It has now been nearly a month since Barcelona announced that its superstar, hero, and icon was leaving.
And now, for the first time in his professional career, Lionel Messi has taken the pitch wearing a jersey that wasn’t Blaugrana.
The Argentine will have the time of his life linking up with longtime friends Neymar and Angel Di Maria, as well as young superstar Kylian Mbappe (if he stays). His former club, however? They have a daunting, daunting task ahead of them.
In the past weeks, Koeman and the squad have tried to distance themselves from the Messi news. Unsurprisingly, they’ve faced many questions on this topic, and the general consensus seems to be “it’s very sad, but we have to move on and look forward”.
Of course, they’re right. We do need to move on and look forward. Many just don’t realize how difficult that will be.
Heading into the international break, we have learned a decent amount about how the team will look going forward.
We saw a very promising first match against Real Sociedad, where the opening half especially was the blueprint for what Ronald Koeman wants to achieve with his side. But then that was followed with two drab, largely lifeless performances, a 1-1 draw against Bilbao and a scrappy 2-1 win at home to Getafe.
During the last game, there were periods where the game just seemed dead; Barca looked completely bereft of ideas and had zero goalscoring threat. Koeman, just like his predecessors, may be ashamed to admit this, but these lifeless periods are nothing new. The only difference is before they had a certain someone to get his team out of them.
Messi’s greatest asset to Barcelona wasn’t his ability to dribble through an entire defence, which he’s also done countless times by the way. It was the fact that as long as the 34-year-old was on the pitch, there was always a threat.
He’d receive the ball, turn, attract a few defenders and play a crossfield pass. He did it like it was nothing because to him, it truly was. Small moments like that create space, which in turn creates goalscoring opportunities.
Whenever Messi was playing, the phrase “creating something out of nothing” didn’t exist, because as long as he was in the vicinity, there was always danger. Much like the legendary Walter White, he was the danger.
Now, Koeman and the squad don’t have that eternal get-out-of-jail-free card. Replacing Messi’s impact on a football match isn’t something that will happen overnight, and it also isn’t something that will ever fully happen, because he is irreplaceable.
The start to the season hasn’t exactly been a confidence boost either. An injury to new signing Kun Aguero, as well as existing injuries to Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele and Phillippe Coutinho, means that once again, Martin Braithwaite is our (figurative) No. 9.
Yes, his work rate is commendable, and no, he’s not at fault for the current situation, but he simply cannot be the starting striker for any side with major trophy aspirations. He’s solid, but nowhere near good enough.
As for Antoine Griezmann, let’s just say it’s problematic when your highest-paid attacker’s best strength is his ability to track back on defence. Simply put, he’s been invisible when his club needs him to step up the most. Three games isn’t that much to go on, but it’s not looking good so far.
Clement Lenglet is still Clement Lenglet, new signing Emerson has provided absolutely no attacking output so far, and Koeman doesn’t count on Miralem Pjanic or Alex Collado. And of course, there’s the constant question of whether or not the club should be counting on him in the first place.
The Dutchman has major weaknesses in his management, and it keeps getting clearer and clearer.
His in-game management is very questionable; it seems like no one told him that you can make subs before the 75th minute. The subs he does make are an issue too, as they’re almost always negative (unless he’s losing).
Barca ended the match on Sunday in a 5-4-1, with three holding mids, three centre-backs, and Memphis Depay fighting for lost causes all on his own up top. It was the kind of set-up employed by a Sam Allardyce team fighting for survival against Manchester City, not Barcelona playing at home to Getafe.
To add on, his treatment of some players is so poor, and I don’t think I have to explain who I’m referring to. His stubbornness is beyond normal levels, and it’s not just Riqui Puig; how many stinkers do Griezmann and Braithwaite need to put in before Collado gets even a chance to make the matchday squad?
It’s embarrassing, and it’s not Koeman’s first time doing this either. When he was at Everton, he decided he didn’t want Oumar Niasse in his squad. Rather than just recommend he be sold, Koeman reportedly took away his shirt number, told him he could no longer train, or even eat, with the first team, and to top it all off, he wasn’t even given a locker with the reserves.
It’s the kind of thing that makes Barca’s current treatment of Ilaix Moriba look like nothing, and the club has cause here; Koeman simply didn’t like the Senegalese.
He is a Blaugrana legend and he deserves our respect, and the truth is he did instill a great sense of fight into this team last season. But all of these things put together make you wonder if he’s out of his element here.
For this season at least, though, he’s staying, and it’s not all doom and gloom at the club.
The long-awaited and much, much-needed return of Fati is fast approaching, and he’ll be a huge asset if he can stay fit. Similarly, Coutinho is returning from a long injury layoff, and he had started very brightly last season before he went down, as did Fati.
At the same time, Memphis has been a revelation, and he’s going to be a massive player this season. Frenkie de Jong has also kept up his top production, Ronald Araujo is dependable as ever at the back, and Pedri will come back fit and firing after his much-deserved vacation.
Youngsters Gavi and Nico Gonzalez show tremendous potential, and provided they’re given opportunities (a fellow young Masia midfielder will tell you they’re not guaranteed by any stretch), they can be a big boost to the team. As can Yusuf Demir, the Austrian gem who’s also crying out for minutes.
Old reliables Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique look to be back to their best, and the return of Marc-Andre ter Stegen will shore things up between the sticks as well.
Messi simply cannot be replaced by another player because there’s just no one else like him. Instead, the collective needs to step up, and the manager must implement a system that works. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be painless, but eventually the club will overcome this extended period of shock. And make no mistake, the shock of Messi leaving goes way beyond getting over that press conference.
One of the worst parts about his departure was the circumstances behind it, because it meant there was no replacement plan in place while he was still there. Now it means the process will be gradual, and it’ll have its speed bumps.
As fans, we’ll need to accept that this team is not in the right place to challenge for the Champions League at the moment, so in order to judge the rebuild accurately, we’ll need to temper our expectations for this season.
On the flip side, you can’t keep a beast down for too long, and Barca still has some magnificent youth talent, as well as some experienced legends. This means that a few strategic signings, as well as a proper system, could put the club on its path to the top once more.
Messi is gone, and gone with him are his goals, his assists, his magic, and his overall influence. But his legacy, that’s never going away. The wisdom he’s imparted, the lives he’s touched, and the youngsters at La Masia who watched his highlights on YouTube instead of doing their schoolwork, and dreamed of one day being able to follow in his footsteps.
Barcelona now need to channel their inner Messi, not as individuals, but as a collective, and finally begin the process every Culer hoped would never come: building the club back to the top without the greatest player of all time.