Lionel Messi has informed Barça of his intention to leave the club and, on their part, the board have pointed out to the whopping release clause that they believe is still valid. A stalemate has been reached in a case that will not be solved overnight. As this saga drags on, what are the real options in front of Barcelona? Should they let him go for free or force him to stay?
Lionel Messi wants to leave FC Barcelona. As shocking as it is, the football world is coming to terms with this piece of news. The Barça faithful, on the other hand, are still trying to wrap their head around it. After all, it is Lionel Messi, who has, for a decade and a half, enthralled them with the miracles he performed on the pitch. For once, they are hoping he would replicate that magic off the ground as well. They demanded president Josep Maria Bartomeu‘s resignation. The president offered to step down, provided Messi promised to stay for another year.
The truth of the matter, however, is that Messi has made up his mind. His time at the Catalan city has come to an end. He knows it, the people close to him know it and even the club knows it. Why did the president offer to resign, then? For the sake of posterity? To be able to say in the future that “I tried, I offered to step down”?
As it is the case now, Messi and his lawyers believe that he has a right to walk out of Barça for free, whereas the club – and curiously La Liga – pointed at the ginormous release clause of €700 million. It is clear, though, that Messi does not want to sour the relationship with the club where he plied his trade for nearly two decades. He requested a meeting with the board. Nonetheless, in a desperate attempt to avoid going down in history as “the president who sold Messi”, Bartomeu refused to meet him. The sooner the president realises that the said ship has sailed, the better for him and the club.
The Messi case is quite messy (forgive the pun) and Barça needs to sort it at the earliest so that they can refocus on rebuilding the squad. A prolonged and publicised legal battle with Messi would be an unnecessary and criminal distraction for the new manager Ronald Koeman and the new squad that he is trying to put together. One that should be avoided at any cost. But how do they deal with the present situation, and what are their options?
One thing is certain: there is no way that Barça can come out of this conundrum without getting hurt. To lose the best player in the world, while the team is still coming to terms with one of the biggest losses in history, is no walk in the park. That said, they can still minimise the losses and create something positive from this fallout. And for this, they need to sit across a table with Messi and his prospective future employer, to negotiate a transfer fee. The fact that Manchester City seems to be the destination that Messi has in mind is, in fact, good news for Barcelona.
It doesn’t seem like Bartomeu will win many fans’ hearts, but he could at least improve his reputation with the right decisions ahead of the post-Messi era | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
Barça needs reinforcement in their backline and has been following young centre-back Eric García and left-back Angeliño for some time. Both are currently wearing the Sky Blue kits of Manchester City. If Barcelona could negotiate a fee in the area of 100 to 150 million plus these two youngsters, they could come out of the aforementioned messy situation with something positive. They would have addressed two of their problem areas as well as bagged enough money to acquire the central striker that they have been pursuing for some time to replace an outgoing Luis Suárez. Messi might be off their books, but in exchange, they would now have three young stars capable of taking the club into a bright future. Needless to say, it will all depend on how the two clubs negotiate for the exchange and who makes the most of the given opportunity.
Would it be terribly bad to let Messi go for free? Maybe not. It is a fact that many Barça supporters would not be happy with such a suggestion. Yet it is a thought worth reconsidering, simply for economic reasons if not anything else. The fact is that even if they let him go for free, Barça might benefit from it.
For one, this would also give them an opportunity to rebuild the team from the ground up. Ronald Koeman can then work with a clean slate to put together the next generation of this legendary club. What is the point of rebuilding the team around Messi, if he is going to leave next summer anyway? Secondly, and more importantly, they can avoid paying €100 million to a player who does not want to play for them anymore. This could have a huge impact on how the wage structure is mounted at Barcelona right now. To say that it is mismanaged will be an understatement.
While on one end of the spectrum there are high earners – whose contribution on the field has been average at best – like Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezman, Ivan Rakitić and Samuel Umtiti on the other end there are players like Marc-André ter Stegen and Clément Lenglet who, despite being regular and consistent with stellar performances, are being criminally underpaid. The disparity becomes much clearer when you consider that Messi earns almost the double of his nearest contender – almost one third of the whole wage bill!
Even if it is true that Messi does enough to earn every penny of it, that does not help the club in managing its finances or its personnel, better. Currently, Barça is one of the top three teams in the world in terms of the amount spent on player wages. Thus, along with the planned sale of a few high earning seniors like Suárez, Rakitić, Umtiti and Arturo Vidal, when you take Messi’s salaries off the bill the club’s wage expenditure becomes much less and more balanced. They will then be in a more comfortable position to pay remunerative salaries to other key players as well as make some necessary purchases.
One thing that the board at Barcelona should remember is that there is always the possibility of the situation getting worse. And Barça is on the brink of one such situation right now. Any organization in the world would find it difficult to work smoothly with a disgruntled employee in their ranks. If the said employee happens to draw a salary of nearly €100 million, it gets even worse.
Nothing may change Messi’s mind of leaving Barcelona | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images
Barça is on the verge of a revamp, and while it may be the case that they want Messi to be the centre of this new squad that they are devising, they need to understand that it is a lost cause. Even in case they managed to force Messi to stay, how would the Barça manager build his whole squad around someone who does not want to be there in the first place? Not to mention the disregard that they would be showing towards a player who has given so much to this team – a player who, arguably, is the greatest of all time.
Barcelona fans won’t have to think too far back to get an example of how things can get ugly. In 2017, Neymar Júnior decided to leave Barcelona. Paris Saint-Germain were willing to pay his release clause of €222 million. And yet, due to differences among the parties, the saga dragged on for months, causing an unnecessary distraction to the team. The court cases that followed stretched all the way till June 2020.
As this case seems to have a definite end, Bartomeu’s legacy at the helm of Barça might very well be “the president who sold Lionel Messi”. Nonetheless, it may still be possible for him to rectify it as “the president who successfully manoeuvred the club through Messi’s departure”. It is bad enough that Messi wants to leave, so the club should make sure that it doesn’t get ugly. It is up to the management to turn things around and give its long due attention on revitalising the team and bringing forth the rise of a new generation.
No player is bigger than the club. Even so, Messi has given the club enough over the years to deserve a respectful departure. Meanwhile, the club must rally behind its new coach and help him and the squad leave all this behind as they start preparing for an exciting new season. FC Barcelona is, after all, més que un club, more than a club.
Ansu Fati and the return of natural wingers
In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.