On Saturday night at the Camp Nou, Barcelona turned over Celta Vigo 4-1. It was a facile win. The Galician team are rooted in the drop zone, and it was their fifth defeat in a row. Lionel Messi resolved the game with a hat-trick before a late Barca goal was tagged on by Sergio Busquets. The following day, Diario Sport, one of Catalonia's two sports newspapers, cut to the quick with its front-page headline: "Messi, Messi, Messi and only Messi."
Barcelona are at the top of the league table on goal difference ahead of Real Madrid; their performances this season, however, have been unconvincing. They've lost away from home to mid-ranking teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante. "For Barcelona, every stadium is Anfield now," summed up Diario AS, referring to the club's cataclysmic 4-0 UEFA Champions League second-leg semi-final defeat to Liverpool in May.
The put-down that Barcelona are a one-man team—in Spain, what is known as "Messidependencia"—has arguably never been shriller. Having missed the first handful of games in the season through injury, the Argentinian No. 10 has roared into life. He's scored eight goals in seven games, which is keeping them in the title race, but there's a lingering sense that the club has a great star but no team.
"Messidependencia is not a problem," says Miguel Rico, a journalist for Mundo Deportivo. "It's something fortunate for Barcelona. Messi, as we saw the last day with his performance against Celta Vigo, is capable of carrying the team on his shoulders—of supporting the coach, the president and the club's board.
"Without Messi, I don't know what will happen with Barcelona. It's impossible to explain Barca without reference to Messi, but it's normal when a team has the best player in the world that it's dependent on him. It happens in every team sport—when Michael Jordan played with the Chicago Bulls, the team depended on him. When Magic Johnson played with the L.A. Lakers, the team depended on him.
"The problem is when Messi's team-mates get used to relying on him and to living under his shade, expecting he will do everything. When actually his teammates are the ones who should take a step forward, because it's always Messi who delivers."
Barcelona has question marks all over the pitch, beginning in defence. Gerard Pique, who was imperious last season, is out of sorts. He's picked up nine yellow cards in 15 appearances so far this season, which already is two more than he accumulated in 52 games last season. It's evidence of a man playing at—or beyond—his limit.
Fans and the press are pointing the finger at him because his mind is elsewhere, for example in putting the finishing touches to his overhaul of the Davis Cup tennis tournament, one of several off-field business interests, including ownership of FC Andorra, in his portfolio.
"The falloff in Pique's performances this season is huge," says Inaki Lorda, a journalist with Spanish football magazine Panenka. "It's one of the reasons that explains Barcelona's unconvincing form because Clement Lenglet is playing well. When Samuel Umtiti plays, he plays well. Last season, Pique was the best centre-back in Europe alongside Virgil van Dijk.
"Things are affecting his performances. At the weekend, he gave an interview where he admitted he's only sleeping four or five hours a night. The lack of sleep—and all the travel he's doing—obviously affects his performances. The yellow cards are a sign—he's not precise. Usually for him, he's slow to start into the season, just like it is with Luis Suarez, and obviously each year it gets more difficult because of his age. He's nearly 33.
"With Pique, I would remain positive because you know he is one of the world's greatest defenders. Hopefully when all this stuff about the Davis Cup passes, life will get calmer for him. The club is in a difficult position because it can't encroach on a player's free time. It can't really interfere as long as Pique trains, plays his matches, and keeps being professional. But he definitely looks off the boil."
Barcelona, which was once a team that was known for its dominance in midfield, has been unable to settle on a midfield trio. Coach Ernesto Valverde has been tinkering with seven midfielders since the start of the season.
They include Arthur; Arturo Vidal; Sergi Roberto; Carles Alena, who started the club's opening league match but hasn't featured since; Ivan Rakitic, who was one of Valverde's most-used players last season but has spent much of this season out in the cold; Busquets, who has lost his position as a guaranteed starter for the first time in 12 seasons at the club; and marquee signing Frenkie de Jong, who has been moved around all three midfield positions.
Neither is Valverde sure of his attacking trident, having deployed five different strikers alongside Messi so far this season: Carles Perez, teenage sensation Ansu Fati, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Suarez, who was jeered off the pitch by fans at the Camp Nou when substituted towards the end of a league game against Villarreal earlier in the season.
