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How can Barcelona survive Messi’s departure?

Nassif Ali

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Header Image by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images

Lionel Messi wants to leave. The meetings between president Josep Maria Bartomeu and Messi’s agent and father Jorge Messi ended in a stalemate. The general impression is that Barcelona is doomed. Is this true? Or is it possible for Barça to survive the potential catastrophe that would be the departure of Messi? If yes, how?


Despite the twists and turns in a long saga, for many, it is evident that Lionel Messi’s departure from FC Barcelona is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’. Messi did not turn up for the health check-up scheduled on Sunday or the first training session on Monday. Meanwhile, according to the latest reports, the new Barca manager Ronald Koeman is also preparing to move on from this precarious situation and is focussing on building a new squad. The guiding principle in this attempt at rebuilding should be what Barcelona’s legendary player and manager Johan Cruyff once said:

“Choose the best player for every position, and you will end up not with a strong 11,
but with 11 strong 1’s”

Johan Cruyff

For example, look at the last season. As the season began, Barça had more than enough high-profile players in their attack: Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé, as well as Philipe Coutinho, who left on loan to Bayern Munich. But whenever Messi had a subdued game, the whole team looked lost. And this was not the case with just one campaign.

This brings us to the main point here. A few star players cannot form a team. And if there is no team, you cannot play good football – forget about winning anything. Messi’s own career is a testament to that. He is a genius. Arguably the best football player the world has ever seen. But he cannot act alone. Look at the Argentinian national team and their – humble – achievements. Look at what Barcelona has done in the last five years. Both sides had big names apart from Messi. But both lacked one thing: a coherent, well-planned team.

Another important question that needs addressing is how Barcelona reincarnates itself post Messi or how they handle his departure. One thing that the club management, the squad as well as the fans, should remember is that there is no replacing Messi. Just as there is no replacing Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and so on. Legendary players are impossible to replace and any attempt in that direction usually does not end well.

Barça tried replacing Iniesta with Philippe Coutinho. They soon found out that Coutinho, while being a talented player on his own, was no Iniesta. The Brazilian took too much time on the ball, lacked movement off the ball and was too predictable in front of the goal. 

Phlippe Coutinho Barça departure Messi

Barcelona should have learned that they cannot look for like-for-like replacements to their legends, let alone with someone as unequalled as Lionel Messi. An improved collective is the way to go | Photo by Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images

It will be difficult for Barcelona to recover from the setbacks and the loss of confidence suffered in the last course, especially as some of the key players in the team, expected to steer the ship through the storm, will not be present anymore. So what needs to be done and how? A famous quote, attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, goes “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. Barça needs to start with the most urgent requirements, and slowly build up from there. They need to find the right players that will fit the system and strategies being devised by their new manager Ronald Koeman.

The manager, of course, has his task cut out before him. But so far, he has shown himself entirely capable. He made an attempt to explain his intentions to each of his players. He also spoke to the footballers that he found to be unfit for his plans. Some of them like Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal are already on their way out, while more would follow soon. The manager is reported to have asked for reinforcements across the pitch and there have been plenty of names linked to Barça recently.

The best policy here, especially in light of the club’s economic situation, will be to rely on the famed La Masía academy. The academy forms the root of the club, and that is exactly where they need to go back to. There is a string of talented gems ready to take more responsibilities. They have to be promoted and allowed the time, patience and confidence to grow into their capabilities.

Many of the gaps in the squad, especially in the midfield and attacking positions can be filled by these youngsters. The few that are left will have to be dealt with by bringing in players from outside. Even in those cases, the club should look at younger talents than superstars, who would come with hefty price tags and even heftier wage bills.


Let’s begin at the back. There is no question that the backline needs reinforcements. On the right side, Sergi Roberto needs to return to his favoured position in the midfield, and there needs to be a new face to give Nélson Semedo proper competition. Sergiño Dest of Ajax Amsterdam has supposedly piqued the interest of the management and placing trust in the youngster does seem wise.

Similarly, at left-back, Jordi Alba is slowing down and there needs to be someone who can take up his mantle soon. Clearly, it doesn’t seem like Junior Firpo is up to the task. Manchester City’s Angeliño has been a target. He is coming off a good half a season at RB Leipzig and would definitely be a promising addition.

At the centre-back, with Samuel Umtiti touted to leave, Manchester City’s Eric García is also rumoured to be on the way to Catalonia. In fact, Angeliño and Eric García could both be brought in as part of a cash-plus-player swap for Messi. With Ronald Araújo being promoted from Barça B and Jean-Clair Todibo – despite an uncertain future – coming back from his loan, along with Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet, the backline will have enough youth and experience to walk into the next season. 

In the middle of the park, there are going to be several departures. Arthur Melo and Ivan Rakitić have already been sold. Arturo Vidal and Rafinha Alcântara are supposed to follow suit soon. Though the new midfield is going to be built around Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets is also going to have a pivotal role. Miralem Pjanić has already been acquired from Juventus. Young stars like Pedri, Mathieu Fernandes and Carles Aleñá are joining back from loan.

