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Barcelona Is Struggling. Is Messi Part Of The Problem Or The Solution?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): English soccer is … sorta boring right now? Liverpool has clinched a title and is sorta faffing about on the field. The race for the final Champions League spot (assuming Manchester City is barred from participating) is not that suspenseful. And we already exalted Chelsea’s youth movement last time we chatted. So rather than dwell in England, let’s move south to Spain, if only so you can remind me how little I know about Spanish soccer.

But rather than talk about Levante’s false 10 (am I doing this right?), let’s focus mostly on the two titans: Real Madrid and Barcelona. As of now the FiveThirtyEight club soccer forecast gives Madrid an 85 percent chance of winning the league. Last I checked, I thought Madrid was a mess! What happened?

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): And people say the big European leagues are predictable with the same champions every year. After seasons of Barcelona domination, they’re finally getting outsmarted by plucky underdogs Real Madrid.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): People LOVE underdog stories.

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): The two giant Spanish clubs judge themselves against each other. Barça saw that Madrid were on the verge of self-sabotaging and they decided, “Hey, we can be better at that, too!”

tchow: Also was Real Madrid really a mess? One (potentially) disappointing Champions League campaign does not a mess make.

ryan: They had three coaches in one season. That’s pretty messy.

grace: The thing is, this is by no means a great Madrid team. FiveThirtyEight’s model estimates them winning the league with 86 points. Back in the La Liga halcyon days of 2009-10, Real Madrid finished second with 96 points.

ryan: It seemed like Madrid had decided to rebuild. They’ve added a bunch of Brazilian teenagers, and they signed some top young, established prospects this past summer. Then coach Zinedine Zidane just decided to play all of the older, slightly worse versions of the players he won all those Champions Leagues with.

grace: Zidane does the Steve Rogers “no, I don’t think I will” meme every time someone at Real suggests a rebuild.

tchow: I guess signing a Luka Jović but sticking him on the bench doesn’t really count as a “rebuild.”

grace: I would love to read the chapter in Luka Jović’s eventual autobiography about Zidane.

cwick: So are you guys saying that this is more about Barça’s failure than Madrid’s success?

grace: One hundred percent.

tchow: For sure. In this La Liga title race discussion, the more intriguing angle is definitely what happened to Barcelona and what’s going to happen to Barcelona, and Lionel Messi specifically.

Before the lockdown back in March, our model predicted Barça to finish 2 points ahead of Madrid and gave them a 62 percent chance of winning another title.

grace: Both of these clubs are dysfunctional from the board level down, but Barcelona have Messi! That should help! Real Madrid don’t have Messi.

tchow: I think you could argue that having Messi HAS helped! Many saw this dysfunction already happening many years back, probably around the time Josep Bartomeu took over as team president, and having Messi has probably delayed what we’re seeing now.

ryan: Barça copied Madrid in another way: They saw Zidane playing all of the old dudes, and now they’ve committed the majority of their minutes to a bunch of guys over 30. But I guess you can sum this up pretty tidily: Barcelona have made three massive signings since Neymar left: Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé, and Antoine Griezmann. Coutinho … is currently playing for Bayern Munich. Dembélé hasn’t been healthy for an entire season since he arrived. And, well, the Griezmann signing was a terrible idea from the jump.

cwick: Ryan, how quickly you’ve moved on from Frenkie de Jong.

grace: I think about how Barça have sold several players to Everton. These guys they were convinced would be good enough for Barcelona ended up actually merely being good enough for Everton.

