The transfer window has been dominated by one story – Messi’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to leave. Although it has been resolved – for now – this situation will continue to cast a long shadow over Barcelona’s season.
It feels like the board’s main priorities are to lower the average age of the squad and to get their wage bill down. Ivan Rakitic has already left in a cut-price deal to return to Sevilla and has been since followed this week by the departures of Luis Suarez to Atletico Madrid, Nelson Semedo to Wolves, and Arturo Vidal to Inter.
The new signings mostly consist of already-agreed deals for young players such as Trinçao from Braga and Las Palmas’ Pedri, as well as Miralem Pjanic, arriving as part of that slightly contrived swap deal with Arthur. The Catalan sports dailies continue to talk up a deal for Inter’s Lautaro Martinez, but it seems that Ronald Koeman prefers moves for Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay.
Then there’s the wild card of the club’s record signing Philippe Coutinho returning, fresh from twisting the knife with two goals and an assist for Bayern in their 8-2 Champions League won last month.
Ronald Koeman’s status as a Barcelona legend was sealed with the goal which won their first European Cup back in 1992 and the fact he has long coveted the manager’s job is one of the worst-kept secrets in football. But he could hardly have inherited it in worse conditions. The club suffering from the shock of the historic Bayern defeat, an institutional crisis with elections six months away, half the first team put up for sale and Messi trying to force his own exit.
To make matters worse, Victor Font, the front-runner to be the club’s next president, has already said that even if Koeman wins the treble this season, he will appoint Xavi as his manager should he win the election.
Koeman’s record as a manager is also highly inconsistent and he’s mostly remembered in Spain for a disastrous stint at Valencia where, despite winning the Copa Del Rey, he was sacked with the club sliding towards the relegation zone.
The man who made the world Google what a burofax is remains a Barcelona player despite his stated desire to leave. Last season Messi finished as La Liga’s top goalscorer and with more assists than anyone else, which in itself shows why Barcelona were determined not to let him leave. But there are many questions left to be answered: Will he be as motivated? How will he react to an environment where the club has decided to push some of his closest friends out of the club? Can Barcelona find a way of playing which makes the most of having him in the team and not merely making everything go through him, as became the case last season?
One for the Future
The natural line of succession for Barcelona midfielders which ran from Guardiola through Xavi and Iniesta and down to Busquets had looked to be drying up in recent years. So you can understand the excitement among Barça fans when Riqui Puig began to push his way into first team contention. Maybe in years to come people will look back on the ill-fated reign of Quique Setien and reflect that at least he was the man who gave Puig his big break. However, Koeman has made it clear that he is not in his plans for the coming season. Ansu Fati has been officially registered as a first team member and after scoring on his full debut for Spain against Ukraine looks ready for the step up to becoming a regular starter.
It’s extremely difficult to see Barcelona reclaiming the league title or challenging for the Champions League at this moment in time. Domestically they lack the strength in depth of Real Madrid and there hasn’t yet been the kind of transformative signing to lift the spirits of a squad still traumatised by the Bayern game. Still having Messi is vital, but Koeman must find a way to reduce their dependence on him. But if this is to be his “last dance” at Barcelona, it’s unlikely to be a successful one.