Add to this Sergi Roberto being handed a place in the midfield as well as the promotion of Barça B player Riqui Puig and perhaps Monchu and Álex Collado, and we find that the middle line is quite packed with both veterans and promising youngsters. There have been rumours that Koeman has asked for a box-to-box styled midfielder. Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum has been linked with a move, considering his contract expires next year. For the same reason, he will be available for a cut-price deal. As long as the club doesn’t go overboard with his wages, this could be a smart move from a tactical viewpoint.

Ansu Fati Barça departure Messi

If Messi departs, Barcelona will have to bet on youth and their own gems | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images

Which brings us to the attackers. Lionel Messi is pushing for a departure from Barça. Luis Suárez has also been deemed surplus to requirements. That leaves Barcelona with Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, young sensation Ansu Fati, and the new recruit Francisco Trincão.

Koeman is reportedly redesigning the squad into a 4–2–3–1, with a lot of focus on attacking. The trio to be deployed in front of the two-man midfield in this formation could potentially be Griezman, flanked by any two of Dembélé, Ansu Fati and Trincão, or even Pedri. So who slots in as the number nine, in the absence of Luis Suárez?

Barça’s answer seems to be Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martínez. They already have an agreement with theplayer and, considering his potential, paying around €80 million does not appear too steep. An accord with Inter, though, still seems complicated. If Barcelona can sweeten the deal by sending Junior Firpo or Arturo Vidal to Inter Milan, all the better.

“We never started official talks with Barcelona over Lautaro Martínez. The day after his release clause expired, we considered him not for sale. It’s over”

Piero Ausilio, Inter Milan’s sporting director

To sum it up, even as they are reeling from a humiliating season and the possible departure of their best player ever, even without Lionel Messi Barça could still manage to step into the new season with a balanced squad and with the potential to become a force to reckon with in the not-too-long future. Meanwhile, only time will reveal what surprises the future has in store for Barcelona.

In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.

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Analysis

Erling Haaland — One for Barcelona to chase

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo via Getty Images

Erling Haaland is set to dominate the world of football for the next decade, and Barcelona will regret if they do not sign him in the next summer window.


Whenever Barcelona are linked with new players, one question always emerges: “Does he have the Barça DNA?” Although a vague term, Barça DNA has come to mean the traits that a Barça player should have, whether already at the club or a prospective transfer. These traits include everything from being technically sound to fitting a possession-oriented style — think of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Lionel Messi.

It’s natural for a club to want players that fit their ethos, especially Barcelona who have such a well-established identity, but where should the line be drawn? Should the Blaugrana miss out on top players because of an inhibition to change tactics, or should the team mould itself around them?

This is where Erling Haaland comes into play. At only 20-years old, Haaland has already solidified himself as one of the best young players in the world, and his position at centre-forward fills a dire need for the Catalans. And to the joy of Culés, the links to him have already begun, with Joan Laporta particularly interested in signing him for the club when and if he becomes President.

Rumours around his signing prop up two eternal arguments: He’s a world-class player that we need versus, he doesn’t fit our player profile.

How do Barcelona navigate this tricky situation?

Who is “The Terminator”?

Dubbed ‘the Terminator’, Haaland burst onto the world stage in the 2019-20 season with Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg, tallying 24 goals in 20 appearances. He also made headlines with the Norwegian international team in the under-20 World Cup, where he scored nine goals in one match.

Haaland meditation PSG

His ‘meditation’ celebrations are among things Haaland has caught attention for. (Photo via Imago)

In January 2020, he made a mid-season switch to Borussia Dortmund and has been wreaking havoc ever since. Now in the midst of his first full season with the German club, Haaland has scored 33 goals in 31 appearances, winning the Golden Boy Award as well, looking set to dominate world football for the next decade.

Player Profile

Haaland is notorious for his finishing, goal-scoring instincts, and intelligent off-the-ball movement. He scores in a variety of manners, whether with powerful long-range shots or well-placed finishes. As aforementioned, his goalscoring record speaks for itself, having already scored 17 goals in 13 appearances this season.

At 6’4″, he is a menace for opposing defenders, boasting a natural ability in the air as well as blistering pace, a combination unheard of, and feared. Earlier this year in a match against Paris Saint-Germain, the Norwegian reached a top speed of 36 kilometers per hour.

The 20-year old tends to play off the shoulder of the defence, menacingly waiting for a through-ball or long ball from his creative teammates.

Below is Haaland’s heat-map from this season, representing his average positions on the pitch. Evidently, he lurks in and around the box, waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Haaland’s heat-map from for the 2020/21 BuLi season. (Courtesy Sofascore)

With the ball at his feet, his pace and physicality allow him to out-run his defender, and without it, his world-class positioning always results in him being in the best spot to score a goal. His movement also drags opposing defenders, putting his teammates in prime goalscoring opportunities. Haaland is a nightmare to defend and must be closely marked because all he needs is a sliver of space to score.