And in terms of the big marquee signings, I don’t think Barça has signed one in a long time with a greater thought process than “he’s good and marketable, get him.” Even someone who worked out, like Luis Suárez, didn’t come with a clear plan for how to use him.

tchow: The Griezmann signing is the clearest evidence of this, in my opinion.

grace: Yes. Get a guy who thrived in a counter-attacking defensive side where he was the primary threat, and put him in a team that has possession all the time and he can’t operate in his usual spaces because Messi is there.

tchow: And recently, rumors are the Barça board is sticking with their Griezmann experiment. WHAT??

ryan: Griezmann was already at the tail end of his prime and was coming out of a super physically demanding system. Plus, he hadn’t produced like a superstar in a couple years. A signing like that should be a sure thing. This was not that.

grace: Griezmann is 29 right now and they have him contracted until he’s 33. My guess is, beyond the ego aspect of not wanting to admit failure, no one in a post-COVID market will pay anything close to Griezmann’s salary demands. So they’re stuck with him.

cwick: Buy high, suffer through the lows.

ryan: My favorite fact about this iteration of Barça: Messi leads the team in expected assists. Second? Arturo Vidal, a 33-year-old box-to-box midfielder.

grace: Arturo Vidal is awesome, though.

grace: The thing that would worry me the most if I were a Barcelona fan is that these are supposed to be the good years they’ll be paying for later. Short-term gain for long-term pain. But it’s already pretty rough right now.

tchow: They don’t have the right personnel to make Griezmann work here. Suárez is not the same type of strike partner as a Diego Costa or an Olivier Giroud. As long as Messi is there, Griezzman is gonna be pushed out wide if he’s not playing up top. So if Barça is signalling that they are sticking with Griezmann, are we finally seeing the end of Messi’s time at Camp Nou?

(For the record, Messi’s current contract is until 2021 but per his contract, he could leave on a Bosman transfer after this season. There are also rumors he has already extended.)

ryan: Yeah, rather than mortgaging the future to get the best out of Messi’s last few years, they’re sabotaging their future AND sabotaging Messi’s last few years. Not great!

tchow: Every time Barça is struggling, you hear the “Messi is leaving” conversation start back up and I apologize for bringing it up AGAIN here but come on, we can’t not address it, right? It is a lot of noise but the older he gets, the more I believe it could happen.

grace: There’s always noise but I find it hard to believe Messi will leave, to be honest. He isn’t happy about the way the club is run and I think we’d all agree with him on that. But it always seems to be a negotiating tactic.

cwick: Negotiating to what end, though?

grace: Well, he wants them to sign good players, which is understandable. But he simultaneously demands so much money that it hamstrings the club’s ability to sign such players.

ryan: But where would he go? I really have no idea. Pep’s City seem like an obvious option, but they might not be in Europe. Can’t see him at PSG. Bayern don’t pay the money they’d have to pay for him, typically. Team up with Ronaldo at Juventus?

tchow: Inter Milan anyone?

grace: Romelu Lukaku shouting “LEO! LEO!”

ryan: If I’m the greatest soccer player of all time, I’m not spending my twilight getting yelled at by Antonio Conte.

grace: With all due respect to both figures, I do not think Messi and Conte would see eye to eye.

tchow: Wait Ryan, your GOAT Adama Traoré is rumored to go to Inter too?

grace: Adama Traoré would be great in that Conte wingback role.

ryan: Adama Traoré has been linked with every club. That’s what happens when you’re the best. Swap deal for Messi? He’d look good in those sad orange kits.

tchow: Messi has played and won through managerial issues in the past. Inter would also partner him with compatriot Lautaro Martínez. I can see the upside here.

ryan: I want to see old Messi and old Ronaldo playing together at Juventus.

cwick: Remarkably, we’ve somehow gone from talking about Spanish soccer to talking about Italian soccer. Somebody ping me when we start imagining Messi paired with Mourinho at Tottenham.

tchow: If Bayern don’t have the money to pay Messi’s wages, Tottenham might have enough to pay for his cleats.

cwick: And Man United is out of the question?

ryan: They have Mason Greenwood. No room for Messi.

tchow: LOL. What an f-ing sentence.

grace: Manchester United reportedly turned down Cristiano Ronaldo two years ago because he didn’t fit their model of wanting to sign younger players. Don’t see them going for Messi.

tchow: All right, if we don’t see Messi leaving, and with hundreds of millions sunk into bad transfers already, how does Barça right the ship in time for next season?

grace: Extremely rare of me to say this, but I think they have the right idea the last couple of games playing Messi as a 10 behind Griezmann and Suarez. Even if Griezmann isn’t a great fit, he can still play better than this.

