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Messi leaving Barça is a dark storm, but every cloud has its silver lining

Hariharan Balaji

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Header Image by Rafael Marchante / Pool via Getty Images

Lionel Messi and Barcelona have always been one unbreakable force. Never in a million years would football fans have thought Messi would be leaving Barça before his retirement, let alone join a European powerhouse. As the move seems as close as it has ever been, it is time for fans to endure the decision and evaluate what’s next for the club. 


Barcelona are not having the best of seasons this year, and the humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich seemed to be the rock bottom. But as Barça slowly reeled from the chains of mortification, a bombshell of news dropped this week. Reports emerged that Barcelona superstar and captain Lionel Messi wanted to move away from the Camp Nou. The message shook the entire footballing fraternity, let alone the culés

As days pass, the idea of the one-club man leaving Barça appears imminent. Losing the captain and a club legend will be a big blow for any team. But when the player is also arguably the greatest of all time, you know, disaster awaits. The overarching effect on the club could be massive, and the immediate future of the team would be in limbo.  

However, when it comes to supporting a club, any football club, the team comes before anything or anyone. Not even Lionel Messi supersedes the above notion. While it is disheartening to contemplate the idea of him leaving the club, it is necessary to think about what little merit it can achieve.

Reducing the wage bill

Every well-run football club in the world spend their money efficiently and keep their expenses in check. One of the main aspects of this is to have a wage cap, which limits the amount of money they can spend on a player’s salary. While not every club has this rule, they make sure not to overpay their players or give in to their demands. But, unfortunately, looking at the wage bill of Barcelona, the implementation is far from ideal. 

The Catalan club’s wage bill is among the top three highest in the world. It amounts to more than half of the club’s total expenses. The alarming wage bill is one of the reasons for their economic struggle during this period of crisis. And undoubtedly, a large chunk of this wage bill amounts to the salary of Lionel Messi. 

Lionel Messi leaving Barça

While no culé wants to see Messi leaving Barça, it would give the club some much-needed air to breathe economically | Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

There is not one person in the world that can argue that the best player in the world does not deserve this money. But, if he does leave the club, the wage bill will seem far less scary. With other senior and high-earning players like Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitić possibly moving away, there is a chance to get the wage bill under control. While it is not Messi’s fault that he earns this much or the wage bill has increased exponentially, his departure would help the club financially. Much to the delight of the incompetent board in place. 

Positional clarity 

Football has moved on from rigid formations and structures. The players occupy spaces with more fluidity resulting in smooth transitions and control of the game. Under Quique Setién and for some part under Ernesto Valverde, Messi got deployed on the right wing. While he was an explosive winger in his early days, his pace and stamina have decreased now, and he tends to drift inwards towards the central zone. While this has kept him closer to the goal, the space he vacates on the wing gets rarely utilised. 

With Messi not in the line-up, proper wingers like Francisco Trincão or Ousmane Dembélé could finally stretch the opposition to the wing areas. While this would have worked even with Messi as a false nine, there are other complications. Players like Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho could have a better campaign as they could finally occupy their comfort zones which Messi generally dominates in. The central zones would be less crowded, and Barça could hope to obtain numerical superiority throughout the pitch.

Lionel Messi leaving Barça

Messi has been covering the team’s deficiencies for years, but his particular nature has been a great conditioning factor for coaches | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images

While Messi’s attacking exploits are second to none, his defensive contribution has decreased over the years. When it comes to the defensive aspect of the sport, a proper structure and shape often seem better. Attack as a team and defend as a unit is a general philosophy, and the blaugranas currently are not the ideal example for the same.

With Messi and Suárez in the picture, Barça essentially defend with nine men behind the ball. When the younger, less proven footballers replace their experienced counterparts, they tend to work harder to impress the fans and the gaffer. The team will naturally have more energy and zeal to succeed as new and young blood enter the fray. The pressing intensity and general tempo of Barcelona can finally increase.

Ripping off the band-aid 

Barcelona fans had to go through several humiliations in the last three years. Roma, Anfield, Valencia, Bayern were salt on wounds of each underwhelming season. After every one of them, fans hoped that it was the last straw, and Barça would somehow rise back up. But each one was worse than the previous. The latest one looks like an all-time low, and the pressure for rebuilding has never been more crucial.

