Football Features

Lionel Messi may need another miracle season to fix Barcelona’s broken attack

By Muhammad Butt

Lionel Messi facing his toughest season yet at Barcelona?

Published: 17:56, 20 August 2019

After a poor performance in the Basque Country against Athletic Bilbao culminated in defeat, Barcelona find themselves 15th in La Liga.

Of course the caveat to that dramatic scenario is that there has only been one week of football played. But even then, this is a mighty strange situation. Barcelona had won their 10 previous games on matchday one, last failing to do so in Pep Guardiola’s first La Liga game in charge way back in 2009. Since then it had been nothing but success on opening night.

But despite a relatively promising pre-season things came down to earth with a serious bump in the Basque Country. With Leo Messi sat watching at home, the Blaugrana floundered against an energetic Athletic. Frenkie de Jong shone but lacking the capable partners (Sergio Busquets and Arthur played 0 combined minutes) the midfield didn’t hum as it could have done – and anytime you don’t have Messi you have a serious problem.

Barcelona’s record without Messi isn’t the best, and more to the point they don’t even play with the same verve and energy without their Argentine talisman. Results are one thing but Messi’s absence affects the way Barcelona literally play. He’s just that focal to everything that they do. So naturally they missed him at the San Mamés.

The side came out in a strange set-up with Antoine Griezmann wide on the left. And we don’t mean Griezmann was playing on the left – that’s not abnormal for him as his breakthrough season at Real Sociedad came there – but that he was playing wide on the left. Like, Ryan Giggs in the 90s wide. Chalk on his boots wide.

Playing wingers extremely wide to stretch out a defence is nothing new. It’s actually a Barcelona staple. Very Cruyffist, or Pepist, if you will. But here’s the thing: they have to actually be wingers that can play wide. That are adept at haring down the touchline and whipping in crosses. Think Leroy Sané, Ryan Fraser. That kind of player. Antoine Griezmann is not that kind of player.

Furthermore, Barcelona do have that kind of player. It’s just he’s their left-back. Jordi Alba plays very much like an old-school winger in the way he bombs down the outside and sends crosses in. So anyone “on the left” for Barcelona needs to come infield, but Valverde had Griezmann stationed smack-bang in Jordi Alba’s way. What’s equally loopy is that even if for some reason Valverde wanted to double-up out wide, new signing Junior Firpo is a perfect candidate to play ahead of Alba and possesses the quality to really make an impact there. He’d still get in Alba’s way, but at least he’d be able to do damage on the left.

But no, it was Griezmann playing wide left on opening night. This meant Ousmane Dembélé was wide on the right, backed up by Nelson Semedo, which was nice in theory. Unfortunately, without proper midfield assistance from Sergi Roberto the right-flank had a lot of bright ideas but didn’t execute them quickly enough. And this meant Luis Suárez was up-front on his own and as per usual Luis Suárez didn’t have the athletic range to play at the pace his mind still insists he play at; so he was mostly anonymous until he missed a sitter and then had to go off injured.

However the Suárez injury was going to prompt a reshuffle, now finally Barcelona would do the smart thing and move Griezmann to the right and have him play the “Messi-role”, because honestly there is no better Diet Messi on the planet than Antoine Griezmann. It had to have been part of the attraction with signing him; finally someone who can allow Messi a break without totally shattering Barça’s style!

So of course Ernesto Valverde, the Beethoven of bad decisions, puts Antoine Griezmann up-top as the side’s new No. 9, bringing Ousmane Dembélé to the left and introducing Rafinha on the right. Instantly Dembélé was better, probing with more regularity and not standing in Alba’s way as often as Griezmann was – he hit the post and was Barcelona’s most dangerous attacker in the second half.

Though that was a low, low bar to clear because Griezmann barely saw the ball. Playing him as a No.9 with Leo Messi in the team is a brilliant idea because Messi’s genius would see Griezmann constantly involved as the ball moves around and through the Argentine like some sort of attacking fractal. But without Messi on the field, Griezmann was largely a passenger and must have wondered why he bothered leaving Atlético Madrid if his new team was going to play exactly like his old one.