"Valverde still hasn't been able to find the solutions that the team needs," says Jordi Quixano, a journalist with El Pais. "He doesn't know yet his best midfield, what position within midfield De Jong functions best, if Griezmann should be wide on the left or centre-forward. He's putting the players he considers the best out onto the pitch, but not all of them are playing in their preferred positions.
"He's a great manager for distributing minutes to his players, but he hasn't been able to find the formula that will fix the team like he did, for example, in his first year in charge. After losing Neymar in the summer of 2017, he switched the team's line-up to a 4-4-2 in defiance of the Barca philosophy, but the team functioned well. The players are very content with him because he basically lets them do what they want."
The problem of player power—a dressing room run by the team's heavyweights: its captain Messi, Suarez, Busquets, Pique and Jordi Alba—is aired regularly in the Spanish media. It is facilitated by Valverde and the club's president, Josep Maria Bartomeu.
"From the moment that Pique says in public that they are ready to accept getting paid in delayed instalments if it helped to bring back Neymar to the club shows the power the players wield," says Quixano. "Where have you ever seen a team requesting a player and assuming the cost will get paid later? It's obvious the players have much more power than they should have.
"The decision to keep on Valverde this season [after the embarrassing exit to Liverpool in last year's UEFA Champions League] was Bartomeu's. He is a president that doesn't intervene a lot, but when he does, it's always on the side of the players. He's not always thinking in the best interests of the club."
Barcelona are top of their pool group in the UEFA Champions League, but they have yet to get over the line in a tricky group with Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan competing with them for two qualifying places. Last season, they had already qualified after four rounds of games.
After a fortunate 2-1 away win against Slavia Prague, it was revealed Barcelona were last among the 32 Champions League teams in a table ranking kilometres run during games. It was indicative of the lethargy of the team's performances this season and brings to mind unpleasant memories of their limp defeats to Liverpool and AS Roma in the knockout stages in Europe over the last two years.
"Regarding the defeats to AS Roma and Liverpool, the responsibility doesn't lie solely with the trainer," says Rico. "The players should shoulder more of the blame than him. When a team is at Barcelona's level, players have to be highly tuned. The buck stops with the players on the pitch, not with the trainer. Barcelona's players weren't at the right pitch for those games in Rome or Anfield. You only have to look at the last goal at Anfield [Divock Origi's infamous goal from a quick corner kick] to realise the team's level of concentration was zero.
"In my opinion, Barca's players are too comfortable. They're not self-demanding enough. They think they'll be OK with their individual skill to win a game with two or three key actions, but football these days—well, it has always been this way, but more now than ever—apart from talent, you need to work as hard as your rivals.
"And Barcelona doesn't work hard enough. If you see the intensity that Barcelona plays with, you can see that their top rivals try harder. I mean, if you see Liverpool or Manchester City playing a match, it seems like they're playing at a different speed than the one you see Barcelona playing at."
It's questionable whether Valverde can still drive on this the squad. Both Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola were exasperated in their final seasons in charge. Guardiola, for example, admitted he could no longer motivate his Barca players during the 2011-2012 season, his last in charge. Despite calls for Valverde's head, Bartomeu has repeatedly backed him. A few days ago, he maintained in an interview with the Associated Press (h/t Marca) that Valverde is the "ideal coach" for Barcelona during this transitional period.
"Valverde will stay on as manager for the rest of the season unless something very bad happens, but he won't last beyond this season," says Ramiro Martin, the Barcelona-based author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol.
"He should have left after [last season's defeat to] Liverpool. Not so much because he was responsible, but because he approached the match without doubts. The team needed a new coach this season, but I fear that Barcelona's board found there was no clear candidate available, and, from the information that came to me from close to the dressing room, the players wanted him to stay on."
Domestically, for the last two seasons, Barcelona romped home in the title race because they built up an early lead on their nearest rivals, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, by Christmas. This season, it looks like Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid—despite some teething problems—have the stomach for a fight. They have knocked in 16 goals without reply over their last five games.
Barcelona face some tricky league ties—including away fixtures to Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad—before meeting Real in December at the Camp Nou. Despite having the strongest squad in Spain—and arguably Europe, says Lorda—Barcelona will have to find solutions beyond Messi if they are to win the league title three years running for only the third time in their history. As it stands, it looks like success on the European front will be an even bigger ask.
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