Is Lionel Messi holding Barcelona's future hostage?
Background photo: Ayman Antar 7, CC BY-SA 4.0
Watching Barcelona play without Lionel Messi is like watching Connor McGregor fight with one hand tied behind his back. Unlike Real Madrid without Cristiano Ronaldo, Barca are set up to succeed without their Argentine maestro. The club spend freely in the transfer market to balance the squad. Even so, they somehow seem even more dependent on the 31-year-old living legend.
Despite strands of grey in the ginger beard he recently retired, the man himself shows no sign of slowing down. He will slow down soon enough, however, unless the Pope is wrong and he is a god. Despite that near certainty, fans are no closer to imagining the Blaugrana without their talisman.
The most common supposition is that another star will step forward. Before Messi, Ronaldinho was the star who took over games for the club. Not as many, not as consistently and not with the same quiet dedication, but the Brazilian was the man nevertheless. Johan Cruyff, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard's squads from the late 90s were the last not to feature a dominant star. They had world-class players but none who stood head and shoulders above his teammates.
Tiki-taka and total football are designed for players to move freely, assuming different roles with teammates shifting into theirs. Of course, it really took off when a player like Ronaldinho or Messi would suddenly flip the script and take the game by the scruff of the neck. That's when the Champions League titles began rolling in.
When Ernesto Valverde joined the club in 2017, he intended a system more robust than tiki-taka that would still deliver results. His methods dominate La Liga but falter in Europe. Like Luis Enrique, Tata Martino, Tito Vilanova and Guardiola before him, however, his system is designed around and serves Messi.
There's no reason to assume the Argentine can't play until he's 35. He maintains his fitness as fervently as Ronaldo although he only takes his shirt off for special occasions like El Clasico triumphs at the Santiago Bernabeu. Four years is not such a long time, though. Plans need to be made. Changes should be gradual rather than last-minute so as not to upset the squad chemistry.
Valverde knows this but has faced criticism for supporters for daring to think about the unthinkable. The team must fit other stars into the team. Philippe Coutinho's struggles illustrate the point. It's not that he's a bad player. His game is more subtle than numbers. Anyone who's seen him interact both with Messi and Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane at Liverpool knows he makes players around him better when allowed to play his game. He pulls strings. At Barca, he seldom has the opportunity on the far side of the pitch from Messi.
The Brazilian will never replace Messi. That said, he's the type of player who can read a game and choose the right options. He underwhelms in Barcelona because there is only one option. Find Messi.
Whether or not Coutinho is at the club when the god finally hangs up his boots, I don't know. You'll have to ask that other sectarian Argentine, Pope Francis, It doesn't really matter. He's just one example. The point is, when doomsday comes, Barcelona must be prepared.