Wouldn’t it be just like the crazy times of 2020 if the 8-2 Champions League demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich does turn out to be Lionel Messi’s last game for FC Barcelona. The greatest player to ever play the game cut a forlorn figure as he and his hapless, ageing teammates were mercilessly took apart in an empty stadium over in Portugal. 2020 may be one of the strangest years in human history but the Barcelona train has been on buckled tracks and on course for the cliffs of humiliation for a long time. They’ve finally reached their destination and Messi wants off.
The warning signs have been up for a while, not that the Barca higherachy seem to be paying much attention. Winning leagues. Yes. Winning cups. Yes. Yet those that have followed the club’s progress over the last 2 or 3 seasons have been aware of an alarming broader picture. The teams ageing squad, the very poor recruitment of players coupled with the lack of once famed youth team progression all playing major parts.
Messi, through no fault of his own, has become the club’s main problem which we’ll go into more detail later. But, his unwavered ability to win games on his own has lead those in charge to bury their head in the sands of Copa Del Rey’s and La Liga titles. There seems to be a complacent, arrogant air of ‘it’s ok, we’ve got Messi’ which wafts away around the Camp Nou. To an extent, this has papered over cracks but only because of Messi’s undoubted genius. It’s in the latter stages of the Champions League where the club have been found out. Crushing defeats to AS Roma and Liverpool in previous seasons made the world sit up and take notice. This isn’t the Barcelona of old, in fact, stop Messi the conductor and you stop the train completely.
Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, once reliable and unquestionably world class performers have all had the sands of time catch up on them. The wrong side of 30, the explosive pace needed at the top end of the elite game now eludes them as their glistening careers wind down. It’s to the club’s great shame that they didn’t let these legendary players either leave for a farmer’s league final payday or allow them to gracefully retire at the very top of their game a few years previous. The blame here lies in Barcelona’s terrible recruitment and lack of planning.
The 6 time Balon D’Or winner ended the 19/20 season with 31 goals and 26 assists in all competitions for Barcelona this season despite missing a quarter of it through injury. How do you replace that? The answer is you can’t. But what Barcelona have failed to do is come up with any sort of contingency plan for a post Messi world. The world’s greatest player’s extraordinary performances over the last 15 seasons have seen him become not only invaluable on the pitch but commercially invaluable off it. It has earned him contracts of eye watering amounts but they’re contracts which has increasingly taken power away from the club and ones where the club can be effectively be held to ransom. Messi has it written into his contract that he can leave for free at the end of every season if he so chooses. This has meant signings all seem based around keeping their star man happy rather than looking at a bigger long term picture of the team. One case in point being that Luis Suarez probably would have been shipped out a year or 2 ago had he not been Messi’s best mate.
There has also been a very public dispute between Messi and the club’s sporting director, Eric Abidal. Usually quiet and unassuming, Messi flexed his muscles by lashing out at the Frenchman who had claimed the players weren’t working hard enough under then coach Ernesto Valverde. A wake up call for the club’s board, a PR disaster and a glimpse at the level of Messi’s general unhappiness within the club.
As it happens, Antoine Greizmann was last year’s marquee signing at £107 million which did gain Messi’s seal of approval. A great player for Atletico, he was seen as a good signing. However, looking a bit deeper, at 29 years of age it was another short term solution to Barcelona’s problems and a transfer fee that seemed very inflated. Sadly, even in the short term, Greizmann has looked a shadow of his former self and has struggled to fit into the Barca system, often pushed into a wider role he’s not been used to. Rumours have circulated that he and Messi don’t get on. Rumours which the pair have both strongly denied. Unsettling none the less and again, more bad publicity for the club. Prior and even post Greizmann, Messi has openly pined for Neymar to return to the club from PSG but his own astronomical wage package has meant the club could no longer afford the type of numbers needed to bring back world’s most expensive player. Greizmann would have to do and it’s failed massively.
Then there was the mid season signing of Martin Braithwaite outside of the transfer window which saw a lot of very highly raised eyebrows. It didn’t make any sense especially as Barcelona sort special permission to sign him. That along with other expensive failures such as Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho have compounded the boardroom misery. With the lack of money available, you would think La Masia would be the club’s focus. The development of a new Messi, a new Xavi, Puyol or Iniesta should have been a priority but the talent coming through seems to have dried up with the clear focus being on the more established, older and expensive signings. This lack of youth intergration has probably set the club back years. The death of Johan Cruyff hasn’t helped either, would he have let things go this far? The famous Cruyff style of play seems to have been diluted out of the team’s DNA in recent seasons. One things for sure, new coach Ronald Koeman needs to clear the decks and start from scratch. The slight advantage for Koeman is his knowledge of the club. A legend in Barcelona, he knows the Cruyff core principles better than most and, hopefully, how to reimplement them. The downside he and Barcelona have is, how far do you let the club fall behind in order to rebuild properly? Big spenders Man City and PSG won’t wait around for them that’s for sure.
As for Messi, what next? Only a couple of clubs could realistically afford him in Europe, the afore mentioned. Talk of a return to boyhood club Newells in his native Argentina hasn’t gone away. That would basically mean playing for nothing with the major intense scrutiny and fanaticism that comes with it. This has potential to become a logistical nightmare for him and his young family. The 3rd option is to stay at Barcelona and help Koeman rebuild. He’d have to accept the old guard all departing and he himself taking up a more back seat role to allow the club to properly prepare for life without him. That’s not to say the club don’t just continue to keep their heads firmly lodged up their own proverbials and go on as though nothing has happened. Wouldn’t rule it out. Messi would still get the numbers because he’s that good. Then, a year or 2 down the line, he’d retire. What then? A dead institution primed and ready for mediocrity.