Through the first 64 minutes, Barcelona’s season opening match against Alaves looked like a textbook 0-0 draw. Their opponents packed their defensive third with 11 defenders as Ernesto Valverde’s side tried to find dangerous openings around the penalty area. A draw would have been convenient for the title favorites regaining their fitness from the World Cup and still integrating new signings. That was until Messi, recalling Ronaldinho from years earlier, slid his free kick under Alaves’ wall to open the scoring. The lead brought their bunkering opponents out of their shell, to which Barcelona packed on two more goals to finish the match that was closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggested.
Those difficult home matches trying to break down an opponent’s defense displays how far Barcelona are from the passing machine at the turn of the decade. Those sides shifted opponent’s from side to side at pace, picking apart and exploiting small spaces in a telepathic symphony. We thought those moments would last for years through a never ending conveyor belt of La Masia talent. While the passing philosophy was a foundation, in hindsight, those sides featured once in a generation talents like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi all in their prime at the same time. And with Sergi Roberto famously the last graduate of the youth academy breaking into the starting lineup, Barcelona have looked more like the rest of modern Europe than vice versa.
Yet Messi’s gravity has continued to distinguish Barcelona on and off the field. But there is a sentiment for both club and country on easing up on each side’s over-reliance upon the 31-year-old Messi as he ages. Barcelona had an answer at one point with Neymar ready to take the playmaking reigns. Their approach now appears to be in Valverde’s approach built on balance both in structural and in player responsibility. It is sound in theory, until they come across a defensively disciplined opponent and Messi is asked to come through with another brilliant moment. Like the sub-par attendance at the Santiago Bernabeu over the same opening weekend, you never know how transcendent a superstar actually is until they’re gone.
And any club must keep up with the trends of the contemporary, pressing game to stay relevant, even if comes at the expense of what made them famous. The idea of whether a new transfer signing has “Barcelona DNA” inevitably comes to the fore in debates played out through social media, especially under the direct play of Luis Enrique. Shady foreign relationships aside, the theme of Barcelona’s recent transfer windows centered around increasing their energy, athleticism, and directness. This summer was no different as they added Arturo Vidal, Clement Lenglet, Malcolm, and Arthur for over $145 million. Taking out the 31-year-old Vidal, the latter three are 23 years old and under.
But Vidal, a clear stopgap, symbolizes Barcelona bending towards pragmatism. His energy and physicality replaces another stopgap in Paulinho, adding a late running thrust next to the base of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. In the place of pure La Masia passing technique, a direct, goalscoring midfielder has become an essential part of Valverde’s side in adding a late game dimension if Barcelona are desperate for a goal. The energy and positioning of Vidal, Rakitic and Busquets presents a problem for any side to break down, especially in Europe - if Barcelona are ready to sit back in specific situations to see out matches.
Then again, Arthur, the creative fulcrum of Gremio’s Copa Libertadores title winning run last season, bucks the trend towards directness. Similar to Atletico Madrid’s inability to replace Diego Costa throughout the last four years, Barcelona have spent $350 million attempting to find the next Xavi to set the tempo for the side’s style. The Brazilian may be the closest they’ve had as a replacement. Rafinha said he had a “touch of Xavi” about him, while Xavi blessed him with the all-important Barcelona DNA. The 21-year-old Arthur was quick to dismiss the impossible comparisons, especially in moving from South America to Spain without any buffer period (Yerry Mina made the same leap last winter and lasted half a season).
Known primarily for starting on the right wing and cutting in on his left, the 21-year-old Malcolm foreshadows what could be Barcelona’s attack in a post-Luis Suarez world. Although the struggle of fellow 21-year-old, uber talented winger Ousmane Dembele is concerning not only in terms of playing time but also in why otherwise individually talented attackers have had a difficult time adapting to Barcelona. We mention the failed replacements at center midfield, but that list is as long in the winger position with Pedro, Tello, Jeffren, Gerard Deulofeu and Alexis Sanchez failing to hold down a consistent first team position.
In describing why Sanchez never flourished at Barcelona, Dani Alves said that the Chilean’s desire to be the main protagonist clashed with their playing style. Yet if understanding the Barcelona philosophy is as important as individual quality in breaking into the lineup, what is the most dangerous team they could put together today? Vidal especially has a proven, European resume out of the new signings. If he doesn’t acclimate and leaves within a year, one wonders if the failure is on him or the inflexible system. Or, is the idea of DNA taken literally to symbolize a trait inherent within a player, unable to be taught or developed?
Interestingly, Arthur and Malcolm represent opposite dynamics within Brazilian player development as well. Alongside Everton’s Richarlison and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, Malcolm is product of Brazil’s domestic game lacking in modern, off-ball pressing tactics thus giving wingers excess time and space to thrive. Meanwhile, Arthur represents a throwback to a creative central midfielder pushed out for pragmatism in recent decades. Each player is caught between two contrasting visions for club and country: can a powerhouse team be direct and modern yet still maintain the beauty of play that brought them success in the first place?
“There is still room for Messi to surprise us,” stated Valverde following their Alaves match. The clear path for Barcelona repeating as La Liga champions has as much to do with Real Madrid transitioning from the Ronaldo era than any clever tactical moves under their second-year manager. Even at 31 years old, Messi can win the league by himself this season.
Taken at the surface level, it should be easy to build a team around Messi. Or rather, it should be easier to build a starting 11 with arguably the greatest player in the sport’s history than without. But Barcelona’s (and Argentina’s) inability to get the best out of Messi displays the difficult nuances of team building. There’s often a feeling of 10 players waiting for Messi to win a match, of whether it’s his teammates responsibility to sacrifice for his paradigm or the other way around. We can take the question of creating the best Barcelona team and add a slight twist: money aside, what is the best team one can build around Messi?
It is a high level debate that any other club in the world would love to have. And it also shows how there are always challenges regardless of a club’s standing, whether in fighting relegation or asserting their global branding dominance. As was the case with Ronaldo in his final seasons at Real Madrid, a team can be disjointed yet still be devastatingly effective. There may be no longing analysis of a side other than having the best player in the world, or no glowing recaps of a playing philosophy. But there will be trophies.
This season ultimately goes back to Messi, as everything in Barcelona’s world inevitably does. And as will every season as long as he is in a Barcelona uniform, regardless of how he ages. If Arthur does realize his potential, it will be within the umbrella of the Argentine striker. If Malcolm can carve out a starting position on the wing, it will be due to his interplay with Messi. Taking the league this season is table stakes for Barcelona considering the context. But winning matches by simply having Messi be a genius in every match wasn’t the promise of the Barcelona way, even if it is the clearest, most pragmatic path to results. That level of greatness is both a gift and a burden for all.