tchow: Haven’t they already tried this 4-4-2 already many times this season?

grace: I can sense Johan Cruyff turning in his grave as I say this, but I think they should probably play more reactive, counter-attacking football for the next two years, keep it more solid and let Messi wreck teams when needs be.

cwick: What do the stats say are Barcelona’s most glaring weaknesses right now?

ryan: The main issue is that they are sooooooo sloooooooooow. Their average possession length and the speed at which they move the ball up the field are both way higher and lower than any other team in Spain. They have Messi and Suarez so the attack is still pretty good, but for as much of the ball as they have, they don’t create that much. It’s probably partially a “we can’t concede if we have the ball” thing, too. They have the fourth-best defense in La Liga, per the FiveThirtyEight model, and that’s despite their opponents rarely being able to attack.

grace: Solution to being so slow: Bring Adama Home.

cwick: Yeah, this seems like they just need a couple dynamic midfielders and the problems are halfway to being solved?

tchow: All hope lies in Riqui Puig.

ryan: They bought a certain dynamic midfielder last summer and then seemingly told him “Stop being dynamic.”

grace: That’s just Barça DNA, Ryan. Everyone knows Xavi and Iniesta weren’t dynamic at all and never offered any incision in their passing.

ryan: I really think the biggest tactical issue is that there’s no one to — NFL lingo incoming — take the top off the defense. That problem has cropped up a bunch in the Champions League. Opposing defenses don’t really have to respect a ball over the top or through the lines, and that leads to a bunch of knock-on effects both offensively and defensively.

grace: Ansu Fati is so young but he really has looked promising there.

cwick: Maybe it’s just this Manchester United game I’m watching, but wouldn’t Bruno Fernandes have been the kind of player we’re talking about?

grace: I think you really have to play through Bruno. United can do that because they’ve got nothing else. Barça, well, they’ve got the greatest player of all time they’re playing through.

ryan: Let’s say Barcelona manages to keep Dembélé healthy and figures out a way to re-integrate Coutinho. Both are unlikely, but not impossible. And both would significantly raise the ceiling and buy some time in the future, too.

grace: This would never happen but Barcelona needs a Marcus Rashford type more than a Fernandes type.

ryan: It’s kind of funny that they bought Coutinho because Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah were actually the players they ended up needing.

grace: Yeah, you add Mané to that left flank in 2018, the front three becomes Messi-Suarez-Mané, and that’s a dangerous attack. Leroy Sane was just on the market and they weren’t even interested. Now that’s a guy who could’ve fixed some problems here.

tchow: Grace mentioned Ansu Fati earlier. Wouldn’t left flank be his clearest position for the squad?

grace: Yeah, I think so. But it’s asking a lot of a kid.

cwick: I feel obligated to say that Barcelona has a 9 percent chance to win the Champions League, and it’s not even out of the Round of 16 yet. So it’s not like this whole campaign is a lost cause.

ryan: If Barça win one Champions League over the next couple years, then I guess you’d squint and call all this — whatever this is — a success.

grace: I think it will look like a success compared to whatever comes afterwards.

tchow: LOL. Yeah, Chad. Watch Real Madrid somehow mess this up and Barça actually end up winning this season anyway. We can throw this whole chat in the trash.

ryan: Barcelona have so much money that they’ll never drop too far, but you’re right. There are, like, maybe five players on the current roster who could realistically be core players for this team in four years.

grace: If I were Barcelona president, I’d have a chart of AC Milan’s Elo over the past 20 years and a sign underneath saying “IT CAN HAPPEN TO US.”

ryan: Listen, they won the most recent Deloitte Money League. That counts as a trophy, right?

grace: It counts if you’re Lionel Messi’s agent and you can take it into contract negotiations pointing out how much money they have to pay him.

cwick: Barcelona took over this chat! Poor Real Madrid, they can win the league but they can barely summon any ink from us.

tchow: Underdogs, amirite?

ryan: Real Madrid have spent the last 65 years telling us that league titles don’t matter to them. We’re just following along.

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A FiveThirtyEight Chat

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.