It was an emotional day at Estadi Johan Cruyff as fans were introduced to the Barcelona team that will take on a new season without the greatest player of all time.
Even as they dominated the biggest team in Italy, the excitement was muted.
For a club in desperate search of optimism, it was hard to let it manifest even as the players, new and old faces alike, gave a strong performance that’s hopefully a sign of good things to come.
A lot could still happen between now and the end of the transfer window at the end of the month. In the Joan Gamper game, it was strange to see so many faces getting so many minutes when we’ve been told they are surely on their way out the door.
One thing we’ve learned this summer with Barcelona is to take things one day at a time because nothing tomorrow is promised.
But we’ve also had a chance to discover exciting new players who will do anything for a shot at playing for the best club in the world.
With Lionel Messi moving on to make history at a new club, there are impossibly big shoes to fill. It will require a whole team doing it together.
This week we saw the two directions the effort could go in.
With the proper tactics and formation, Barca has the talent to dominate anyone, as they did against Juventus. Get it wrong, and you get exposed against lesser opponents, like a motivated FC Salzburg side showed.
Once the season starts it can be hard to take things back, so Ronald Koeman needs to have a plan from the jump, and he will have already gathered plenty of information to make his decisions.
Let’s take a look at a few things we’ve learned about the team this summer.
This is Memphis’ team if he’s willing to embrace the pressure
We all knew that Memphis Depay was talented, and putting up impressive numbers at Olympique Lyon.
In the end though, it was hard to look at his signing as anything else but Ronald Koeman getting a wish granted in order to build a team according to his vision. Wrong.
So far, Memphis has been electric, and Barca fans can break out of the doldrums knowing they have an exciting player to watch who can score goals and put on a show.
What stands out the most is his confidence. In a way that’s easier to do when you’re not playing in Messi’s shadow, and it makes you wonder whether the big silver lining to the great one leaving is that other players could finally break out. Antoine Griezmann comes to mind.
Memphis in particular is lighting a fire under his teammates and leading by example in important ways.
Against Juventus, he scored an early goal with a clinical finish, and later on grabbed an assist off a perfectly placed corner to Martin Braithwaite.
Memphis is doing everything with confidence and intention, and it’s on both sides of the ball.
He’s been dynamic making runs forward, holding up defenders, and tracking back to play defense in front of goal.
His energy is contagious. Griezmann seems to enjoy playing with him, and other players are going out of their way to get Memphis the ball.
Can he handle the pressure of being the star in Barcelona?
It looks like he wants it. And he has a head start on Sergio Aguero, Ansu Fati, and Ousmane Dembele.
It will be exciting to see what he can accomplish in a Barca shirt, and his biggest fan will be right beside him pacing the sideline.
Yusuf Demir is the breakout player of the preseason
Every summer you can expect a young player to emerge in the preseason that you didn’t see coming.
Yusuf Demir was a low-key addition, and was expected to spend the season at Barca B.
With Messi leaving, and many others injured or out of form, Demir has stolen the show this preseason, and seems like a shoe-in to make it as a regular on the first-team roster.
From the first preseason game against Nastic Tarragona, where he played on the right wing under Koeman’s 4-3-3, he inserted himself into the action, as if he were on a mission not to squander this opportunity of his lifetime.
He’s very technical, but doesn’t over-rely on it by playing it safe. Demir has shown he is direct, positive, and threatening with the ball at his feet.
Against Juventus, he was dropped into the center midfield, and found a way to be equally as effective in the new position. Now that Koeman has seen his versatility, and ability to affect the game in a variety of ways, you wouldn’t be surprised to see him being given minutes in the first few games.
He’s ending the summer in very good form and earned the confidence of coach and fans alike.
Well done Yusuf, we’ll be seeing you again soon.
Could a changing of the guard be in order? Not likely
Ronald Koeman would be doing himself a big favor by showing confidence in the younger players.
We know with Pedri that he’s not opposed to it, but this preseason we’ve seen worrisome signs that he intends to ride the same old faces.
Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, and Sergio Busquets all featured prominently.
To some extent this is expected given the limited options as his disposal.
Could we have seen more of Alejandro Balde and Riqui Puig? I was hoping for it.
Now it looks like Koeman will be conservative and stick with the guys with the most experience, even though some of that experience is tainted with traumatic memories.
If Barca drops points, he would be forgiven if we saw it happen in an effort to give opportunities to products of the academy.
On the other hand, he will be punished from the get-go if we see the same old faces losing big games in the same way that we’ve seen for years running.
My advice, make the players truly compete for every chance they’re given. That starts with elevating the confidence of the young guys.
Yusuf, Gavi, Nico, Riqui, Balde, and others have shown enough this summer to justify it.
Good job Riqui making sure that the last memory Koeman has of the summer was an absolutely gorgeous golazo by a young player just looking for a chance to prove himself.
Without Messi Barcelona will need to be a united front
Barcelona and Argentina both know all too well the security blanket that Messi provides.
What happens when that’s ripped away? We’re about to find out.
The good news is that Barca is overflowing with talent. It’s up to Koeman to use his imagination to get the most out of it.
Most likely, no one is going to score 30 goals. Although I wouldn’t put it past the capabilities of Memphis or Griezmann. Or even Ansu if I allow myself to dream.
Success this season will be an all hands on deck team effort. Hard work pressing, defending collectively, and attacking with creativity and dangerous intent.
Against Juventus, we saw a side still inclined to dominate possession, and also a side that can be vulnerable on the counter attack.
And yet, everything was clicking in the big picture.
Barca opened the game with an impressive counter attack goal from Yusuf to Memphis, and scored an uncharacteristic goal from a corner kick.
Maybe this was an early sign of their evolution in a post-Messi era? Too soon to say, especially after the disastrous game in Austria earlier in the week.
But the players look motivated. Koeman has no excuses. He has to get the tactics, formation, and rotation right.
It looks like we’ll see a 4-3-3, and honestly it’s looked balanced and effective, with players stepping into their roles quite well. The only time the team looked bad this summer was under Koeman’s disjointed experiment with a 3-5-2 against Salzburg.
In the end, he’s gained a lot of valuable insight. He knows which players are the most hungry, and he’s found a formation that compliments his players well.
Can he keep them motivated and accountable consistently week after week?
I have my concerns, and yet as dark as this week has been, I’m excited to see what the new chapter will bring in the storied history of FC Barcelona.
No time like the present to get back up and seize the day.
No better medicine than winning.
Let’s hope this team is ready to put their heart into it, and give culers around the world something to cheer.