The general consensus of the club has always been to base the team around the Argentine. Still, rebuilding around Messi now will only result in yet another meltdown when he leaves or retires in the future. If Messi leaving materialised now, Barça could avoid another potential rebuild and start from scratch now. Barcelona could finally move on from the so-called Messidependencia and work on improving the youth and preparing them for the future. 

Yes, the team will lose their x-factor for clutch games, and there will be no fear factor when opponents face Barça. Nonetheless, the Catalans do have talented and gifted footballers among their ranks and certainly do have the pull to attract talents across the world. Griezmann, Coutinho were match-winners on their own in their previous teams, and there is no reason why they cannot step up now. 

Conclusion

Lionel Messi leaving Barça does not feel right. It is far from ideal. But, with the situation escalated beyond reversal, it is only right to think about the future and the best interests of the club. Saying farewell to club’s greatest ever player will not be easy, but there’s always some good in goodbye.

I got into watching football for the emotions of it. A goal followed by a crazy celebration from the player gave me goosebumps. But, watching the beautiful game over the years, I realised it was much more than just goals. The passing, the movements, the positioning and the effort involved behind the scenes opened my eyes to what football was. I keep trying to learn more about this incredible game and pass on what I learnt with a tinge of passion attached to it.

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Barcelona and the Georginio Wijnaldum affair

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo by JOHN THYS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum has been at the heart of Liverpool’s robust, hard-working midfield for the past five seasons. He’s a player Culés know all too well, as he scored two goals in two minutes to help lift Liverpool past Barcelona in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals.

Wijnaldum is an impending free agent this summer and has been linked with Barcelona ever since Ronald Koeman took over in the fall. Koeman coached him with the Dutch national team and has a real affinity for the player, even coming out in interviews claiming he was on his “transfer list”. 

Barça are in a tough situation as they need to revamp their squad but lack the proper funds to do so. Wijnaldum could potentially be signed for free in the summer, but should Barça pursue him?

Player Profile

Wijnaldum rose through the ranks of the Feyenoord youth system before making his senior club debut at 16 years-old in 2007. In fact, he is the youngest debutant in the Dutch club’s history. He made 135 appearances with his boyhood club and won the Dutch Cup in 2008. Wijnaldum then had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle United before signing with Liverpool in 2016. 

With Liverpool, Wijnaldum has won practically every trophy possible, from the Champions League in 2019 to the Premier League in 2020.  He has made over 212 appearances for The Reds and is a staple in their midfield. Under manager Jürgen Klopp, he’s made a name for himself as a midfield engine, one whose high energy and pressing gives the team defensive stability as well as a quick outlet for transitional play.

Playing alongside Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Naby Keita in a midfield three, his work rate allows Liverpool to dominate opposing teams. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Against Barcelona in 2019, he played as a centre forward, and he’s even played matches at centre back.   

Wijnaldum’s heat-map this season for Liverpool in the Premier League, per Sofascore.

The 30-year old is capable of fulfilling various roles in the middle of the park. In the early stages of his career with Feyenoord and PSV, he played as an advanced midfielder, a number ten, and even on both wings. To showcase his attacking prowess, he had seasons of 14, 15, and 16 goal hauls in 2010/11, 2012/13, and 2014/15 respectively. His roles during his one-season stint with Newcastle were varied, and he was impressively their leading goalscorer (11) in the Premier League that season (2015/16). 

Wijnaldum is also a key squad member for the Dutch National team. He made his debut in September of 2011 and has made 70 appearances ever since. He often plays as an advanced midfielder and has scored 21 goals for the Oranje. Looking at the heap map below, it’s clear to see the different roles he fulfills for his club side and national team.

Wijnaldum’s heatmap for the Dutch National Team in Euro Qualifiers, per sofascore.com

Wijnaldum is an extremely hard-worker on the pitch. Defensively, he’s nearly impossible to shake off with his physicality and positioning. Offensively, he’s press-resistant, efficient with his passing and has a knack for scoring goals. Once again, he’s not asked to do much on the creative-end for Liverpool, but his time in the Netherlands and with the national team proves he’s more than capable of fulfilling those duties.

