Barcelona are about to begin their first season without Lionel Messi since 2004/05.
The Blaugrana last won the Spanish Primera Division in 2019, making this their first two-year gap without the title since 2008. They haven’t gone three years without winning it since 2003, and won’t want their first post-Messi season to be a return to the pre-Messi darkness.
But what will happen now? What does the future look like in Catalunya? Looking ahead to 2021/22, here are five predictions for a Messi-less Barcelona as we head into an uncertain new era at the Camp Nou.
1. Barcelona’s starting XI is likely to be…
Barcelona will have to reshape their entire structure of playing in the wake of Messi’s departure, though the actual names in the XI won’t change all that much. Eric Garcia and Emerson Royal are promising young talents but neither will be starters, while Aguero, if he ever gets registered, will also be a super-sub.
Of the new signings, only Memphis is likely to start. While he’s been playing off the left in pre-season, he is likely to gravitate towards a central role as Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé return to fitness. Memphis’ ability to hold the ball up and link with his teammates will give the Blaugrana a focal point in attack while also being a potent goal threat.
Antoine Griezmann will emerge as the team’s primary playmaker in Messi’s inside right role, while the midfield will remain focused on Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri. In defence, Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba will operate as attacking full-backs flanking the defensive base of the side, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araujo, ahead of Marc-André Ter Stegen.
2. Griezmann will likely show his true level
Griezmann was one of the very best players in the world back in 2019 when he signed for Barcelona. He had won the World Cup and Europa League in 2018, been top scorer as France were runners-up at Euro 2016 and delivered world-class displays year on year.
Yet he never showed anything like that level for Barcelona, with his best goalscoring form being 20 goals in 2020/21, which is worse than all of his seasons with Atlético Madrid and matched his last campaign with Real Sociedad in 2013/14.
Why did Griezmann struggle? Well, he plays the same role as Messi. That is to say, he’s the primary playmaker in the final third, the hub of his side’s attacks, the set-piece taker and main man. With Messi in that role at Barcelona, Griezmann struggled to find a place in the team.
Now Messi is gone, however, Griezmann should step right back into his favoured role. And when playing in that role, with that responsibility and involvement, he is one of the top five players in the world. So we should finally see the best of Griezmann in Barcelona, with goals and assists galore.
3. Midfield to lead the way
The Barcelona team will obviously drop in quality without Messi. Any side would miss the best player in the world, after all. The attack will suffer and the defence, as per last season, is inconsistent. But while those two areas need help from signings that have yet to be registered, one zone that won’t need any reinforcement is midfield.
Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri form what is arguably the best midfield unit in Europe, an immaculate trio where the energetic legs of De Jong and Pedri allow Busquets to float about, pick his spots to tackle and thread beautiful passes forward. The energy and ball-carrying ability from both De Jong and Pedri makes them dangerous and dynamic while the Dutchman is even a decent goalscorer.
Behind this trio, Barcelona have the reliably 7/10 Sergi Roberto, who can plug any hole or any role needed. Even if they get rid of Miralem Pjanic and contract rebel Ilaix Moriba, they will be able to call upon the incredible promise of La Masia graduates Riqui Puig, Gavi and Nico Gonzalez, who are all slightly raw but full of so much creative potential that Barcelona’s midfield is once again the envy of everyone.
4. A new talisman?
Griezmann is a strange player to be a talisman, as he seems to shun the focus on the field and prefers to be more associative in providing teammates with chances rather than be the main attacking talisman himself. In that way, he should dovetail superbly with new signing Memphis Depay, who is every inch a talismanic presence.
Memphis oozes presence. He carries himself like he knows the value of his greatness, his social media presence is ferociously unique and, with his bulging thighs and low socks, he has a potentially iconic look. Everything about him is memorable. Memphis is a singularly unique presence on and off the pitch and, at 27 years old, is ready to shine his light on the biggest stage once again.
Both Memphis and Griezmann share a “Messi-esque” quality in that they are dual-threat goal-scorers and goal-creators (with Memphis’ dribbling making him a triple threat, like Messi). But because both play on different sides of the pitch, and given Memphis’ ability to play with his back to goal, they should have no problems forming a wonderful chemistry where Griezmann facilitates Memphis’ heroics.
5. Barcelona should shock and sneak some silverware
William Hill‘s La Liga 2021/22 title favourites…
- Real Madrid – 23/20
- Barcelona – 9/4
- Atletico Madrid – 5/2
- Sevilla – 18/1
18+ only. BeGambleAware. Odds in this article correct at the time of publication (12:20, 12/08/21).
Everyone is rightfully making fun of Barcelona right now. They’ve had to let their best-ever player leave for free because of their own financial mismanagement, after all.
However, their on-pitch fortunes aren’t as necessarily terrible as they seem right now. If one expects Griezmann to find his pre-Messi form, then Barcelona will “gain” a top-five player in the world for nothing. And in Memphis they have someone desperate to prove he belongs at the elite level. Their midfield is great, too, and as long as Ronald Araujo stays fit, their defence is also really impressive.
While they may be a circus off the field, on it they’re actually in surprisingly good shape provided they can register all of their new signings. And given Real Madrid are weaker than they were last season and there’s no guarantee Luis Suárez will continue to rack up the goals that powered Atlético Madrid to the 2021 La Liga title, don’t rule Barcelona out when it comes to picking up silverware in 2021/22. It’s highly likely the Blaugrana will play better football than expected and, therefore, produce better results than expected. Europe may still be a bridge too far but with a kind draw there, who knows? Few would have pegged Chelsea as Champions League winners before last season, would they?