With the passing of time and loosening of the collective tactics, Barça have gone to rely on Lionel Messi more than ever. But this will have to change if they are to aim at the Champions League title.
That scent, that smooth fragrance, that sweet perfume of the most iconic anthem there is in football. That melody, is here. With just a few hours dividing Barcelona from its next European challenge, the harmony inside the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper is already anxiously buzzing for football. And there is no better football than the Champions League one.
As the greatest club competition in the world is approaching its new beginning, the unknowns are many, the doubts are even more. A new format, a new timeframe, a new way to approach the competition are only some of the numerous aspects that have to be decrypted this time. Unique circumstances lead to unique solutions. But at Barcelona they are not really unused to such situations. What the hell, they are too used to it.
While the factors surrounding this last third part of the season are different for everyone and in any way by any other historic happening, Barça loves to get a little too comfortable, a little too early. Especially in the last five years or so. As the legends and the superstars has slowly left the club, one thing never changed though: Lionel Andrés Messi. And that’s the problem.
Before starting to call me mad, let me explain. It’s obviously not an issue the fact that the greatest to have ever kicked a ball is still playing at the Camp Nou. Of course it is not. The issue comes when your team depends mainly on that single individuality. However good he is, no matter the influence he may have on the game, nevertheless the greatness he constantly displays on the pitch, we are talking about an individual’s brilliance in a collective’s game. And Leo Messi is the very maximum in all those categories.
“They are playing with a new system which makes them even more dependent on Messi, as he is responsible for making a difference with his dribbling, shooting from outside the area and combining with teammates. But as we saw against Napoli in the Champions League, Messi is targeted by opponents and if he doesn’t show up the team immediately feels it”
Barça legend on Barça’s over-dependence on Lionel Messi
In a timeframe where the Barcelona environment is each day more and more downhearted from the sad vision the club is showing, being solely reliable on a player just adds more fire to the chimney. As much as Barça fans should be honoured and football enthusiasts lucky to witness the greatest player of all time playing in their own era, it comes with great sadness seeing a club not providing the right supporting cast to a yet aging human being.
As years go by, the team’s dependance on Messi is proportionally increasing, while his legs are actually decreasing their pace and fatigue capacity. Instead of helping the Argentinian to complete the masterpiece, to get that cherry at the top of the cake, they are actually making him putting together that cake by his own.
Messi should lead, but not carry, Barça | Photo by Marc González Aloma / Zuma via Imago
The levels depicted by the Champions League are the very best you could find in the world, in terms of football capacity. While the probability of winning the trophy is greatly influenced by a luck component, as all knockout trophies are, the skills that set the tone of the competition should still be the finest you should have to get your standards right. There is not much time to think, usually. This time, there’s definitely none.
One legged-ties and conditions’ uncertainties have given the freedom to the underdogs to run as fast as they can, while the most experienced teams the chance to prove their worth. Unpredictability can run its course, too. It is a circus, you will have to be able to ride it.
This high standards set by the competition is a clear outlook on how you will be able to win it: unity. Only a cohesive group of players, fully committed and at their maximum effort, can believe and dream to lift this trophy. And as any healthy group, there has to be a leader. That captain that holds up the ship and makes sure that it is managed the right way. That icon that leads the way and helps to carry it. He does not put the ship on his own shoulders, but he rather shares its weight with the rest of the crew. A leader leads the way, but only the strength of the group can actually carry the journey to its completion.
Let alone what Messi has done for football, what he has done for Barcelona is something unrivalled. Something that no human being will ever be able to surpass, nor replicate. The numbers cannot describe the greatness of a player like Leo, but they can still show a pretty good outlook on what he means for the club: 10% of Barça’s total goals scored in its history came from Messi, whether by netting the ball or by providing an assist. Insane stats, but you still expect something like that from the greatest.
But as we approach Barcelona’s clash against Napoli in the second leg of the Champions League’s round of 16, it is interesting to take a closer look at some dynamics in the continental contest. While Messi is scoring in his 15th consecutive Champions League season, there are some numbers that outline a deep discouraging issue at Barça.
