The following article is a translated and adjusted version of a piece I wrote for AS earlier this week. You can read the Spanish article here.
When asked about the working relationship between himself and the Argentinian superstar Leo Messi, a discreet Pep Guardiola has always kept his cards very close to his chest. But when I spoke to him on the subject for my authorised book on the life of "the Flea," this is what the former Barcelona boss told me:
"He (Messi) always says it. 'When I close up, I close up, and I won't speak to anyone. I need to get over it by myself. And people need to respect that,'" said Guardiola. "At first it was difficult for me to understand, but with time you do. You realise that he is a different type of person. We all have our little things and during these days you leave him alone and then when you get the feeling that he wants you to talk to him again, you go up to him and you talk."
I have said many times that Barcelona often do not play with Leo and that they have simplified their reaction to the problems posed to them by their opponents. Against Athletic Bilbao, the plan was more orthodox with wingers and 4-3-3, and what we saw was a better Leo—just as we saw in the matches against Man City in Europe or Madrid in the league.
But even so, there is an air of mystery when discussing what is happening. When Messi sees the ball bypass him, he suddenly feels friendless and unwanted—the Flea gets frustrated.
He did the same under Pep, but at least from Guardiola he got the feeling that his manager would move heaven and earth to make sure he was happy. And with great success. It isn't rocket science. If you want to get the best out of Messi, you have to tick all the boxes, and this season Barcelona haven't done that.
Put simply, they have thrown to the lions a footballer who feels unprotected. Are criticisms of Leo intentional? His frustration is born out of a sporting context, but he gets the feeling that he is undergoing a personal campaign against him.
Comparisons with the big signing of this season, Neymar, are inevitable. His irregular performances of late are not being monitored closely by the Catalan media—despite being one of the most expensive players in history. Leo was told that he would be the best-paid player, but the first offer following the opening of talks on a renewed contract meant that globally he would be earning less than he is at the moment.
And in the latest set of negotiations, the club has reneged on things previously agreed upon. Why so much haggling? So will he be sold then? It seems that with Leo Messi left exposed to some very negative public opinion, the ball is now firmly in his court. But to what ends? The sale of the player, which has been seriously contemplated, would explain everything.
The big thing, of course, is that you can't sell the best player in the world, but you can sell one who is deemed to be "unmanageable," one who isn't what he was or who halts the progress of others, or who only thinks about the World Cup. And all those lies have been put out there with regard to Messi.
Not surprisingly, Manchester United and PSG are monitoring the situation closely should Leo be brave enough to jump ship. Needless to say, there's been a surprising reaction from one or two people on Twitter who don't know how these things work but find themselves easily motivated to insult.
Manchester United have asked relevant people what the situation with Messi is, because the impression they get is that the Barcelona board want to sell him. I know for a fact the matter has been discussed at board level and as a consequence, PSG stuck a huge offer on the table.
Rumours in the Spanish press that Man City had made an offer, as per Esport3 via the Mirror, were untrue. But the goalposts have moved. While a weakened Barcelona board went in search of new solutions with a new team built around Messi, United looked to glean information about Messi's situation much as they did with Cesc Fabregas, Cristiano Ronaldo and even Gareth Bale for whom they put in a bid—too late, as it turned out, for 120 million euros.
United spoke last summer to the representatives of all three of them, although their contacts with Messi's people did not extend that far. United were told that Messi had no wish to leave the club despite the board having considered his sale in the last 12 months.
Barcelona seem to have concluded now that his sale would backfire on them and want to build the next team around him. What I find baffling is the reaction of a few people online. What would you think if you were a supporter of one of the richest and most ambitious clubs in the world and you found out that despite knowing that Messi could be available, they did not investigate the matter?
Wouldn't you think that perhaps someone in your club wasn't doing their job properly?