It helps to take a step back now, after Barcelona have all but assured themselves yet another league title by beating second-place Atlético Madrid at home yesterday, to accurately appreciate the enormity of the situation and the incomparable superiority of Lionel Messi.
Barcelona, you may remember, endured what could accurately be described as a near catastrophic offseason. They lost the second-best player in the sport when PSG took Neymar from them. Their chosen successor to the Brazilian, Ousmane Dembélé, has spent the vast majority of the season either injured or fastened to the bench, making only four starts in all competitions during a woeful debut season in Spain in which his struggles to adapt to Barça’s playing style have been glaringly apparent.
The club’s other bright idea for improving the team in Neymar’s absence, trying to pry Philippe Coutinho away from Liverpool, failed spectacularly in the summer and wasn’t consummated until January, which meant their desperately needed new attacker couldn’t help them in the one competition they most needed help: the Champions League. None of the young, relatively cheap long-shot bets they’d made over the past couple seasons—players like Gerard Deulofeu, Denis Suárez, and André Gomes—proved much help when it came to plugging the Neymar-sized hole in the lineup.
In essence, Barcelona took all those minutes they’d planned to give to Neymar and instead handed over the bulk of them to Paulinho, a former Tottenham washout who the club had recently brought back to Europe after a stint in the Chinese Super League to the horror of Blaugrana fans the world over. On paper, Barcelona had lost so much in the summer and replaced it with practically nothing at all. Moreover, they did this during a season in which the hated rival, Real Madrid, boasted a second consecutive season with one of the best top-to-bottom squads European soccer has ever seen.
But soccer isn’t played on paper, and anyway that piece of paper describing Barcelona’s arguably sorry prospects for success this season overlooked one crucial thing: Lionel Messi was still suiting up for Barça, and he is the greatest of all time. We noted back in September that, if Messi could drag the aging and uncreative and under-talented squad to a league title, then this season could go down as maybe his most impressive one yet. Now, two months before the season’s end, with Barcelona eight points above their only real challengers after they beat Atlético this weekend with just 11 more matches to go, we can say for almost certain that Barcelona will win La Liga this year, and it has indeed been thanks to Messi.
Messi hasn’t done it alone this season, nor was it a solo show against Atleti yesterday. The Argentine forward was the best player on the pitch, no doubt, and it was the unstoppable genius of his free kick that gave the match its only goal, but his teammates showed up the way they have all year. There was a reason Atleti only mustered six shots all day, only one on target, in what was something of a must-win for them to have any hope for the title, and that reason had little to do with anything Messi himself did. Under first year manager Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona are simply a much more complete team this season than last.
If the flaw of MSN-era Barça was that the freedom that all-time great attacking line required to maximize their talents, and the team’s reliance on the front three to make pretty much everything happen by themselves, resulted in a grossly top-heavy side that absolutely dominated in their own final third but was at times weak in defense and had basically no midfield presence to speak of, then the post-Neymar Barça has been able to remedy some of those problems. The team is much, much more compact and capable in defense (they’ve allowed just 13 goals in 27 matches, just one goal more than the famously defense-first Atlético’s league-leading mark) and is similarly more coherent in the middle of the park.
Messi’s teammates have all greatly contributed to this. Sergio Busquets is back to his imperious best after some shaky seasons being regularly isolated in the MSN setup; Samuel Umtiti in his pomp has been the best center back in Europe this year; Gerard Piqué is as great (and oddly underrated) as ever; Jordi Alba has been phenomenal, dominating Barcelona’s entire left flank in a way reminiscent of his old teammate Dani Alves’s dominion in his prime over the opposite side of the pitch; Luis Suárez started slow this season but has since shaken off any notion that he’s past his prime and is once again arguably the best pure striker in the game; Ivan Rakitić has continued mastering the art of being whatever what the team needs; Andrés Iniesta is clearly on the decline but when he’s on, he’s still Barcelona’s best midfielder. Every player has a clear and defined role, and each one of the regulars is thriving.
And yet it’s still Messi who gathers all the threads and stitches together the goals that win the games. Messi leads the team in goals, assists, shots, chances created, and dribbles. Oh, and also leads the whole league in each of those stats. Barcelona lost Neymar from a team that was already overly reliant on their front three, and their solution was to heap even more responsibility upon Messi alone. And, as the fact that Barça have coasted to this dominant position in the league proves, he’s more than up for the challenge. No team in La Liga relies as much on one player to progress the ball into dangerous areas and from there to score goals or set them up for his teammates as Barcelona do Messi:
As amazing as Messi has been this season under such pressure to literally do it all, and as tantalizingly possible as his third treble-winning year feels (Barça are already into the Copa del Rey final, and are one of the favorites in the Champions League), there are reasons for concern, both in the short and long terms.
Although he’s been doing it for so long now, Messi won’t be able to keep up this workload forever. He turns 31 this summer, and will surely start slowing down here in the next couple seasons. And as sensible and effective as Valverde’s strategy of keeping the team buttoned up at the back and in the middle and to let Messi orchestrate everything that happens in attack is, Barça will find knockout-round play in Europe much more difficult than their league matches. Overcoming what Messi can do over 38 games is damn near impossible. (Proof: as long as Barça’s hold on to their current lead and win the league, Messi will have won seven of the last 10 domestic titles.) But stifling him for a match or two is a much more feasible proposition, especially when shutting him down is more or less synonymous with shutting down Barcelona. The bad thing about having a single creative focal point is you only have a single creative focal point. Gum up the fulcrum, and much of the work of defeating the whole is done.
Barça fans shouldn’t be too concerned, though, since help is on the way. Coutinho has already begun showing why Barcelona were so desperate to sign him during those stretches when everything clicks, as they did for much of the Atlético match. Dembélé too will only grow more and more comfortable in the team, and has too much talent not to be what Barça thought he’d be when signing him. Then there is the talk that Atleti forward Antoine Griezmann is soon destined for a switch from Madrid to Barcelona, and that Barça have wrapped up the particulars to bring in promising young Brazilian midfielder Arthur Melo from Grêmio next January. If things go as they should, Messi will have a much better support system around him this time next year, which should only free him up to be even more deadly than he is now.
Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy this version of Messi and of Barcelona, a true team dutifully working together for a common goal of getting the ball, giving it to Messi, and watching all the amazing things he can do with it all by himself. It might not be the most sustainable of strategies, but that it has worked so well so far is yet another testament to what an inexpressibly brilliant player Messi is.