Since the 2017/18 season, which is the first season where Messi’s natural successor Neymar Júnior left the club for the promised wealth granted to him by PSG, Barcelona’s goalscoring stats could have been incredibly negative, if not for the little man. In this specific timeframe, the little genius scored 20 goals in the competition while Barça’s second top scorer has been…ehm, own goals (7)! If you cannot spot the Catalan club’s reliance on the number ten and his influence on the game live, while watching the matches, week after week, you should get your eyesight checked; if you still cannot spot it after hearing about this stat, you should get yourself checked.
Many times an extraordinary Messi alone is not enough | Photo by Catherine Ivill via Getty Images
Again, when 12 goals in 10 games and a ten out of ten performance in a first leg of a semi-final that ends up in a triple lead it is not enough, you have to admit issues. Liverpool was a complete depiction of Barça’s situation: two goals and an extraterrestrial performance in the first leg, four chances created in the second leg, and Barcelona still managed to suffer its second consecutive European debacle. What else?
There should be a supporting crew that actually supports the main character, and physically there is. While Barça’s roaster is not as impressive as blaugrana fans are used to, in terms of volume in this particular aspect, there are players who could load off some pressure and weight from Messi’s shoulders. The likes of Luis Suárez, Ousmane Dembélé, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann are only his attacking partners and are amongst the elite in football. However, having a name is not enough anymore.
The Uruguayan is already a couple years that has been slowing down rapidly, while Griezmann is yet not comfortable with Barça’s style. The youngsters out there are wonderkids, but while 17-year-old Ansu is over performing and actually doing the best he can, even with clear, natural, teenager’s self-seeking issues to be controlled, Dembélé is constantly worrying about not getting that diamond body of his rifted and, unfortunately, he is losing that game with the same rate.
Leo Messi has been giving away hopes after hopes, season in and season out, for years now. His involvement in both the team’s chances building and eventually their finalisation has been increasingly staggering and has also been the reason why last season, the 2018/19, has certainly been his most complete and, arguably, his best one.
“It’s true that there are players who think of connecting with Messi too much. I would do it too. Messi resolves 90% of this team’s games”
No matter the goals, no matter the assists, no matter the key passes nor the chances created, his implication in the team’s performance is abnormally higher than what you can ever expect. His stats compete with teams, not with other players. And while this acknowledges yet again his greatness, it also indicates how this Barcelona side is just Leo Messi, in his good days and his bad ones. And often it is not even enough.
While waiting for some sort of miraculous event to have occurred during this three weeks period, every football fans know that you cannot expect a complete overturn of a situation in that short period of time. Even if Quique Setién miraculously found the secret receipt to the poison, it couldn’t have the time to deliver its effect. And since the Barcelona manager hasn’t found any solutions to Barça’s dependability to Leo since his announcement in January just as his fellow colleague, Ernesto Valverde, it is difficult to predict a sensible change.
“I always say to my players that if the ball is at the feet of the best players, there’s a chance things will turn out well. That’s why they look for him [Messi], you know that he will do something. This dependence is normal. I prefer that they give it to him. I’m relaxed”
What has to happen, though, is being able to witness more harmonious movements throughout the entire squad. The result of a constant training on principles and ideas has to eventually give its fruits, in one way or another. The everlasting sensation of accomplishing something worthwhile, still, has to be something developed through the years, through a style, through a club identity that, unfortunately, has been widely disregarded in the last few years at the expense of an alien.
Make no mistake, how come Barcelona is always labelled as favorites even in such critical technical, tactical and environmental conditions? One name: Leo. One surname: Messi.
The countless storylines that have surrounded a cold season for Barcelona
Guest Writer: Ruairidh Barlow
Ronald Koeman is not doing a bad job. In fact, Barcelona are level on points with Real Madrid, sitting above them on goal difference. Not only would Barcelona fans have accepted that at the start of the campaign, but they would also have welcomed it. Probably with surprise, raised eyebrows and a grin.
