Barcelona and Lionel Messi were a match made in heaven for so many years. However, the once-great partnership now looks to be on the brink with the Argentine determined to leave the club. So what are the reasons behind the most iconic legacy in footballing history looking likely to be at an end as Messi is set to leave Barça?
At a young age, the talent of Lionel Messi was obvious. Playing in Argentina, at Newell’s Old Boys, a young Messi was attracting attention from teams across Europe. Of course, it was the blaugranas that signed him. They were so desperate to do so that Messi’s first contract was on a napkin. When he arrived at La Masía, he showed what a fantastic decision it was. His quality was clear to everyone, but nobody could have predicted just how good the boy from Rosario would become.
Messi would go on to be Barcelona’s greatest ever player, having a pivotal role during the club’s most successful period in its history. However, this fairy tale now seems to almost be at its conclusion as the club that Argentine loves turns its back on him and tarnishes his legacy. What are the reasons for the captain wanting to break up such relationship?
The sporting project
One of the obvious reasons for Messi wanting to leave the Camp Nou is the sporting project, or lack of one. For three seasons in a row now, Barcelona has been miserably dumped out of the Champions League. Though winning La Liga twice in that time, there is no doubt that Messi has had to drag the team to these titles. Now 33, the Barça captain must be considering if he can continue to carry the weight of such a large club on his shoulders. Messi is a born winner and wants to be part of a winning project. He has given more than any culé could ever have asked of him. Nonetheless, it is the club letting him down that is the problem.
The six-time Ballon d’Or winner has watched as president Josep Maria Bartomeu has thrown over €1.2 billion at the team during his time in charge. Still, only a fraction of these signings has added anything to the squad. Messi witnessed his great friend Dani Alves forced out the club. Legends such as Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta departed and were never even close to being replaced. Bartomeu also failed to keep Messi’s close friend Neymar at the club and has shamefully dismissed Luis Suárez with little respect.
Messi is a winner, but he has been left alone too many times | Photo by Manu Fernández / Pool via Getty Images
The team’s performances have become worrying and Messi is left isolated more and more, being the only one contributing anything significant in attack. An ageing and mentally weak squad are not what the Barça legend deserves for the final years of his career. The sporting project has been a failure for the past three seasons, and it looks almost certain to continue.
In recent seasons, squad planning has been a major issue. Barcelona has been left with a squad that has too many older players that are difficult to drop. Players were starting regularly that were producing sub-standard performances regularly. Signings have been made that never should have happened as they were not right for the system. There has been a lack of depth in many areas and this has meant the core squad struggle with injuries and fatigue at crucial moments in the season.
There can be no question too that Messi’s teammates have let him down on several big moments over the last three seasons. Particularly in the Champions League knockout stages, many of the heavyweights have cost Barça matches. Against Liverpool in 2019, Messi scored two goals in the first leg and created many clear-cut chances for others over both legs. Even so, every time the players failed to step up and take these chances. Against Bayern too, basic mistakes and cheap goals were given away by experienced players that should know better. It is sad watching the European giants perform like this, but little blame can be put on the captain for these displays.
In addition, the over-reliance on Messi has meant teams are able to solely focus on Barça’s number 10. There is not enough responsibility being taken by others in the starting eleven. Furthermore, the dependency on Messi has meant managers feel like they cannot drop or rest him. There is nobody else in the team that can come in and fill the role of the Argentine and that is worrying for a club of Barcelona’s standards. At his age, Messi needs to be rotated at times to keep him fresh and avoid fatigue.
The Barcelona board
It is evident that the relationship between the board and the dressing room is almost non-existent. Particularly for Messi, who is the captain and long-time player, it has been difficult seeing his club destroyed by the board. There have been many instances too when Bartomeu has tried to save his image at the expense of others. None more so that Messi.
The board has often refused to take the blame for Barcelona’s on and off-pitch miseries | Photo by Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images
The Barcelona president has been involved in many scandals such as I3 Ventures and economic troubles. Instead of supporting the Barça legend, the board has done the opposite and looked to tarnish his name for their benefit. They have portrayed him in the media as the scapegoat to deflect their failings in managing the club. This is not the way that the greatest player in history should be leaving the club.
Lionel Messi was always meant to finish his career at Barcelona and enjoy his final years at the club. That said, mismanagement at the board level has seen this dream shattered. A player that has given his everything to the club from his loyalty to many incredible trophies. Fans should remember how much Leo has given the club over the years and not buy into Bartomeu’s media-driven smearing campaign against the legend. Though no player is bigger than the club, Messi deserves to be treated with far more respect than he has been under this president.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.