Barcelona’s slow start to the season, and the reasons for it, have been well documented. Performances and results certainly have improved, and a similarly uncharacteristic opening by other teams in the league have meant that Ernesto Valverde does not find himself or his team adrift. That unrelated setback and recovery should not distract attention from a much more worrying underlying issue, that if not addressed could very well be a lot more damaging for the short and mid-term future of this club.
As with most things Barça, there is no better place to start than with the Little Magician. This season’s injury woes have highlighted two things. First of all, the effect on the teams’ psyche, the mood of the fans, the whole atmosphere of the club is tied in with the Argentine’s physical wellbeing. When rumours started to come out that he was going to miss the start of the season, it was all anyone was talking, writing or thinking about.
The second issue is that Messi’s injuries may be another sign that he is not getting any younger. As the body ages, these stories, the recent setback for example, are going to be more and more a feature of his, and Barcelona’s season. They are not by any stretch of the imagination a one man team, but if Messi is missing from the team sheet, it gives opposition teams, their managers, players and fans a huge lift. It has the opposite effect with those wearing, managing and supporting the Blaugrana.
For almost as long as any of us can remember, Barcelona, be it home or away, would be a banker on punters’ weekly football accumulator. Suddenly that is no longer the case, especially when Messi is not involved. From nowhere, there is that seed of doubt, a perceived weakness, and once that air of invincibility drops it is incredibly hard to re-establish it, just ask Manchester City, or indeed Manchester United fans.
Griezmann struggling to find his feet
When anyone pulls on the red and blue jersey, especially when they have arrived carrying a price tag north of a hundred million euros, there is going to be pressure. Players deal with that pressure in different ways, and many don’t find out if they can handle the unique circumstances at the Camp Nou until the situation is thrust upon them.
Admittedly, Antoine Griezmann has not had that many games to work with Messi in which to form a relationship, but as he admitted himself, this is something that he does need to improve if he is going to have any sort of career at the club. If the Frenchman is not able to step up to the plate, it could leave a big hole up front, with the aforementioned potential problems with Messi, and Suarez – at 32, another payer who it would not be surprising to see featuring in fewer games.
If Griezmann for whatever reason does not work out – and it is early days, and we are not saying that it will not – then it will certainly not be the first big-name signing who was not able to make a success of their time in Barcelona. Philippe Coutinho, a player the club still owe €100m for, never found his feet at the Camp Nou. Since his loan move to Germany, he has regained his form that lit up the EPL for Liverpool. The Brazilian is not the only player that this has happened to, and this points to a problem with the recruitment. It is not just a case of going out and buying the best players in the world. A huge part of the task of selecting the right players to go for is assessing if they are a good fit for the team, and that goes for their mentality not just their playing ability.
Champions League hangover
The mental side of the game is huge, and in years gone by many teams had already conceded defeat by the time they had taken to the field against Barcelona. As mentioned earlier, when that air of invincibility is diminished, or even gone altogether, it drags the opposing team and players up to something approaching Barça’s level. On the biggest stage in world club football, Barcelona have been, if not humiliated, then definitely knocked down a peg or two. Twice they have capitulated from a seemingly dominant position to bow out of the Champions League. That will make a long-lasting impression on the teams that they are facing. It is just one more part of the jigsaw that, if not corrected very soon, could see an era where disappointment not glory is the new norm, and that does not even bear thinking about.