Without an elite striker, with a Lionel Messi who does not want to be there, this season was supposed to be a disaster. Or a transition year, both fit. Messi had so long covered up the cracks; when the building collapsed entirely, he looked as lost as the others. The captain had given up any hope of winning with Barcelona.
And there’s an institutional crisis, the club is closer to bankruptcy than it has been since the Spanish Civil War, and there’s no president to negotiate it. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to criticise what is happening on the pitch. Begging the question, why is it so hard to warm up to this Ronald Koeman side?
There have been reasons for optimism at Camp Nou too. Despite some alarming gaps earlier in the season, Barcelona appear to have finally found a midfield three capable of surviving on its own – without an Arturo Vidal-shaped crutch. Either a cause or a consequence of Frenkie de Jong’s spectacular form in 2021. The Dutchman has been converted from wistful potential energy to a marauding hero in the centre of the park. The midfield belongs to him and Pedri.
Always a good gauge of the functionality of Barcelona, Busquets looks far more assured from the frail, slow problem he was six months ago. Neither of which would be possible without the mystical presence of Pedri, an authentic wonderkid. There too, Koeman must be lauded. Not only has he trusted the Spaniard, but he’s also afforded youth importance within his project. A regular demand of the fans and the club’s reputation, that like many other aspects which nourish a club, had been ignored for the last decade.
Beyond the soap opera that Koeman walked into – which has seen so many disasters it feels as if we must be close to the finale – he’s been hamstrung by extra obstacles.
Not least injuries. Messi aside, Ansu Fati is Barcelona’s best forward and inarguably the face of the club when and if Leo departs. His absence stretches across most of the season. Long under-appreciated, a pillar of that collapsed building was Gerard Piqué. He’s been missing most of the campaign too. Even Messi isn’t Messi. Earlier in the season, it appeared as if his astronomical finishing had already left the club.
The ultimate reclamation project, Ousmane Dembélé, who had neither the body or the brain to play for the Blaugrana according to many, is playing. And shining, no less. He now makes better decisions, taking responsibility not just for himself but on occasion has even done so for the whole team. Barely conceivable just six months previously.
Although Koeman did desire Luis Suárez’s departure, he certainly did not call him thinking Martin Braithwaite would be the only striker he had to call on. Other ‘superclubs’ contend with bad business, but none have dealt their manager as poor a hand as Barcelona have Koeman.
Again, on paper, there is a coherent argument that he’s doing a good job. Lingering beyond the results, the individual improvements and the nonsense he’s dealing with, there remains a doubt, though. A large portion of the media and the Culers remain unconvinced. Some exhibiting Koeman-like stubbornness about the issue. There’s a lack of feeling for this Barcelona team.
Undoubtedly reputation has tinted the conversation. While his history likely got him the job, equally, Koeman’s record as a manager is not synonymous with the success that Barcelona chase. Scoring the winning goal in the club’s first-ever European Cup has endeared him to supporters forever – which had genuine tangible value when Bartomeu was desperately grasping for the reigns of the club in August.
Naturally, that feat holds less of a place in the hearts of younger generations. Those same generations, who have only been aware of Koeman in managerial form, will also be conscious of the fact that he hasn’t won a major trophy since the Copa del Rey in 2008. He was chased out of Valencia shortly after. Certainly, there were many predisposed to scepticism.
Which often colours a performance as dysfunctional rather than developmental. But if we are to focus solely on the football itself, it’s been a season of many dawns, especially against the likes of Granada, Real Valladolid, and even Juventus (the first-time round). The pleasant moments have been promising enough to infuse hope amongst fans. Like his track record, though, the team is invariably inconsistent.
What is most curious is that those three performances mentioned were all achieved using different formations. The earliest iterations of Koeman’s Barcelona were emblematic of their manager’s personality – chiefly due to his inflexibility. Until December, the 4-2-3-1 was imposed regardless of the players available or the opponents. In itself, not a problem, yet the exploitation of soft spots was visible for too long without correction.