Rafinha, who Valverde chose to be his Diet Messi ahead of Griezmann, introduced himself nicely enough by smashing a shot off the crossbar. But that’s as good as it got for him. Rafinha has the dribbling and close-control to mimic Messi’s movements but when it comes to executing on the ball he is lightyears behind. The amount of times he’d beat a man and then fail to find a pass through to Griezmann was painful to watch. He worked his socks off, but he is not good enough.

Except he’s going to have to be good enough, because in addition to Luis Suárez’s injury, Ousmane Dembélé has now picked up a hamstring strain that will keep him out for five weeks. And with Messi not technically fit yet (though surely he will be fast-tracked for the Real Betis game on Sunday) Barcelona’s healthy attackers consist of… Antoine Griezmann and Rafinha.

That’s it.

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The decision to sell Malcom was always a strange one. Here was a hard-working young player who never complained and had none of the personal and professionalism issues that seem to plague poor Dembélé. He was relatively robust, had a fantastic skill-set and suited Barcelona’s system nicely. Most importantly, perhaps, he was fast.

Barcelona’s attack currently has just one fast player: Ousmane Dembélé. And at the rate his hamstrings keep on snapping how long he will retain that searing pace is anyone’s guess. Griezmann is no slouch, but he’s not got that blistering speed that Premier League sides have shown to be such a deadly weapon.

Comparing Barcelona’s attack to the Premier League big six sides and – while they probably beat all for sheer quality (Messi is the best in the world and Griezmann is top five) – when it comes to durability and pace they’re competing with Chelsea for sixth place.

Barcelona had similar issues to this last season. Yes, Dembélé was a potent match-winner but Valverde stopped playing him regularly around winter and the side often had to play with Coutinho, which was like playing with 10 men after half an hour when his lungs gave out. Suárez’s form fluctuated wildly and he was often useless or half-injured (but to his credit was also immensely decisive in many games). Malcom was talented but Valverde never used him for some reason.

So how did Barça win the title and come so close to their third treble? Messi, of course. The Argentine had a miracle season and with him carrying the side, Barcelona were a devastating team to watch. Great performances without Messi were very rare indeed. He was so often the one carrying the side to glory.

In the Champions League, Messi devastated Liverpool at the Camp Nou and handed Barcelona a 3-0 lead headed into Anfield, where he created three big chances – three sitters, really –  only to witness his team-mates waste them all and his manager keep his pace on the sideline until it was too late. That brought everything crashing down. A season of relying on one man exposed by a side that played like a true team. Liverpool went on to win the Champions League while Barcelona couldn’t lift themselves and lost the Copa del Rey.

Barcelona are basically praying for yet another miracle from Messi, another epic carry job. Yes, Griezmann is world-class and will help the attack, but with Suárez growing more injury-prone by the week, Dembélé having hamstrings made of wet cardboard and Malcom now playing for Zenit, Barcelona’s attack is still actually threadbare. Rafinha might have to start against Real Betis in week two. It’s already gotten that bad. And praying for Rafinha to play brilliantly and stay fit is asking for more miracles.

Even the much-vaunted and hyped signing of Neymar – and it would be yet another miracle if they pulled that deal off – would only partially fix their problem. Yes, they would have a world-class wing-forward blessed with searing speed. A player who, when fit, is second only to Messi in terms of quality. But Neymar’s foot explodes every February (at least, it has two years in a row and it gave him problems over the summer, causing him to miss Brazil’s Copa América win) so even if a potential front three of Messi, Griezmann and Neymar is outrageously good in terms of quality and complementary skill-sets, keeping the Brazilian fit all season would need, you guessed it, a miracle.

Barcelona’s attack is broken. Both philosophically in terms of Valverde’s terrible tactics and literally in terms of injuries. They have just two reliably fit forward and only one of them (Griezmann) is under 30. If they are to succeed this season, they will need a litany of miracles most specifically from their Argentine talisman Messi.