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Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, and the Question of Needing Another Striker

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Messi’s passing ability was once again on point vs. Sevilla

International Club Friendly: Mamelodi Sundowns v Barcelona FC Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Lionel Messi created an amazing seven chances and gave an assist as FC Barcelona won the Spanish Supercup with a 2-1 victory over Sevilla. The Argentine forward was the man tasked with creating, although his teammates sometimes let him down. Ironically, his lone assist came from a simple pass which resulted in Ousmane Dembélè scoring a screamer from outside the box.

Barcelona’s other goal came when Messi struck the post from a free kick, the ball rebounded towards the keeper, and bounced back onto the post, and finally onto the path of Gerard Piqué for a tap in.

Barcelona will need Messi to create, although perhaps Dembélè and Philippe Coutinho will lessen his load. Dembélè also will have the responsibility of finishing off chances, with Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo tasked with interplaying with him along the flanks. But most telling will be whether Luis Suárez can return to form. He had a first match to forget, although to be fair to him, it was his first game since the FIFA World Cup, and he lacked rhythm.

Messi will also score his share, but he needs his teammates to back him up, especially against top teams. No player can really escape triple teams or hyper-focus from the opposing team, he needs his teammates to take advantage of the situation. This was evident when Barcelona beat Real Madrid 3-0 last season, with Ivan Rakitić, Sergi Roberto and Luis Suárez in fine form.

Easing the creative duties also helps, as it allows Messi to play closer to goal and focus on finishing more rather than creating. But you can’t deny the world’s best playmaker playmaking duties, that’s not a good strategy either. Messi is, as crazy as this might sound, perhaps a better creator than scorer. You want him on the ball, in many different areas. You don’t want him dropping deep to collect the ball every time, lest you get Argentina syndrome, but you do want him free to take that option if he so chooses. He can really unbalance opposing teams’ strategies by posing different types of threats to different players.

Barcelona also have a couple of dark horses to help the attack: new signing Malcom is one. He didn’t see the pitch yesterday but he has gobs of potential and could grow into the season. Then there’s Munir El-Haddadi, back from a successful loan spell. He might yet leave, but if not, he also is a player with a lot of potential, who has shown he is an effective striker in La Liga already. Then there’s Paco Alcácer, who is about to turn 25. If he’s ever to fulfill his promise, it really should start this season. He’s a good player who helped Barcelona from time to time last season, but there are questions as to whether he fits in with Ernesto Valverde’s system and whether he really can ever become good enough to replace Suárez.

A dip into the transfer market for a striker seems highly unlikely. Barça still pay Suárez a very high wage, and any striker worth investing in will cost a fortune, with many of the top players very unlikely to leave, especially at this stage. Getting a prospect may not necessarily be much better than keeping faith in Paco or Munir. Let’s not forget Paco was bought as the eventual replacement for Suárez, shifting Munir out, and now, if anything, it seems Munir is ahead of Paco. Buying a prospect is a risk, one that could, of course, pan out, but one that could also result in recruiting a flavor-of-the-week type.

One final option is to bring Coutinho to the front line, and give his midfield berth to someone else - maybe Arturo Vidal or Arthur Melo. Sergi Roberto and Rafinha would also be options either in midfield or on the wing. Any of these options are good to have, but will they work?

That brings us back to Suárez himself. He still does a lot of things which justify his inclusion, particularly, scoring goals that many other players wouldn’t. But with it come a series of mistakes, bad touches, and poor decisions. He’s getting older, but getting older doesn’t make your touch worse or your decision-making more wayward. He can lose pace, sure, but those kinds of mistakes are mental, too. You can argue Suárez always had a bit of weirdness in how he played, even when on top form, but he can certainly cut down on it.

There are reasons not to get too caught up in one performance, especially under the circumstances. But there’s been something off about Suárez for a while now and that is what’s truly worrying. Despite that, we are talking about a guy who bangs in goals throughout the league campaign, and often looks to set up teammates as well. But the objective for Barcelona this season is the UEFA Champions League, and that’s where Suárez has truly struggled. Let’s see how it goes this time around.

If he isn’t up to standard, will Ernesto Valverde have the bravery to bench him? Will any of his potential replacements prove worthy? Or will Suárez regain form, making this discussion, at least temporarily, irrelevant?