By Raj Das.
It has to be said that few players have been as instrumental to the success and image of a football club, as much as Lionel Messi has been for Barcelona.
Granted, Steven Gerrard and Francesco Totti are also loyal, one-club legends, but with all due respect to them and their achievements, both collectively and individually, they are nowhere near the stratospheric levels of Barcelona’s all-time leading goalscorer.
It seemed that Messi, too, would retire a one-club player. But that may no longer be the case.
A Future Without Messi
Barcelona are in no position to delay the inevitable. Lionel Messi is 33 years old and he is surely on his last few seasons at the top level. He spends most of his games standing still and walking, reserving his energy for attacking play.
While this may seem harmless in La Liga matches against mid-table teams, it has backfired on a few occasions. Against Bayern Munich in their infamous 8-2 drubbing, Messi lost the ball on numerous occasions, but he did not track back. This led to Bayern’s seventh goal from Philippe Coutinho that night.
His pressing was also not up to the mark. This is by no means a criticism of Messi, but sometimes when the going gets tough, he seems to lose motivation. He seems to just simply give up. A picture of him looking sad and downcast at half-time did the rounds on social media.
Perhaps he intrinsically knows that his team is going to lose a match, genius that he is. In the 2018 World Cup game against Croatia, Messi had his head in his hands while the national anthems were being played. Argentina lost 3-0 that night.
‘We can’t win the Champions League playing like this,’ Messi had warned repeatedly even before the restart of the football season. It was a time when Barcelona still had a two-point lead over Real Madrid.
Why Should Barcelona Let Messi Go?
Barcelona must let Messi go simply because it will quicken their squad overhaul. So long as Messi stays at the club, there will always be a subconscious dependence on his genius. It will only further delay and jeopardise the rebuilding process.
Over the years, especially since the departure of Neymar in 2017, Barcelona have relied unhealthily on their captain’s individual prowess. There have been numerous instances where the talismanic number 10 has bailed Barcelona out of tricky situations.
Although it may look glorious to fans and increase Messi’s already burgeoning highlight reel, it also shows a gaping weakness in Barcelona’s system.
Yes, Pep Guardiola too benefitted from his 91 goals in the 2012 calendar year. But Messi was more of a finisher that season, with Barcelona blessed with the likes of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and Thiago Alcântara in midfield.
Now, the 33-year-old has to assume creative responsibilities as well, apart from goalscoring. In truth, it is difficult to understand these days whether he is a forward or an attacking midfielder, or a right-winger. He seems to be everywhere and nowhere. This is not a good thing by any means.
Barcelona must leave Messi just as he must leave Barcelona. It will free-up his mammoth weekly wages that the club could use to bring in other players. Plus, it will also enable Messi to go to a different, settled club where he will be able to add to his collection of big silverware.
What Has Gone Wrong for Barca and Since When?
The appointment of Josep Maria Bartomeu on January 2014 was the beginning of Barcelona’s misery. But Luis Enrique’s Champions League winning exploits temporarily papered-over the unsavoury aspects of Bartomeu’s reign.
The Barcelona teams of Guardiola and Luis Enrique that dominated Europe had a system. However, for much of this 2019-20 season, the Catalan giants have looked like a collection of individually brilliant players who have been placed together.
There has been a lack of cohesion and team spirit. Unfortunately, Barcelona’s lack of spirit looks even more appalling because we have the examples of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich, teams which truly embody what team spirit looks like.
Guardiola employed a possession-based system during his time there from 2008 to 2012. Later, Luis Enrique retained Barcelona’s possession play but also turned them into a hybrid counter-attacking side.
In other words, under Enrique, the team could not only score patient, tiki-taka goals but were also capable of mounting lightning-quick counter-attacks from anywhere on the pitch. This was largely due to the pace of Neymar.
Ironically enough, it was also under Luis Enrique that Barcelona began neglecting their midfield play.
Often, the lethal front three of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar would start and finish attacks without needing much service from the rest. Indeed, Enrique’s Barcelona would often bypass the midfield and look to play directly into the attacking channels.
But those days are now gone. Messi is now 33 and he cannot take all the burden on his own shoulders.
Will Messi Leave Barcelona?
It is not realistic to think that Lionel Messi will leave Barcelona. He has no intention of letting Josep Maria Bartomeu have the last laugh.
The board’s strained relationship with the current group of players has been a well-documented saga. Right now, Messi’s only problem is Barcelona’s 57-year-old president. If the latter resigned today, Messi would only be happy to stay.
He will also have it in mind that the election is just around the corner, and Victor Font has repeatedly insisted that regardless of Ronald Koeman’s performance, Xavi Hernandez will be his managerial candidate.
All this may seem tempting to Messi, who will no doubt relish the prospect of working with his former teammate, but tempting, too, will be the idea of working with Guardiola, the man whom Messi called repeatedly to return after he left the Nou Camp in 2012.
But with the post-pandemic climate, and with the unpredictable nature of business, clubs are unwilling to spend big. Even if Manchester City do have the spending power, they will no doubt think hard and long about his release fee of £630 million.
Although City have said they would do ‘whatever it takes’ to sign Messi, surely it is a hyperbolic statement. For a 33-year-old player, even if it is the best player in the world, that kind of money would be better spent elsewhere. And the City chiefs know it.
All this leaves us with a sense that although Messi may be unhappy with his current condition at the Nou Camp, he will just have to swallow his displeasure and wait for Bartomeu to leave. It is not a pleasant solution, but there may not be a better alternative.
Barcelona and Messi should part ways, but it seems highly unlikely that they will.