Maybe leaving Barcelona is the only adventure Lionel Messi has left.
Maybe Messi is in the same exact place in his career as Kobe Bryant was during the 2007 NBA offseason when he tried to force a trade from the then-rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers. Barcelona’s midfield is in shambles relative to their recent history and to Real Madrid. The inability to sign reinforcements with their transfer ban could make them bystanders for major hardware and on a different timeline as Messi with him now firmly in his late twenties.
The relationship between Messi and Barcelona is basically a fairly tale in which they’ve adopted each other as though it is tied with blood, but he’s ubiquitously suggested that it isn’t beyond the reach of separation at some point.
Their revival 3-1 showing against Atlético Madrid over the weekend notwithstanding, Barcelona isn’t passing the eye test right now as one of the world’s truly great five or six clubs. But their actual results alone do not necessarily merit the alarms of the international crisis with Luis Enrique on perpetual guillotine watch.
Barcelona entered the round of 16 in the Champions League as the top club in their group and will face Manchester City, whom they dominated last season in the same stage. Oddsmakers and analysts are heavily favoring Barça in that tie.
They’ve been sailing in the Copa del Rey and Real Madrid is up by just one point (albeit with a match in hand) in La Liga. Real Madrid was invincible for 22 matches, but are prone to not showing up here and there and have a return trip to the Camp Nou.
The trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez have also played fewer than 15 matches together. They’re not a natural fit to immediately figure each other out and Messi has been forced to play out wide instead of as a False 9 down the middle as an unstoppable playmaking genius. All three players scored goals against Atleti, which was both symbolic and prognostic. The trio celebrated Messi’s goal match clinching by running toward the sideline in unison.
If Barcelona gets their midfield in order consistently, as they did in part with stronger play from Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić against Atleti, there will be plenty of possession and an abundance of chances on goal for that trio to convert. They’ve been better on defense than expected with Gerard Piqué finding his form again to create a reliable partnership at center-back with Javier Mascherano.
But there is likely far more going on here than just Messi’s personal opinion of Enrique. Messi doesn’t threaten Barça with a “he or I” ultimatum, he doesn’t need to. If Messi wants Enrique fired immediately, he doesn’t give as energetic and inspired performance as he did against Atleti. There was no doubt that it was his most important performance symbolically at Barcelona since Pep Guardiola departed.
Messi has always been portrayed as victim over villain and the level of sensitivity in which he was treated by former managers does not appear to be afforded to him by Enrique. There will be no coddling of Messi by someone with Enrique’s personality. Messi has been linked to both Chelsea and Manchester City. Regardless of who he votes for as Coach of the Year, it is impossible to see him enjoying playing under José Mourinho, who won’t coddle you and will destroy you in the media if you don’t soak up his messaging privately.
Messi made perhaps the strongest comments of his career following that Atleti win in response to the growing uncertainty of Enrique’s future and his own:
“I have never demanded anything to stay because I don’t have any intention of going,” said Messi.
“I heard people say that my dad had spoken to Chelsea, to City … it’s all lies.”
“I heard all sorts of things said. I never come out and deny [stories] but this time I am. It has been said that I have pushed out lots of people … Eto’o, Ibrahimovic, Bojan, Guardiola … [and] I didn’t ask them to sack our manager.
“It’s not good for people to look for rivalry between me and Luis Enrique because there isn’t any,” Messi added. “It hurts because it comes from people who [supposedly] love Barcelona. It’s people who want to hurt the club – and this time it did not come from Madrid, like other times, it has come from here. I have heard lots of things being said about me before and now. They make it look like I am the one who is in charge here when I am just another player.
“Don’t throw shit at us from outside because that will only do us harm.”
But Messi lit a match the very next day at the Ballon d’Or ceremony with his blank reaction to Enrique’s taped speech and speaking his existential crisis aloud by announcing he wasn’t sure where he’ll play next season.
Messi doesn’t engage in this circus for our benefit. Instagram follows aside, Messi’s contributions are accidental with a lack of PR savvy on a certain level. He wouldn’t announce he’s taking his talents to Manchester. Messi wouldn’t hire Sid Lowe to ghost write his return to Barcelona letter if he ever did leave. Messi is a book that attempts to remain closed by only letting you judge him on his highlight reel and trophies on the pitch and an occasional promotional gimmick in Japan. Messi has never been comfortable talking about himself and doesn’t seem to have much interest in anything except for soccer and family.