La Liga 2021/22 preview: Barcelona

Summer Transfer Business

And so, just like that, it’s all over.

As the greatest football player of all time walked out of the press room, tears still rolling down his cheeks, everything came to an end. Seventeen years, 778 games, 672 goals and 305 assists. 48 hattricks. 35 trophies. Six Ballons d’Or. Barcelona, and indeed LaLiga, will never see anything like it again.

Yet, as Lionel Messi leaves behind the biggest shoes to fill in footballing history, Catalunya is slowly coming to the crushing realisation that the show must go on. It’s a new era at Camp Nou – one of uncertainty, instability, yet quiet promise – as a squad brimming with youthful exuberance looks to pull together and play their way through one of the toughest times in the club’s glistening history. Perhaps, amidst all the chaos, this is the chance that some of the mere mortals in the squad needed.

Of the new faces arriving in Barcelona this season, one of those, Sergio Agüero, has already been ruled out for 10 weeks, leaving fellow new-boy Memphis Depay to take centre-stage up front. Emerson Royal, returning from his 2-year loan at Real Betis, will look to provide a creative alternative to the young Sergiño Dest from right-back, while Eric García will hope to bring calm to what was often a shaky back-four last season.

Ultimately, though, the one departure overshadows the four arrivals. All the new boys can do, really, is to try to keep the ship afloat.

The Manager

Ronald Koeman hasn’t always been the most popular of Barcelona managers, but in overseeing this transition period, he could well be about to become the most important. From day one, the Dutchman has been dealt setback after setback, and while a first 3rd place finish since 2008 and a disappointing Champions League exit to PSG didn’t exactly delight the Blaugrana faithful last season, the sheer ridiculousness of Barcelona’s off-the-pitch antics probably earns the coach a shot at redemption.

Not only having had to refocus a disillusioned squad after a humiliating 8-2 Champions League thrashing, but Koeman has also had the infamous burofax incident, controversial presidential elections and the European Super League trying to throw him off course throughout his first season in charge. Lionel Messi’s departure a week before the new season will, of course, be by far the biggest distraction of them all, but I think the manager deserves at least some credit for not letting Barcelona completely implode on the pitch thus far.

It’ll be another season of walking on eggshells, then, for Ronald Koeman, but I think he has what it takes to help this talented Barcelona side emerge from the heaviest storm of all, relatively unscathed.

Key Player

With one of the greatest goalscorers in history no longer around, Barcelona’s short-term future now hinges squarely on the supporting cast. The likes of Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé were brought in to complement Lionel Messi – not to replace him – but if there was ever a time for €235 million worth of talent to stand up and show their worth, it would probably be right about now.

Alongside those two, though, as well as the prodigious talent of Ansu Fati, it looks as if the recent addition of Memphis Depay could be the business that keeps Barcelona firing on all cylinders.

Pre-season has proved to be encouraging for the live-wire Dutchman, scoring three times in his first three starts in Blaugrana – including a sumptuous flick and volley against Stuttgart – and showing signs of forming a dangerous partnership with the marauding Jordi Alba down the left flank. A highly proactive striker, averaging 3.14 shots per game throughout last season and creating a Ligue 1 high of 167 shot-creating actions, Memphis might just be exactly what Barcelona need to get them through the toughest of transition periods.

One for the Future

It might seem strange to disqualify an 18-year-old as “one for the future” on the grounds that he’s already too experienced, but as Pedri’s exhausting 73-game season finally comes to a close, he might as well be a seasoned veteran in Koeman’s midfield. Alongside Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong, though, and despite everything, Barcelona still have perhaps one of the most dynamic, creative and balanced midfield trios in all of Europe.

Similarly, after 18-year-old Ansu Fati’s remarkable 11-goal stint with the first team this time last season, Barcelona have another remarkably young talent who is one for the present, never mind the future.

Perhaps the most exciting of the new stars on show in pre-season, though, was another 18-year-old, Yusuf Demir, who lit up Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Stuttgart with a series of mesmeric dribbles and fearless drives towards goal. On loan from Rapid Wien, he’s certainly one to keep an eye out for, especially if injuries to the likes of Dembélé and Fati present him with any more opportunities to shine.

Final Position

Had Lionel Messi stayed, then I think we’d be talking about Barcelona as favourites for the LaLiga title this season. Without him, they still have a fantastic squad, but I think they’ll need some time to adapt, given how different they have looked in previous seasons without Messi in the squad. Of course, they’ll still be aiming for the title, but I think a top 3 finish would be a good start to building some sort of long-term consistency – a post-Messi project. That is, of course, as long as the board don’t throw any more bombazos Koeman’s way.

Thom Harris

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