Assuming Barcelona registers all their signings, what are the best ways to design an attack in the absence of Lionel Messi?
The preseason games were a bit misleading with many players not featuring due to injury or international duties.
We did, however, get a glimpse of Ronald Koeman’s vision, and the players campaigning to play a part in it.
Let’s take a look at the forwards and attacking midfielders, and consider the options that Koeman has to replace the Barcelona legend.
First men up: Antoine Griezmann and Memphis Depay
For sure, Ronald Koeman will lean heavily on Antoine Griezmann and Memphis Depay.
Whether he plays with two forwards or three, goalscoring will fall on them. The chances will be there, and the key will be putting them away early to break down low blocks.
For Griezmann, one of the challenges of playing with Messi was not seeing enough of the ball, with both players wanting the same space, and only one expected to yield. Koeman was not the only coach who couldn’t solve the puzzle.
Now, the stage belongs to Griezmann. What a rollercoaster of a summer, but he may be headed for brighter horizons.
One encouraging revelation of the preseason was to see how well he combined with Memphis Depay. Between the two, Memphis was the first option because of his instinct to go to the ball and demand touches.
But Griezmann knew exactly how to play off him. Smooth one-two combinations in the final third were fun to watch. But best of all was their natural ebb and flow of knowing when to go and when to stay. Both players were willing to track back, or drop to the midfield, while the other pushed forward.
That type of dynamism is hard to defend against. Could they do enough to replace the impact of Messi?
Koeman’s go-to midfielders: Pedri and Frenkie de Jong
The only other guaranteed attacking player is Pedri, but proceed with caution.
Koeman loves Pedri, maybe just a little bit too much. If the young Spaniard can give 100%, he will be a playmaker, and the game will flow through him.
In order to maximize the most that Pedri can offer, however, rotation is essential.
Luckily, there are other options who can play the position, and even provide healthy competition.
Side note, Frenkie de Jong will play a big role in the attack, and like Pedri, will be given every minute that Koeman can extract from him.
Since he’s a wild card positionally, I would submit he’s not likely to be affected as much by the departure of Messi. In fact, it may be a chance for Koeman to play Frenkie in a deeper role as was the original plan.
Which forwards are next up?
This is where it gets interesting.
Sergio Aguero can’t be counted on to play a big role given his injury history.
In an ideal world, Ansu Fati comes back and alongside Memphis and Griezmann, creates the most dangerous attacking trident in world football. The reality, however, is that you never know how someone will recover from a serious knee injury.
If he picks up where he left off, Koeman’s decision is made, and a future Barca star is born for the second time.
But what if he struggles to find his form? Who’s next?
With the roster as it currently stands, and assuming Koeman will play it safe, Martin Braithwaite will get the call.
A fan favorite, able to play as a number nine, or on the left wing, Braithwaite would be a capable role player, but doesn’t have the quality to take over games.
The bold alternative as the season begins would be Yusuf Demir. What’s appealing about the Austrian is how he balances out the attack in a 4-3-3 as a natural forward on the right side. You also get a young player in top form, hungry and with something to prove.
He’s not the next Messi, but he does have a similar profile from the early days of his career.
When Ansu and Ousmane Dembele return, Koeman will have intriguing decisions to make. Say what you want about Dembele, but his versatility and pace can’t be ignored.
The good news, there will be competition, and if Koeman implements a merit system, he should be able to find players that can score goals and get the job done.
The takeaway point, however, is you don’t replace Messi with one or two players playing well. The days of superstar dependency are hopefully over.
It’s time for total team football. And speaking of, there are a few names we forgot to mention.
La Masia is a fountain of talent in the attacking midfield
If Barcelona is to have a truly potent attack-minded team, they’ll have to be able to dominate the midfield.
Pedri and Frenkie will need rest, and Ronald Koeman has two good backups in Riqui Puig and Gavi.
With Ilaix Moriba holding out, and Koeman missing out on Wijnaldum, Riqui and Gavi will be eager to make the most of their chances by playing hard and with pride for their childhood club.
Riqui has proven he has quality on the ball, and can score goals. If there is a shortcoming in his game, I haven’t seen it. Maybe defensively, if Koeman prefers a more physical midfield presence, but in that case Ilaix is the only alternative.
Gavi is unproven, but taking Barca world by storm, including Koeman who has spoken very highly of the 16-year-old.
I hope it goes without saying, but losing Messi will require the team going bravely into the future, and that means giving the young guys the minutes over safer options like Sergi Roberto.
Roberto has a role to play, but it shouldn’t be a primary one, which really should have been the case all along. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.
Instead, let’s recognize that there is more than enough talent on this team to compete for everything.
The players need to be motivated to be the best they can be at the best club in the world, and Koeman needs to make smart decisions tactically, and from the sidelines.
Who knows, we may even get a chance to test our mettle against the giants of Paris.
And maybe, just maybe, these Barca players will surprise everyone.