Last season, he averaged 45.9 passes per game with a completion rate of 90.4%, 9.10 made passes while under pressure from opponents, and 1.69 tackles plus interceptions per game. This season, he is one of the squad leaders for Liverpool in terms of most passes made while under pressure (7.51). In the Premier League this season, he is winning 2.4 of his ground duels per game. 

Wijnaldum and De Jong know each other a little too well from their time with the Dutch National team. (Photo via Imago)

His averages of only 0.08 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes and 0.15 goal contributions per game last season may indicate a lack of creativity, but that’s only due to his positioning and tactical instructions from Klopp. For the Dutch National team, in which he plays in a more advanced position, he has tallied a staggering 11 goals and four assists in 17 appearances since 2019. That’s a rate of 0.88 goal contributions per game, albeit at a smaller sample size. 

Where would he fit in at Barça?

Evidently, Wijnaldum is one of the most versatile players in the world. He does a little bit of everything and as such, could potentially fill a variety of roles for Barça. 

In Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, Wijnaldum can play in the double pivot or even the number ten role. There, Winjaldum’s high energy and defensive work rate could cover a more attack-minded player, like Frenkie De Jong. Koeman has recently reverted to Barça’s typical 4-3-3, however, the 2014-2015 Netherlands Footballer of the Year can play in any of the three midfield positions. He’s had some experience as a number 6, playing in front of the defence and anchoring the midfield, but his box-to-box capabilities would best serve the team if he played as an “interior”, one of the two central midfielders. 

Gini does not shy away from a robust tackle. (Photo by Phil Noble – Pool/Getty Images)

Barça fans have often clamoured for a workhorse in the midfield, someone who will do the team’s dirty work night in and night out. This player’s defensive work rate would counterbalance the more attack-oriented and free-roaming midfielders. Arturo Vidal filled this role for a season or two and Ivan Rakitic to a different degree before him. Wijnaldum could play this part admirably for the Blaugrana, just as he currently does for Liverpool. 

It’s easy to see why Koeman wants to sign him. The question is, should Barcelona move ahead with it?

Verdict

Although there are many arguments in favour of signing Wijnaldum, particularly regarding his versatility and box-to-box acumen, there are equally as many against it. 

To start, he is already 30-years old and would be 31 by the start of next season. While he is still performing at a high level and not showing signs of slowing down, signing him would put the club in an awkward place. His salary demands are reportedly why he wants to leave Liverpool, and the Catalans should be hesitant before signing him to a potentially long-term, high salary deal. He could easily end up in Arturo Vidal’s situation, where the club signed him at 31-years old and after a season and a half, decided to offload him for free.  

Furthermore, because Barcelona are in dire straits financially, they need to spend what little money they have wisely. Squad building should be focused on long-term replacements for key positions such as left-back, centre forward, and defensive mid. Wijnaldum would be a complimentary piece, and while he could be a solid temporary fix, Barça require core pieces. 

Barcelona know about Wijnaldum’s level all too well, but this is not the right time to sign him. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

His addition would also crowd the Blaugrana’s jam-packed midfield, not to mention take minutes away from their various “gems.” To fill the three centre-mid positions, Barcelona have Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanić, the up-and-coming Ilaix Moriba (set to make his debut this Friday in the Spanish Cup), and even Sergi Roberto or Philippe Coutinho once they return from injury. 

As mentioned, some fans would want him because of his work rate and tireless effort on the defensive end, but the squad’s defensive issues won’t disappear because of one hard-working player. 

Conclusion

In years past, a signing like Wijnaldum would make perfect sense. He would have been younger and could fill a long-term need as a versatile squad piece, but Barcelona are now in a different place both on and off-the-pitch. It can be frustrating for culés to hear the age-old arguments about how their club is struggling financially. Still, the reality is that Barça must now be extremely diligent and effective with their signings, focusing instead on finding long-term replacements in key positions. Wijaldum could be a solid addition, but he is not a player the club absolutely needs.

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