Last weekend’s Clasico did not finish with Lionel Messi holding up his shirt, name and number for the entire Bernabeu to see.
Instead, the Argentine endured a miserable time in the Spanish capital and trudged off the pitch once the final whistle put him out of his misery.
Since Messi threw up his shirt at the end of Barca’s 3-2 comeback victory in April of 2017, he has played nine more Clasicos and has won just three of them, while scoring just three more goals against Real Madrid. In his past five appearances in this fixture, he hasn’t scored at all, going on a run of 426 Clasico minutes without finding the net.
Messi remains Barcelona’s best player. He remains the world’s best player. And by some distance. Yet he isn’t having the same impact in the biggest matches as he once did and last weekend’s Clasico was an example of that. At a time when there is even more Messi-dependence than ever at the Catalan club, simply having him has not been enough to win these crunch fixtures.
It’s curious that Messi has never scored in a Clasico as Barcelona captain. He has never shaken hands with Sergio Ramos at the coin toss and then gone on to score against him. Never. Look back at the celebrations of the No.10’s Clasico goals and you won’t see the captain’s armband as the forward points towards the sky in delight.
It’s not that Messi isn’t capable of scoring in a Clasico as Barcelona captain. Of course he is. But this is symbolic of the way in which the increasing responsibility placed on Messi’s shoulders is weighing him down.
As captain, the onus is on him to try to motivate his team-mates in the dressing room and on the pitch and to help orchestrate an attack that – partly due to Luis Suarez’s injury – features Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati, Martin Braithwaite and Arturo Vidal, who have a grand total of 96 appearances for Barca between them.
Messi is never going to be a coach when he hangs up his boots, but this is part of his job description right now and he is seen having more and more technical and tactical discussions with his team-mates while on the pitch. That’s something he never had to worry about before, when he could afford to focus on beating his own marker and little more.
Even off the pitch, the 32-year-old is having to shoulder extra responsibility. Barcelona are punch-drunkenly stumbling from one institutional crisis to another and the forward is having to share the load here too, most famously so when publicly chastising director Eric Abidal for his criticism of the players. Messi just wants to focus on football, but is increasingly dragged into the drama of club politics.
At 32 he is logically approaching the twilight of his career and he’s not as quick as he used to be. That was most evident in the Clasico when he had clean air between himself and Thibaut Courtois, but when he didn’t have the pace to get there before Marcelo caught up. It was bizarre to watch.
Normally we’re used to seeing Messi race defenders as if he is on an ascending escalator and as if his opponent is trying to run up the adjacent descending escalator, but that wasn’t the case in last Sunday’s game.
Even Casemiro, who has so often been terrorised by the Argentine, got off lightly. There was one moment where Messi had to make a tackle to stop the Brazilian from breaking away and he was booked for it.
“Normally it’s the other way around,” Casemiro joked to Messi as the pair stood up, provoking the Barca captain’s only smile of the night.
Messi needs help. Messi needs support. He needs Suarez back from injury. He needs a world-class partner-in-crime like Neymar. He needs midfielders who can get the ball to him so that he doesn’t have to drop into the quarterbacking role himself. And he needs the kind of tactical structure for the team that we don’t yet know if Quique Setien can provide.
Messi is still having a good season on the whole and is on course to finish this La Liga season with 29 league goals and 18 assists; the latter would be a record for him. The goalscoring numbers are down, but that’s partly because he missed so many games through injury at the start of the season. In terms of minutes-per-goal, his rate of one every 99 minutes is still ridiculous.
But in the biggest games Messi needs some help. He still has what it takes to be decisive, but somebody needs to share the burden of responsibility that he’s currently carrying on his own.