The mere thought of Lionel Messi’s departure is enough to send shivers down the spine of any Barcelona fan. While it would be heartbreaking to see him go, he deserves the freedom to make the decision that is right for him, his future, and his family.
Although there are only two months left in the season, his future — whether that’s staying put, moving to Manchester City, or playing with Neymar Jr. in Paris–is still up in the air. Fortunately for Cúles, however, Barça’s recent performances and hopeful squad building might entice the six-time Ballon d’Or winner to stay.
In any case, his departure is still a possibility and thus worth exploring. If Messi does end up leaving, what should Barcelona do? How should they proceed tactically, financially, and institutionally?
Big shoes to fill
How does a team cope with losing their best player, let alone the greatest player of all time? While we can try to imagine the on-the-field ramifications of Messi leaving Barcelona, sometimes, you don’t realize how important something is until it is gone.
Messi has been the creative hub of Barcelona for so long, both setting teammates up and scoring goals. Over the last few seasons, the team has fallen victim to constantly looking for Messi to generate attacks. Fortunately, this has lessened this campaign due to the emergence of other creative, and more importantly, confident players. Nevertheless, we can go on and on and list the countless moments Messi has lifted the team with clutch moments, startling goals, and line-breaking assists. The question remains, who would step up in his place?
The answer is a tricky one, but simply put, it would have to be a collective effort. The team structure would completely change, focusing on a more egalitarian approach with threats coming from all over the place. In fact, having played this season without a clear number 9, Barcelona’s attack has somewhat resembled this. Goals are spread throughout the squad, and Barcelona is the team with the most goal-scorers (19) this season across Europe’s top five leagues.
Still, despite this impressive statistic, Messi leads the squad with 29 goals, and Antoine Griezmann is second with 14. In fact, Messi almost has nearly as many goals as the next three leading goalscorer’s tallies put together (30).
Over-reliance on Messi has been a problem for a while now, but with a boatload of talented players like Griezmann, Pedri, and Frenkie De Jong, can they keep the ship afloat?
Looking at Man City for Inspiration
If the Blaugrana need inspiration for how to succeed without one talisman, they should look no further than Manchester City. The Citizens attack with variety and unpredictability and without a spearhead. They sit first in the Premier League (by 14 points); they are in the Champions League quarter-finals, and they are in the FA Cup semi-finals and the League Cup Final.
They have five different players with double-digit goals and 19 different goal-scorers across all competitions. Most impressively, their top goalscorer is central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan with 16. For comparison, their centre-forwards Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus, have scored a combined 15 goals.
While this is due in great part because of the ingenuity of Pep Guardiola, they are a living example that success can be achieved without a clear “number one option.” If Barcelona looked to them for inspiration, that could serve them well.
Aside from leaving a hole on the pitch, Messi’s departure would also shake up Barcelona’s finances. Their debt and current financial struggles are widely reported, but some have irresponsibly attributed that to Messi’s contract. After his salary details were leaked earlier this year, many were quick to jump the gun and blame him for it, insinuating that if he were to leave, Barça would be in a much better place financially. The fact of the matter is, this could not be farther from the truth.
A group of financiers and economists crunched some numbers and revealed that while Messi’s contract has cost Barcelona over 380 million euros since 2017, he has generated the club over 600 million euros in return. While they did not have full access to Barcelona’s financial reports, the findings are startling yet also make complete sense. After all, who wouldn’t want to sponsor the team that harbours the best player in the world?
Though Barcelona were profitable before Messi and will be after his reign comes to an end, the two have become synonymous with each other over the last decade. Realistically, the Catalans can be expected to lose a lot of revenue from sponsorships, jersey sales, television deals, and other avenues if the Argentine departed.
Despite the monetary value attached to his name, however, Messi remains invaluable.
Investments & navigating the transfer market
With a gaping home to fill on the pitch and a shaky financial situation, how can Barcelona remain (and elevate to) being competitive in all competitions?
For one, the summer transfer window would be even more consequential. Although money is tight, the Blaugrana can still make moves to bolster their squad through economical and high-value signings, particularly through targeting free agents. While there would be some freed up cash due to Messi leaving, revenue would drop down-the-line and there is still no assortment of players that can fill his shoes.
Regardless, there are certain areas of the squad that must be backed with reinforcements and money should not be spent carelessly. From a financial perspective, fortunately many of Barça’s targets are free agents this summer. These include Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, who recently rocked the world by revealing he will not return to City next season, Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum, and Lyon’s Memphis Depay. Each of these targets has their own set of pros and cons but signing them would help Barça maintain a balanced and competitive squad.
When speaking of bolstering the squad, one name always comes up: Erling Haaland. The Norwegian striker is a dream signing for most cúles but is financially unrealistic at this point in time. If they did manage to break the bank for him, however, he would be a talisman to spearhead attacks.
Other than spending money on new players, proper investments should also be made across all sectors of the club, not only to improve men’s football. But in terms of men’s football, Barça should invest in La Masía, the sporting department and improve their scouting, for example.
Institutionally, the return of Joan Laporta is a sight for sore eyes and the expected appointment of Mateu Alemany as director of football should help the team moving forward. When there is uncertainty on the pitch, maintaining institutional stability is key.
A return to La Masía
If Messi was to leave this summer, Barcelona would surely be in desperate need of proper reinforcements. Other than in the transfer market, they have plenty of homegrown talent to keep an eye on.
After a few rough seasons in terms of output, the fabled youth academy of La Masía is back to producing gems. Over the last two seasons, Ansu Fati, Ilaix Moriba, Riqui Puig, and Oscar Mingueza have emerged as valuable first-team members. Looking to the future, there are countless prospects like Alex Collado, Konrad de la Fuente, Nico Gonzalez, Alejandro Baldé, and Jandro Orellano who deserve first-team debuts.
A return — but not over-reliance — to La Masía would represent a new age in Barcelona’s future.
In conclusion, Messi’s next move is as elusive as his dribbling. If he were to leave, Barcelona would be in a challenging situation, but there is a blueprint for success. The key to remaining competitive would be bringing in the right pieces and continuing to develop the squad’s plethora of young talent. For now, the best thing is that the club is simultaneously building for the future while still competing right now.
Messi’s story with Barcelona is unlike any we’ve seen before, and hopefully, it’s not over yet.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.