of Dembélé and how he was destroying his career. Whether these were false or overstated, it's hard to argue to Dembélé didn't make a marked improvement from last season even if he did have some important goals in big moments that allowed Barcelona to run away with the La Liga trophy. Coutinho, meanwhile, looks to have regressed as a player.

It could be highly damaging to the club if those Neymar funds result in little net gain, but focusing just on Dembélé and Coutinho may mask a larger problem. Here are the names from the last three years of transfers:

André Gomes, Paco Alcácer, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Jasper Cillessen, Denis Suárez
Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé, Paulinho, Nélson Semedo, Gerard Deulofeu, Yerry Mina, Marlon
Malcom, Clément Lenglet, Arthur, Arturo Vidal, Jeison Murillo, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jean-Clair Todibo

Of these players, who improved on the field once they arrived at the Camp Nou? Arthur and Lenglet may have already been what Culés see now when no one was paying attention to them at Gremio and Sevilla and the jury is still out on the next step in their progression. Semedo may have improved his attacking sense slightly, but it feels like we're splitting hairs. Gomes, Digne and Alcácer have been much better since moving to Everton and Dortmund, an empty solace for Barcelona's scouting department that now get to watch again what they thought they were getting from Valencia and PSG. The only acceptable answer is Samuel Umtiti, who went from an unheralded player at Lyon to a top-5 centre-back in the world for Barcelona (when healthy).

Taking three years into account doesn't tell the whole story, as Marc-André ter Stegen has turned into one of the top keepers in the world in his time in Catalonia. Internet Culés push for the German to be a captain based on the player he has become and the ways that he has endeared himself to the people of Barcelona. The fact that he's a goalkeeper, however, gives credit to the goalkeeping branch of the coaching staff and doesn't say much about the other ten very different positions on the field.

In that same time period, only Sergi Samper even looked like a possibility to break through, and his injuries and failed loans gave us a reason to put his lack of integration into the first team squarely on his shoulders. Since Sergi Roberto became the calling card for patience and persistence, Munir and Carles Aleña are the next two choices for La Masia talents that "broke through", though Munir could never finish the job and Aleña's story is still being written.

The current model is clear. Buy established stars and put them around Lionel Messi. When trophies are a necessity, something that the reaction to the last two Champions League campaigns indicates quite strongly, these athletes don't have the leash to make mistakes and grow as players. The negativity and pressure is astronomical, and maybe everyone is to blame for the lack of player development in recent seasons. Back when Barcelona got Neymar's signature, an incredible fee at the time for a player so young and completely untested in Europe, the market still made some sense. Now with 16-year-olds asking for the millions, it's impossible to know which talents are worth their value and which will be overpriced underachievers. The rise of Neymar's star at Barcelona was a product of the times (five years ago seems like a lifetime doesn't it?), and now the risks of attempting to buy a rising star like that become harder every window. Maybe that's why Barcelona are only being linked with what they know they don't need to develop.