The beard lends him some distinction, wraps his boyishness in a coarse blanket at least, but Leo Messi still seems ageless even at 31 years old. Or perhaps we only don’t want to talk about his age. There have been claims that this past World Cup was likely his last, though that prediction speaks as much to the intense dysfunction of the Argentine national federation as Messi’s imminent decline. It is not the same thing as calling him old, which he nearly is now. Andres Iniesta—about as close as he’s ever had to an analogue, Messi minus the forwardly brilliance—was still effective but noticeably leggy last year, retiring to Japan at the end of it, unable to play 90 minutes anymore. He turned 34 just before the season ended. The same fate’s coming for Messi, thereabouts. Maybe it has already started to.
It makes sense that Barcelona are keeping quiet about it. That would put them under more urgent obligation than they already are, to assemble a house that’s spent a lot of time living on the lawn since Sandro Rosell stepped down as club president in 2014 amid corruption charges. Management has hardly been bad, and anyway it hasn’t mattered much when they have been. The Josep Bartomeu era has brought three league titles, four Copa del Reys, a Champions League: a fine record at Barcelona and an absurdly fruitful one nearly anywhere else. But the Paulinho deal, shadier than an old cypress; the current board’s stubbornness in not repatriating ex-La Masia graduates; a knack for pissing off other clubs in the transfer market; and a schizoid eye for talent—Arturo Vidal in blaugrana? okay, but why?—don’t inspire confidence. Uneasiness pervades. The squad is uneven. They’ll probably win La Liga by eight points.
There’s an internal argument within the club’s fanbase, between Cruyffistas—who wish Barcelona would return to playing as they did under the Dutch great toward the end of the eighties and later with Pep Guardiola organizing the most creative midfield in the sport’s history—and regular shmegular (if no less committed) supporters who are pleased with whatever wins. The Cruyffistas have been in crisis for a while, more or less since Tito Vilanova stepped down as manager due to health issues in 2013. The days of Barça daintily macheteing back lines to ribbons are, if not irretrievable, increasingly ambering toward sepia. This is not Barcelona, the Cruyffistas protest, with sharp anxiety, knowing that, after a while, you become what you are.
Not having a dog in this fight, I personally prefer a Barcelona that functions as an athletic ideal and a stylistic constant. I didn’t care for Luis Enrique’s more vertical sides that de-emphasized the midfield in favor of rapid attacking play, but in 2014, Enrique won a treble and it’s smart, as a general rule, to strategize taking into account the players actually on hand rather than some rigid system or high-flown ideas about the way you wish to play. Enrique was a pragmatist, though he wasn’t a particularly adroit tactician, which is why he got run out of town eventually.
Ernesto Valverde is Enrique with a keener eye for detail, and while that’s a positive development—there’s a Popovichian meticulousness to Barça now; they don’t beat themselves—it can also be a bit drab in practice. Valverde likes a second holding midfielder, when he can afford it. He doesn’t mind grinding out a narrow victory, or even a draw, if that’s an acceptable result. It works, but it’s not very Barcelona, if that can be said to be a thing. They lack a style.
This matters if you care more broadly about soccer, given that Barcelona are one of only a small handful of clubs in the world with the resources to convincingly sustain a style of their own. (As in writing or music, a mastery of a bunch of other stuff—let’s call it technique—is a prerequisite to uniqueness. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to be a distinctively mediocre Soundcloud rapper.) It also matters if you care about Leo Messi, who has shown, with Argentina, that he can do good work in less-than-optimal setups, but we want the best for him, right? Avoiding a Sideways Nadir situation is paramount.
Your mileage may vary: I have always thought Messi most fully realized around 2010, when tiki-taka was in bloom and Barcelona were pummeling opponents 5-0. This is sort of like arguing that your life was better when you were working a job that paid more, but deeper than that, Messi thrived in those teams in a way he hasn’t since. Sid Lowe was fond of pointing out around that time that Messi was pretty much the best everything in Spain: best striker, attacking midfielder, central midfielder, winger, set piece taker—could probably play extremely well at fullback if you wanted him to. Guardiola’s Barcelona thoroughly utilized that completeness, playing Messi either as a false nine or nominally on the right, allowing him to combine with the midfield or surge forward into space as he saw fit. He didn’t truly have a position; he drifted into whatever space he could find and fed off the intelligence of the similarly fluid Xavi and Iniesta. The attack was cyclonic, if cyclones could be manipulated like a record on a turntable, and Messi could be anything—frequently many things at once. The shape of him never settled.
These days, the system a bit more static, the players around him highly skilled but often dancing just below his wavelength, Messi is still the most accomplished and exciting player in the sport, but rather than, to steal Brian Phillips’s analogy, functioning as the air and light with his teammates composing the ground beneath him, there’s an earthly laboredness about him. Sometimes he’s ethereal, at others he’s sweating, hauling rocks.
Diego Simeone was overheard this summer wondering if Cristiano Ronaldo would be better at dragging an average team to great heights than Messi would, and though Cholo would later clarify that he thinks his fellow Argentine is clearly superior, he might not have wondered incorrectly. Cristiano lives for the heroic, and though he won’t help out your midfield, he will absolutely score if they can feed him even one decent pass near the net. Messi is different, a dispositionally collaborative player who can sometimes get the job done by himself but would prefer not to and is improved exponentially by teammates who understand him. If you’re Crystal Palace or Eibar, you could stick Ronaldo in your lineup tomorrow and instantly have a stronger squad. With Messi, that would obviously be true as well, but his integration would be more complicated.
He’s not going to be totally at home playing with Arturo Vidal this season. Ousmane Dembélé has a ton of potential, but still learning, he’s no David Villa. It’s impossible to reconstruct the team that enabled Messi’s finest years because most of those players are gone—aged out the game and irreplaceable. But it is slightly curious that Barcelona are continuing on with a noticeably if not drastically different project. Faster, more muscular, they aim to devastate rather than transcend. Perhaps they’re right to, and anyway, Messi will be his spectacular self either way. But he is 31, and it’s about time to take the measure of thes arc his career has traveled, and where it’s headed. Nowhere disastrous, surely. A little closer to the ground, though.