With uncertainty over a contract that expires in a year with Barcelona and two new managers to come in the next months, Leo Messi faces a career crossroads
Lionel Messi crashing face-first into the Camp Nou turf on Wednesday evening was the lasting image as Barcelona limped out of the Champions League having been unable to find a way through Juventus’ impenetrable defence over two legs and while the Blaugrana dissect their failure, the world’s best player faces a summer of uncertainty at club level and internationally.
This Sunday’s clasico could put the final nail in the coffin for Barcelona’s La Liga hopes and with only a Copa del Rey final against Alaves to come, regardless of Luis Enrique’s decision to walk away at the end of the season, it feels like the end of the 46-year-old’s cycle at the Camp Nou.
Such is the expectation at the very top, a season without either La Liga or Champions League glory is a failure and so once more the Catalan giants are in the market for a coach to regain their grip on European football.
Luis Enrique’s assistant Juan Carlos Unzue, Athletic Club manager Ernesto Valverde, Real Sociedad’s Eusebio Sacristan and Ronald Koeman have all been linked to the job given their ties to the club but there is another coach rumoured to be in the picture, who may have found an alternative route to fulfill a dream of working with Messi.
Jorge Sampaoli looks destined to succeed Edgardo Bauza as Argentina coach and so has dampened speculation linking him to the Camp Nou but watching Barça toil against Juventus, there are similarities in the challenges facing whoever takes either job.
Barcelona have arguably the greatest strike force in world football in the lauded MSN of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, but at their peak, Barça’s dominance was achieved through the midfield.
The triumvirate of Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi dictated games by dominating possession and patiently waiting for opportunities to strike, while seamlessly incorporating the brilliance of Messi.
Messi was, and still is, a genius but there is a sense now that Barcelona in losing that midfield control have grown a reliance on the front three and simply look to Messi to provide the moments of game-changing quality.
Sergio Busquets is still at the base of that midfield but Andres Iniesta’s influence has gradually declined and none of the recent signings have come close to providing what the great Xavi did in Pep Guardiola’s side. The result has often seen the midfield bypassed and leaves a dependence on the individual rather than the collective. This is enough against weaker sides but as Juve proved to devastating effect, against world class opposition, it is far more difficult.
Sound familiar? Argentina have failed since Alejandro Sabella’s side in the qualification process for the 2014 World Cup to find something of a balanced system and under Edgardo Bauza, who opted for an almost midfield-less formation, it was Messi expected to pluck victory out of the mediocrity.
Bauza’s blind persistence with the defensive pairing of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia as a double pivot behind four attack-minded players, created the bizarre 6-0-4 formation that forced Messi deeper into the multi-faceted role of creator and scorer.
Equally, and something that has a been a problem for Argentina for a long time, is the lack of attacking full backs to work in tandem with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in his starting position on the right.
The quarter final clash with Juve served to highlight this as Messi’s once great foil, Dani Alves helped the Bianconeri to victory. Barcelona were foolish to allow the Brazilian to leave and subsequent injury to Aleix Vidal has hardly helped but that overlap to create space was used by Messi to such devastating effect time and time again in previous seasons.
The lack of that supporting run and interplay is perhaps another reason for Messi drifting centrally and seeking the ball rather than being found already on the front foot by a dominant, passing midfield.
For Jorge Sampaoli, or whoever the AFA persuades to take the reins, addressing this will be one of the first orders of business – just as at the Camp Nou, it is clear that restructuring and fresh faces are required.
Argentina have long since struggled with the conundrum of how to reproduce Messi’s club form on the international scene but now Barcelona face many of the same questions in an effort to recapture their best form.
Messi will of course remain vital to both sides but in the coming months, the 29-year-old will enter a new phase of his illustrious career. The Blaugrana and La Albiceleste are both in need of shake ups and new managers will be blessed with the talent of perhaps the greatest player of all-time but the puzzle of finding a system to get the most from it.