It’s tempting to think, after Barcelona’s 3-2 win over Real Betis on Sunday, that the best Lionel Messi of all is an angry Lionel Messi, that his three assists were somehow a cathartic exorcising of the fury he feels about how his club is being run. But these were three assists in a season in which he has already been directly involved in 25 goals. He was brilliant, but he is always brilliant. To detect gradations within that brilliance is probably beyond the mortal eye.
What the win over Betis highlighted yet again is that this Barcelona is heavily reliant on Messi. The club remains just three points behind Real Madrid at the top of the Spanish table, but that says more about the way the structure of the modern game sustains its superclubs than it does how Barcelona has performed with regularity. Messi’s outburst last week, when he hit back at Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal for suggesting the players were in part responsible for the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde, offered a far clearer insight into the state of the club. And whatever a reasonable apportioning of blame may be, everything is made more pressing by the fact that Messi could theoretically leave for free at the end of the season due to a contract stipulation.
Messi's deal runs through 2021–and president Josep Bartomeu has said repeatedly how the club plans to keep him for the duration of his career–but it has a clause that would allow him to bolt this summer if he chooses. It's something the club also afforded to all-time greats Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol, according to comments Bartomeu made last fall.
The reality is that Messi is very unlikely to go. Few sides in Europe would be willing to match his current salary of $33 million per year for a 32-year-old, while his introverted nature and the fact he has been at Barcelona for more than two decades mean there would be significant questions about how well he would settle anywhere else. Manchester City and the chance to work again with Pep Guardiola would perhaps be attractive, but as City faces continued investigation over alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play regulations and looks to refresh a squad that has looked a little jaded this season, it’s hard to make the economic case for making a one-off splurge on a player approaching the latter stage of his career.
But the threat remains potent, and it's one that should force Barcelona to confront the shambolic way the club has been run.
The situation when Guardiola left was not easy. He is an intense and idiosyncratic figure whose interpretation of the post-Cruyffian philosophy was radical. For three years, he created a side that played extraordinary football, winning three league titles and two Champions Leagues, but it was a way of playing based on seven players who had emerged from the youth set-up already indoctrinated in that style. Outsiders found it hard to adapt. As that side reached the end of its cycle and the next generation of youth talent proved to be not quite as gifted, the next step was always going to be difficult.
As it turned out, Barcelona handled it remarkably well, even after the tragedy of Tito Vilanova’s death. Luis Enrique, never as ideologically obsessed as Guardiola, won another Champions League in 2015 with the celebrity front three of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez grafted onto the pre-existing base, but once Neymar left, Barcelona seemed bewildered.
A $263 million windfall could have been used to rejuvenate an aging defense and midfield, but instead it was splurged on Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. Both were deals that seemed to answer the needs of image–a Brazilian to help marketing in South America and a promising young star–rather than the team. The result is the current unbalanced squad and a side that looks perpetually vulnerable to the counterattack.
In part that’s because of the shortcomings of the midfield and in part because of the detachment of the forward line. An awkward, and perhaps necessary, facet of Messi’s brilliance is that he spends large parts of games wandering around assessing the opposition. He no longer presses. When the payoff is so great, that can’t really be a criticism, but it does complicate the organization of the press.
And that feeds into a wider issue for Barcelona. It has a self-image based on the Cruyffian values of possession football. The appointment of Quique Setien follows the logic of that philosophy. But football has moved on. At the highest level now, football is about a radically hard press and transitions. Guardiola took over at a time when football, thanks to various changes in its laws and the financial dynamic, was ripe for his style, but even he has evolved. Setien already feels a little archaic.
And so Barcelona finds itself with a mismatched squad having to negotiate how best to adapt its traditional style to the demands of the modern game–all while remaining reliant on an aging genius whose brilliance itself makes it harder to develop a modern style.
This is when firm and visionary leadership is most required, but this is a time when Barcelona appears to have neither.