Plot twists are to be expected when transfer rumours are involved, but it appears Lionel Messi might actually be leaving Barcelona. It feels like something both impossible and inevitable, and the emotional shockwaves will continue to resonate for a while even if he stays, but how would this actually work?
If Messi leaves, what would Barca be like without him? And while Manchester City are sucking up all the rumour mill oxygen at the moment, what major clubs would make the most sense for him to move to?
Let's take a look.
The emotional aspect of this potential move would be jarring, as Barcelona's last full season without Messi in the senior squad was 2002-03. (They finished sixth in La Liga that year; Patrick Kluivert, current Barca academy director, was their leading scorer.) As former Barca striker Samuel Eto'o told the Argentine media recently: "Barcelona is Messi and I think if Messi decides to leave, we'll have to change the name of the club."
Granted, a club name change, and the resulting wave of new shirt sales in response to it, might be a decent way to generate some short-term cash. But let's go ahead and assume that even if Messi is gone, a team named FC Barcelona will take the field in La Liga and the Champions League in the 2020-21 season; it's fair to assume, then, that team will still be awfully good.
Over the past five seasons, in league and cup competition, Messi missed 41 matches. Let's look at Barcelona's key stats with and without him.
With Messi, Barcelona were clearly one of the best teams in Europe. Averaging 2.28 points per match in a sample that includes both La Liga and Champions League is, despite the random disappointments, excellent.
Without Messi, they predictably weren't quite as strong, averaging only 2.1 points per match. They were just about as good from a passing and possession perspective, and they actually became a faster and more active pressing team in his absence -- probably not a surprise, as he's not exactly Roberto Firmino in the pressure department, especially at age 33. But without arguably the best finisher on the planet, they were far more mortal when it came to shots hitting their targets and set pieces landing in the back of the net.
Of course, when they were playing without him, it was on a short-term basis as a system designed for him was asked to do something slightly different for a few matches at a time. Now, if he's gone for good, Barcelona will have a chance to build a new system altogether. And despite recent money issues, it's not like the cupboard is bare.
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Barcelona's talent acquisition philosophy in recent years has been, to put it diplomatically, a bit unfocused.
The club managed to add some of the best young players in the game, bringing in Borussia Dortmund's Ousmane Dembele in 2017 and Ajax's Frenkie de Jong in 2019. But they also made some panicky, "We need a big name right now!" moves, spending upward of €250 million on Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann even though neither seemed a great stylistic fit with Messi.
When younger players like Dembele and Samuel Umtiti got hit with a string of injuries and other additions failed to work out, Barca kept having to rely on older players like midfielders Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets, as well as defender Gerard Pique, as they crept past their respective sell-by dates. Meanwhile, Coutinho was such an iffy fit that he ended up loaned out to Bayern, where he scored two goals and an assist against Barcelona in that 8-2 Champions League quarterfinal romp.
(Plus, since Bayern won the Champions League, Barca had to pay extra money to Liverpool as part of his transfer arrangement, which was almost too symbolic.)
With the hiring of former Barca star Ronald Koeman as manager, it is a pretty good time to start building for the future even if Messi remains on board. And there's still quite a bit of talent on hand even if basically everyone over 31 is cut loose. Busquets, Pique and 33-year old forward Luis Suarez in particular still have quite a bit to offer when healthy, even if it would be best not to have to rely on them at this point. Plus, you could make a genuine case that Griezmann and Coutinho are now potentially elite fits in a Messi-less Barca attack.
At Southampton, Everton and most recently with Netherlands' national team, Koeman lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1 about half the time and a 4-3-3 about a quarter of the time. (The other quarter was a true "Spin the Formation Wheel!" type of experience, producing anything from a 3-4-1-2 to a 5-4-1.)
Using that as our guide, it's not hard to craft a formidable lineup even if Barca made no further additions.