Even when the alterations did finally arrive, they still lack clarity. Whatever the idea is, it often comes out blurry, either in its conception or the minds of the players. Variety in attack is desirable. Too often, this variety is down to whichever individual playing at any one time, rather than an intentional change. With minor exceptions, mostly the long-awaited llegada of de Jong, there seems to be little consensus on how the team should attack from game-to-game.
Martin Braithwaite out wide seems to be a poor use of the limited skills he can offer. Like de Jong, Antoine Griezmann looks more confident, more involved and most importantly, happier. Yet, the finer details of his role are still shrouded in mystery. In his heart of hearts, he will never be the number nine Koeman could not sign. Lionel Messi’s role as freestyle point guard works best if he is surrounded by organisation, allowing the Argentine to be the chaos.
These challenges are not without difficulties. Apportioning responsibility from afar is a hard task. According to Koeman, though, none of it lies with him. Following each setback, the Dutchman has publicly demanded better from his players. Football-wise he may not be wrong. Numerous individual errors and impotence in front of goal do not belong amongst elite footballers.
Nevertheless, the modern age manager must be an amateur psychologist in every instant. A trait that unites all the managers at other top clubs is their ability to stand by their players. Koeman’s refusal to endure any of the criticism is the sort of thing players – or anyone in their workplace – remember.
That’s just the players he appreciates too. One can only imagine how the likes of Miralem Pjanić, Carles Aleñá (before he left), and Riqui Puig feel about their manager. Between the trio, they account for 8 league starts this season. A figure which increases in oddity given only Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets are the only fit players in their positions.
In particular, the furore surrounding Puig reached superlative levels at one point. Some fatigued observers have allowed this to cloud the actual issue. Ignoring the tiresome Twitter hyperbole, there is a genuine conversation to be had.
Puig may not deserve a starting place every week, but his syrup-like touches, dressing the minutes he has been given, warrant more action. They certainly have merited more than the 181 he has enjoyed in La Liga. Koeman has been hounded about it many times: to this day, he is yet to provide a rational explanation.
Neither is he flush for options on the bench. Over-complicating tactics is now a common malady in football. Still, Koeman’s counter-reaction of adding defenders when winning or attackers when losing is extreme. Both in the theory and the consequences – on just five of the 17 occasions Barcelona have fallen behind have they won.
It’s also a question of ambition. “What would Johan Cruyff do?” Presidential candidate Joan Laporta often asks himself. Add an extra midfielder in all likelihood. The great Barcelona sides would have been confident of retaining the ball, defending with the ball – being masters of their destiny. Adding a defender cedes territory to the other team and demands that they do the one thing they are poorest at: defend without the ball.
And then there’s PSG. January brought a new year, and it looked like a new Barcelona, the cogs finally clicking into place. That game put the brakes on all momentum, just when it appeared the paralysis had finally been overcome. But it was never just PSG. It was Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. All of these points of improvement, all the progress, seems to slip away when faced with a genuine challenge.
Even in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Club, when Barcelona were not as poor as some suggested, the Basque side were capable of unlocking their demons again. It’s not unreasonable to expect more; no team in LaLiga has taken fewer points from matches against the top four this season than Barcelona (granted they can’t play themselves). Now, the inability to win big games in Spain has become a narrative too. Well, until Sevilla were brutally sliced open by Koeman’s men at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Barcelona are undergoing far too complex a season for a proper appraisal. The usual cauldron of noise and egos are difficult to decipher in ‘normal’ times, let alone in this most surreal era. If the Blaugrana were playing smooth, jazz-like football with the same points tally, if they were on a visible path, Koeman would be doing an excellent job.
But Koeman’s greatest problem is that the mistakes are obvious. The rationality behind his decision-making remains a little too obscure. When changes do manifest themselves, they are tardy on a political scale. Despite Koeman navigating some of the biggest waves, basic flaws leave enough room for doubt to survive.
One of his greatest attributes is his iron will. Nevermore so than now is a strong personality a necessity for a Barcelona manager. Everything is being done in extremis though. In order to fix some of the obvious errors and answer the key questions, he needs to show the balance of a great leader. Perhaps then he will be fully trusted to steer Barcelona through next season’s storm.