The coming days will show what life without Messi at Barcelona mean
The departure of Andrès Iniesta from the Camp Nou last summer officially handed the baton of leadership to Lionel Messi.
It will be myopic to assume the mercurial Argentine hasn’t been a leader before now, since the breathtaking season in 08/09 when Barca ruled the world and he scored a looping header against Edwin Van der Ser in Rome – his 80th Barcelona goal – Messi has grown into a leader on the field, albeit a quiet one. Forced to improve every facet of his game with the arrival of Cristiano, Messi’s name rang and still rings supreme in Catalonia. Unarguably the biggest name on Barcelona’s roaster, he led by doing his talking where it matters most, the pitch. He walked and caressed the ball like a god, revered by cules and feared by opponents who will treat him like Lord Voldemort. He is the focus of opposition tactics.
Having figured out that, one way to limit Messi’s involvement in games is to block his supply channels, Xavi and Iniesta, Messi adopted a deeper role on the pitch. He went from being a winger, to a false-nine and now he thrives as a playmaker, where he currently wrecks havoc on a lot of teams.
Being farther away from goal hasn’t limited him from doing numbers only Cristiano can match. Oh! Except for the freak season Mo Salah had, no one else is expected to score as much as Messi and Cristiano, even though the former is playing from a much deeper role.
Assuming the mantle of leadership can be quite exhausting for the Argentine. Everything starts and ends with him. His obsession with being involved in play every time means he’s prone to suffer from malicious tackles more times than he has ever managed. This time, it’s a 3-week time-out. Barcelona’s games in that time reads: Inter Milan (H), Real Madrid (H), Cultural Leonesa (A), Rayo Vallecano (A), Inter Milan (A) and Real Betis (H).
Messi is expected to be back in time before the Blaugrana travel to Madrid to take on Atletico at Wanda Metropolitano.
About this time in 2015, Messi was sidelined with injury and could only take his place on the bench, but a Neymar led Barca dispatched Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu that his introduction with Barca 3-0 up on enemy turf only compounded the humiliation. This time, Neymar is long gone and Ousmane Dembele is showing the inconsistency that is prevalent in every 21-year-old barring Messi who was already voted World Player of the year at that age.
With 12 goals and six assists already, this clearly lackluster Barca have relied heavily on Messi to lead by measure of performance and Ernesto Valverde can’t quite get Luis Suarez to those reaching heights during the reign of Luis Enrique – those days are long gone – neither has he managed to bring a string of consistency to Dembele’s game. No one can truly replace Messi at the club, not now and perhaps not ever. Hence, the summer arrivals of, first, Ousmane Dembele and recently Malcom – who is more familiar with the bench than the he is with a football pitch – was not to replace the irreplaceable, rather a sporting move to provide options for the coach when the day arrives.
What Barcelona didn’t prepare for is what day? And this isn’t a good time.