Though not his best attribute, he can link up well with his midfielders, playing small one-twos, then receiving the ball in the penalty box.

Haaland header

Haaland is a versatile scorer, who can do a lot with creators like the ones Barcelona has behind him. (Photo via Imago)

Haaland is a counter-attacking threat as he can use his pace to capitalize on regrouping defenders. He’s also adept at holding up the ball, fending off defenders with his physicality and laying the ball off to his teammates. He’s an old-school number nine, with drops of a brilliant, adaptable player who can score goals out of thin air.

With at least a decade in front of him, Haaland can still improve, and one can only wonder what his ceiling is.

“I’ve maybe been around too long but I have never seen a guy since maybe Messi or Ronaldo that developed at such a young age. That’s very unique and he has all the possibilities to become a really world class player.”

 Norway coach Lars Lagerback 

The Numbers Behind the Player

In his young career, Haaland has already established himself as one of the most lethal finishers in the world. He recently became the youngest and fastest player ever to reach 15 Champions League goals, as well as the youngest to score four goals in a single Bundesliga match.

The Norwegian-international has taken 91 shots on target in his professional career, and scored 72 goals, giving him an astonishing shots on target to goals ratio of 79%. He’s averaging 4.21 shots per 90 minutes this season and 2.59 shot-creating actions. Additionally, he comes up with 0.53 goal creating actions a game, showcasing how much of an all-around threat he is.

The following graphic compares Haaland’s statistics in the last two seasons with top-five league forwards.

Haaland barcelona

(From: footballslices.com)

His goalscoring attributes (red) clearly stand out and his creative stats (yellow) are promising too.

The graphic below compares Haaland’s stats in the Bundesliga over the last two seasons with Bayern Munich’s talisman Robert Lewandowski.

(Graphic from Understat)

The stats are eerily similar, albeit Haaland has played almost half as many minutes as Lewandowski, arriving not before January. The most noteworthy one being the G90 (goals per 90) and A90 stats (assists per 90), where he eclipses the Pole. A goalless outing today barely provides a dent to what has been a fantastic start to life in the 2020/21 Bundesliga season.

Should Barça sign him?

Haaland is evidently a world-class forward, yet questions about his fit persist. Some fans question whether his player profile suits the Catalans, and many are wary of his lack of “Barça DNA”.

While he’s not as much of a creator as Barça might want in the striker position, he’s by no means inept and still has so much time to improve. Furthermore, Barça’s front line is filled with creative players like Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, and they desperately need someone who is lethal in front of goal. He may not be renowned for his passing or creating in tight spaces, but he excels in the most important duty of a goalscorer: scoring goals.

Erling Haaland PSG

The goal against PSG is testament of the plethora of goals Haaland is capable of scoring, something Barcelona crave for. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts)

On the other hand, Barça typically face teams that like to sit-deep and form a low block. How would Haaland fare against opposition that won’t allow him to maximize his pace and darting runs? Given his ability and instincts, it’s safe to assume that with the right creative pieces behind him, there’s no doubt Haaland could thrive in any setup, especially given his height and built, which can help him bully the strongest defenders in the box.

Above all else, it’s necessary to consider whether Haaland would even want to go to Barcelona, let alone whether the Catalans should pursue him.

The club is an institutional mess, and the squad is performing poorly. It’s not exactly an ideal spot for any player. Barcelona are also struggling financially, and can not realistically pursue Haaland without offloading a lot of other players. Haaland does have a fixed release clause of €75 million, though, and certainly, that plays into Barcelona’s lap. The centre forward would definitely need assurances of being an undisputed starter, as his ability certainly warrants that.

Another reason Barcelona should definitely get into the action to bring him to Spain is because rivals Real Madrid are the clear favourites to sign Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain. Ansu Fati, for all his brilliance, is too young to draw comparisons with the Frenchman, but Erling Haaland is the man who can give him real competition, and if shove comes to push, even overtake him.

Closing Thoughts

Alongside Kylian Mbappé, Haaland might be the best young player in the world right now. He has all the necessary attributes to shine anywhere and is a transfer target for most of Europe’s big clubs. The 20-year old could potentially lead Barça’s front line for the next decade, and he could be Barça’s next iconic number nine, following in the footsteps of Luis Suárez, David Villa and Samuel Eto’o.

Erling Haaland dortmund

Haaland is set to dominate the decade, and Barcelona will regret not getting him. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

He would surely astonish the Camp Nou, even without the so-called “Barça DNA”, but his transfer depends on navigating the financial crisis, and his on the pitch success depends on the right coach. However, just having Haaland on the team sheet, Barcelona would return to instilling genuine fear into their opponents.

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