• Goalkeeper: Marc-Andre ter Stegen (somehow still only 28)
• Defense: De Jong (23) and Umtiti (26) at centre-back, Jordi Alba (31) and either Sergi Roberto (28) or Nelson Semedo (26) at full-back
• Midfield: Miralem Pjanic (30) and either Riqui Puig (21), Rafinha (27), Busquets (32) or Carles Alena (22)
• Attacking midfield: Dembele (23) and Ansu Fati (17) on the wings, Coutinho (28) in the middle
• Centre-forward: Griezmann (29)
That's far from barren, especially if the injury bug is kinder to Dembele and Umtiti this year. You'd like to see better options at full-back -- at least until Bayern's Alphonso Davies returns Semedo's soul, which he stole during the second half of Bayern's 8-2 win -- and I am a firm believer that Koeman would be well-served to move de Jong back to central defense, where he was an almost Franz Beckenbauer-esque star for Ajax, instead of central midfield, where he's very good but his skill set doesn't stand out as much.
If Koeman keeps de Jong in midfield, then that makes Busquets and Puig interesting midfield backups with Clement Lenglet (25), Pique and perhaps Ronald Araujo (21) to do more work in central defense, especially if or when Umtiti is hurt.
Either way, that's a fun mix of young talent and proven veterans, and without Messi, both Coutinho and Griezmann get to play something closer to the roles that earned them the big money transfers in the first place.
A 4-3-3, with Rafinha or Alena maybe getting involved in the wide midfield and Coutinho lining up wide left, doesn't work quite as well, but there remains star talent at each level of the lineup (especially if de Jong moves back a row.)
Hiring Koeman was both uninspiring and logical. He thrived constantly in the Eredivisie -- he won titles with Ajax (2002, 2004) and PSV Eindhoven (2007) and piloted Feyenoord to three top-three finishes in as many seasons -- and his track record elsewhere is mixed: decent with Benfica, bad with Valencia, excellent with Southampton (the Saints finished three points out of a Champions League spot in 2016), OK with Everton and rock solid with Netherlands.
Koeman was part of Barcelona's early-1990s Dream Team, played for the legendary Johan Cruyff, played and coached for Guus Hiddink and spent a couple of years as Barcelona assistant early in his coaching career. Teams often put far too much value on "He knows what it takes to win here," ignoring "He is far too inexperienced" and "He doesn't know how to actually build that type of culture himself," but Koeman does have plenty of success on his CV, and both the formations and possession style he prefers will work if he gets players' buy-in. (You never know if that will happen until it does.)
What about Messi?
In the initial hours after Messi's transfer request, Manchester City shot to the front of the queue, with sources telling ESPN that they would offer him three years at the Etihad, followed by a stint with the MLS' New York City FC (where he would presumably score 114 goals a season at age 37).
It will take a while for Messi to come to a decision, so while we wait to see which way the wind blows next, let's talk about what would actually make the most sense for him.
Let's start with the assumption that he wants to have a shot at winning the Champions League this coming year. If he didn't, he could just stay at Barca, right? So let's say that the field of teams most likely to land the greatest player of all time starts with the teams from Europe's Big Five leagues that will play in the UCL this fall:
- Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Juventus, Inter Milan, Atalanta, Lazio, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympique Marseille, Rennes.
We can't completely rule out a club like AC Milan making an absurd financial offer, but it wouldn't pay off for at least a year.
Now let's eliminate teams without elite levels of revenue (we'll keep RB Leipzig on the list because of Red Bull), plus all the Spanish teams on the list. Marseille or Lazio could attempt a bold gesture, sure, and the thought of Messi in a Real Madrid jersey is as hilarious as it is disorienting, but off they go. That leaves:
- Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern, BVB, RB Leipzig, Juventus, Inter Milan, PSG.
Of these 10 teams, let's rank them according to both likelihood and fit. (For this exercise, we're going to assume that the reported €700m release clause is either knocked down severely or eliminated. With that clause in place, this becomes basically a two-team list: City and PSG.)
10 and 9. RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund
Leipzig certainly has the money to make a big offer, and Dortmund could sell Jadon Sancho for around €120m to make some quick cash. But, to say the least, an acquisition like this would go against type for these two clubs, which invest heavily in youth and development. Probably not going to happen.
