At FC Barcelona, it is said that every defeat is a crisis, but the events of recent weeks have shown what real trouble is.
The current storm started with a loss, but progressed to get deeper and darker, almost to the point of no return. It appears to be on hold, rather than resolved, too.
During the 8-2 humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals last month, Lionel Messi finally lost all hope. He made clear his desire to leave the club he dedicated his entire career to, who gave him equally as much in return, in the middle of the game. As Bayern, who went on to be crowned European champions, kept on pushing forward, Messi stopped tracking back; consciously or not, he had shown the world what he wanted to do next.
It took a few days, but then the announcement arrived; as unsurprising as it was to almost everyone, it didn’t quite feel real. Messi had let it be known that he wanted out of Camp Nou. There were many reasons for his decision, the situation had been simmering for over five years, but it was clear and deliberate, a message that Barcelona had pushed him too far. His reasons, and the fallout that followed, were documented in their entirety by a captivated worldwide media. The underwhelming appointment of Ronald Koeman as coach did little to appease him.
For no other reason than to avoid a long, bitter legal battle with Barcelona, who insisted Messi’s €700million buyout clause be met by any club wanting to sign him despite his claims that a contract clause allowed him to leave for free, the Argentine has decided to remain at the club. If anything, though, that has further weakened their hand in the long run. Messi’s feelings remain strong, nothing has changed and he is able to walk away for free next summer whatever happens because his contract expires. If Barcelona won the battle, they certainly lost the war. Selling Messi always felt like something to be avoided at all costs, until the conditions of keeping him were realised.
Had Barcelona cooperated in good grace and agreed to take a fee for him, they could have struck a deal which would have wiped away their growing financial concerns. Although they would have been markedly worse on the pitch, there would have at least been a clean slate. Koeman, who now faces a difficult situation which he has to manage with the endgame still most likely being Messi’s departure, would have had an easier job in making his mark.
An example of why keeping Messi is stopping that from happening comes in the shape of one of Koeman’s perspective transfer targets. Having resigned as coach of the Netherlands national team to fulfil his dream at Barcelona, it isn’t surprising that he could bring an influx of Dutch talent to Catalunya. Memphis Depay, who enjoyed a much better Champions League mini tournament than Messi in August, guiding Lyon past both Juventus and Manchester City and reaching the last four in Lisbon, tops his list of ideal signings.
In a post-Messi world, where Barcelona are in need of a new talisman, Memphis would fit the bill perfectly. At the age of 26, he is finally reaching his true potential with his best years ahead of him; after a false dawn at Manchester United five years ago, he has thrived away from the spotlight in France, able to grow into the kind of big-game player he always threatened to be in his early days at PSV Eindhoven. Now is the time for him to prove his worth at an elite club; though nobody can ever replace arguably the greatest player ever to play the game, he could have shouldered the responsibility and represented a new era.
But with Messi still the star attraction, despite everything, the move doesn’t seem quite as suitable. Barcelona are in need of new blood in attack, but with Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, Ansu Fati and latest arrival Trincao at Koeman’s disposal alongside Messi himself, withdrawn strikers who can play out wide, the type of player Memphis is, aren’t exactly in short supply. He brings something the others don’t in terms of quality and personality, but not in a positional sense.
With Luis Suarez departing, the real necessity is a goalscorer, an out-and-out striker who can play off the shoulder and be a focal point. As he has got older, Messi moved back out to the right side at Barcelona, away from the central areas where he used to drop deep as a ‘false 9’. But he still takes up those areas between the lines, where Depay likes to play at Lyon, and requires someone with pace to make runs and break lines in attack. For a while, due to Suarez’s own decline, he hasn’t had that. That needs to be a priority this summer.
Now that Messi has announced he will stay, there is a remote chance of bridges being built at Barcelona; never say never, at least. A new start appeared to be the best way forward, though, and it is strange that not everybody got on board with that. Memphis was a ready and able replacement, albeit a significant downgrade as anybody would be; given the right opportunity, without constantly being compared to his predecessor, he would have been a good signing and could prove to be in the future.
The need for him has diminished for the time being; although Koeman won’t publicly admit it and can hardly complain at working with Messi, the number 10’s begrudged acceptance of a truce isn’t good news for the new manager.