Since Neymar’s transfer left €225m in the coffers, their ham-fisted attempts at long-term strategy have unwittingly sacrificed players at the altar of the Argentine, with none of them having any real chance of success.
Paco Alcacer, Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom represent a €400m, ill-advised succession plan and at the moment if Messi isn't contributing a dynamic impact, this team looks on the verge of falling apart.
Messi, and Camp Nou in particular, often provide an invisibility cloak, the magician himself proving the master of misdirection to present the image of unity. There remains a Coliseum-style ambience there (before lockdown at least) where the locals arrive to watch their gladiators demolish yet another feeble opponent. An expectancy and an invulnerability. Real Betis won 4-3 there a year ago, and before that Real Madrid triumphed in the Supercopa, 3-1 in August 2017.
That's the only two home losses they've suffered in nearly three years. But away from home, it's a totally different story. It has been suggested in some quarters that Barca get bullied outside of Catalunya, taken out of their comfort zone and roughed up on the road. But the numbers don't really back that up - the number of duels, tackles and interceptions are largely comparable home and away, as is the number of passes made, as well as the direction of play.
A DIFFERENT ATTACK AWAY
Where Barca fall down is unilaterally in the final third. The defence is an issue but the underlying attacking numbers away from Camp Nou drop off a cliff. Their Goals Per Game (GPG) at home in 18/19 was 2.8 versus 1.79 away, with Expected Goal (xG) totals of 2.24 and 1.42 respectively. That's a significant drop - Barca drew eight times and lost five on their travels. And even from that position of noticeable reduction, 19/20 is even worse.
If we make a direct comparison between away statistics in 18/19 to 19/20 we see Barca's attacking impetus regressing further. Their GPG away from home drops from 1.79 to 1.47 and their xG is roughly identical (1.43 to 1.43). 22 goals away from home is only three more than Granada.
Shots have fallen from 12.5 to 11.5 this season, and on target from 5.2 to 4.5. Their form isn't unfortunate; earlier in the season under Ernesto Valverde they weren't dominating the likes of Osasuna, Granada, Levante or Slavia Prague, and in 2020 they aren't dominating Espanyol, Valencia or Athletic either.
And it may seem like the most obvious thing to say in the world - that Barcelona are a worse team without Messi - but it's the starkness of the contrast which should be horrifying for Barca fans. Messi had a false start to the season through injury and took time to accelerate through the gears, but no-one even came close to filling the void.
THE GRIEZMANN PROBLEM
Which brings us to Griezmann. Anyone who watched him at Atletico could see a player who could drift into the areas that Messi does, and perform that dual playmaking/goalscoring role, not to Messi's level but to take some of the creative pressure from his shoulders.
And that's why the focus, deserved or not, falls on his shoulders, particularly when dissecting the alternatives.
Ousmane Dembele's career continues to be a disaster but after numerous injury and behavioural problems, his confidence is evidently destroyed. Against Athletic on the opening day of the season (one of only two 90 mins he completed in 19/20) no-one lost possession more than him (21) but his stats are almost irrelevant because this, clearly, isn't the player Barca spent €140m on.
Whether he ever will be seems already set. Elsewhere, a post-30 Luis Suarez has never been much more than an (albeit world class) goalscorer, and all the while Ansu Fati has limitless potential but probably isn't getting the minutes his impactful contributions deserve.
Barca are worse away from home, but Griezmann isn't particularly good anywhere at the moment. As he trudged off against Athletic on Tuesday it was another early substitution; he's completed the 90 minutes just twice in his last 10 league games. Forgetting the Copa del Rey against Ibiza, he has four goals this year.
EVERY Griezmann metric falls into dangerously passive territory; Shots P90 are just 1.9 in La Liga, with just 0.8 P90 on target - numbers more akin with central midfielders than nine-digit forward signings. His 5.3 touches in the area are nearly half that of Ansu Fati (9.3), while Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has nearly been as influential from a goal creation perspective (two assists to Griezmann's four).
Season-on-season, even with his 18/19 at Atletico not being a particularly fruitful one, his xG P90 drops from 0.36 to 0.29 and xA P90 from 0.25 to 0.16 despite playing in an infinitely more attacking side. It's not just not Messi, it's light years away from where he needs to be.
NOT JUST ANTOINE'S PROBLEM
It's not all for Antoine to solve, but, ultimately, the situation demands that he does. After delaying his move for 12 months he festered scepticism and regret among Los Cules and the incessant Neymar return talk does him no favours. When Gerard Pique said that players were willing to defer payments to allow the club to comply with Financial Fair Play and still bring the Brazilian home, it can only be emasculating for the Frenchman. Throw in that when everyone is fit he will have to operate from the left, far from his optimum position, and it feels a little unfair to Griezmann, almost as if he is being set up to fail.
There has been no clear blueprint for his inclusion when Messi is there, which begs the question - why buy him in the first place? Ernesto Valverde said before his departure, "I don't like to talk about indisputable starters. He will play if he meets his requirements." Those requirements are unavoidably in the final third.
Griezmann does track back a lot - no-one who played for Diego Simeone could get away with not doing so - but it's somewhat a moot point.
He said previously: "That's thanks to Cholo (Simeone), it was him who taught me all that. I'm here to help the team, whether it be in defence or attack." It’s not some new trait or Barca defensive credo, it was just part of the Simeone philosophy, and it’s admirable. But it’s not what Barca spent €120m on.
And now there's rumours of a training ground bust-up with Messi, just the person you want to be mixing it up with when things aren't going well.
As he walked back towards the dugout once against Athletic, he moved a few steps closer to joining Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele in the pantheon of Barcelona's failed Messi replacements. And though the club's lack of coherent transfer policy has done him no favours, it's difficult to find a way back from here.