I mean, look, just because owner Roman Abramovich has already signed checks to acquire seemingly every young attacker in Europe -- RB Leipzig's Timo Werner, Ajax's Hakim Ziyech, and apparently Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz any day now -- doesn't mean he won't spend even more money given the opportunity. But unless Chelsea's planning on fielding two teams this fall, or goes to a 2-3-5 formation, let's rule them out.
The Reds built a Champions League and Premier League winner by acquiring soon-to-peak talent, often in cost-effective fashion. While their interest in Bayern midfielder Thiago proves that they aren't averse to looking at veteran acquisitions, this one goes against type, too. Plus, they probably need midfielders more than attackers at the moment (even if you obviously make an exception for such a talent as Messi).
The case for: they already have a shrine for him in the team museum.
Bayern Munich have their own shrine to Lionel Messi 👀 pic.twitter.com/TU6AEovB44— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 26, 2020
The case against: they just won the Champions League without Messi and have already added Leroy Sane to go with Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry, etc., at winger, where Messi tends to line up. This would be a fascinating experiment, but we'll call it unlikely.
Under normal circumstances -- i.e. a time when a global pandemic didn't severely curtail your cash flow (and you didn't already have quite a few older players with forbidding contracts to get rid of) -- one could assume Juve would very much be in the market for a Messi. They acquired Cristiano Ronaldo just two years ago, after all. But as morbidly fascinating as a Ronaldo-Messi duo would be, it's hard to see Juve putting together the required offer here. Maybe we should start a GoFundMe to help make this happen?
Like Liverpool, PSG should probably spend its next few hundred million Euros in talent acquisition looking elsewhere, like in the midfield or at full-back. They already have Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria in attack. But the team that yanked the rug out from under Barca's feet a few years ago, triggering Neymar's €222m release clause and leaving Barca ill-equipped to make a Champions League challenge without him, probably wouldn't mind attempting to further kneecap the Blaugranes. Shoot first, ask questions like "how do we fit these guys onto the same field?" later.
3. Inter Milan
There was a time when you could count on an Italian squad to make a big spending gesture for the sport's biggest stars -- Diego Maradona to Napoli (from Barca, no less) in 1984, Ronaldo to Inter (again, from Barca) in 1997, etc. But as the spending has gotten bigger through the years, it's been a while since a Serie A team other than Juve made such a move.
Inter are in an interesting position, however. It's been 10 years since they won the Champions League, but they were one of the best teams in Europe at the end of the season and have a core of players like Romelu Lukaku and Marcelo Brozovic who are entering their prime. They might not be able to hold onto 23-year-old goal scorer Lautaro Martinez, but selling him (possibly to Barca) would free up money for a major win-now move. Or maybe the major win-now move.
2. Manchester United
I was almost surprised that City were the team dominating the headlines in the wake of Messi's transfer request. I'd have guessed it would be City's Manchester rivals. United fans have dreamed of making this exact move for, what, 15 years now? Not only that, but Messi would fit well with an attack that features catalyst Bruno Fernandes, striker Anthony Martial and wingers Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
United don't press much (which suits Messi), and their attack basically amounts to "hope someone super talented does something great." The addition of Fernandes worked wonders in that regard, but it goes without saying that Messi cutting in from the right with Fernandes and Martial nearby would be captivating.
1. Manchester City
City's owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group, could write a €700m check to pay Messi's monstrous release clause in a heartbeat, but Financial Fair Play rules wouldn't allow it. However, sources told ESPN that City would be prepared to spend around €100m-€150m if he can't leave for free, which sets them apart. And one has to figure that a Messi-Pep Guardiola reunion would be welcomed by both parties.
Guardiola hasn't won the Champions League since leaving the Barcelona bench, and Messi has done so only once since Pep departed. They are an aesthetic match, and with speedy ball recovery experts like Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus presumably still filling spots in the lineup up front, Messi wouldn't have to play a massive role in ball pressure. I actually like the fit with United more, but City's guaranteed willingness to spend makes them the favorites at the moment.