Here’s the good news for Barcelona, as they prepare to say goodbye to Neymar: They still have Lionel Messi. Here’s the bad news: They still have Lionel Messi.
With the departure of the Brazilian star, the team takes an immediate hit, but the bigger blow might come a couple of years down the road. This version of Barcelona just lost the 2020 Barcelona team’s best player. Among Barcelona’s presumed 2017-18 starting XI, Sergio Busquets (currently 29), Ivan Rakitic (29), Messi (30), Gerard Piqué (30), Luis Suárez (30), Javier Mascherano (33), and Andrés Iniesta (33) will be at least 30 before the end of the season. The core of the team isn’t getting any better, and it just got older, too.
Barcelona’s about to come into some €220 million, and they can pay high enough salaries to entice most top players come to Spain’s northeastern coast. As they consider where to direct those funds, Messi provides both a solution and a problem: He’s such a universal and omnipotent talent that he’ll be able to keep Barcelona’s flawed squad in both domestic and European contention, but he’s also going to be 31 next June. So, do they use the Neymar money to build for the future while Messi keeps them afloat? Or do they say, "You know what, we’re not gonna have the greatest player in the history of the sport forever, so we might as well try to win as much as we can while he’s still here?"
The last time Barcelona sold off one of their stars was when Luis Figo made the unthinkable move to Real Madrid in 2000-01. That ended with a severed pig’s head landing on the Camp Nou turf. The reaction to Neymar’s move won’t be as bloody, but the aftermath looks like it’ll be even harder to clean up. Paris Saint-Germain’s offer was a meteor that no radar could’ve ever picked up, but it’s about more than just one player. Thanks to the missteps of the past three years, Barcelona have put themselves in a position where they don’t have many options, and their margin for error has all but disappeared.
The 2014-15 Barcelona side is the best club team I’ve ever seen. They were a shape-shifting tactical machine able to control possession or flip the counterattack switch, and it was all fronted by a three-pronged crossbow of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez that would score whenever it got moving toward goal. That side won everything, and, a year later, the team wasn’t as good, but they still won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey. Last season, though, all they came away with was the Copa Del Rey. They were nearly punted into outer space by PSG in the Champions League before Neymar pulled them back to earth—only to then get shut out by Juventus across two legs in the quarterfinals. And while Barcelona won the head-to-head matchup and had a better goal differential by 14, Real Madrid won La Liga by three points. Barca were good enough to win the league, and their advanced numbers were slightly better than everyone else in the world, but that’s still not where they want to be. Madrid has won the last two Champions League titles, and beyond Messi, there’s no longer any real discernible difference between the level of Barca and the level of Juventus, Bayern Munich, and PSG.
Last week Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu told The New York Times that none of this was his fault.
"In the last two years our rivals learned a lot, and they know how to play against us," he said. "And that’s why, probably, we didn’t win everything."
Counterpoint: Barcelona’s spent €340 million on transfers over the past three seasons, and those moves have resulted in only three starting-quality players: Suarez, Rakitic, and center back Samuel Umtiti. That’s why they didn’t win everything. They spent €20 million on Jeremy Mathieu, who now plays in Portugal; €19 million on Thomas Vermaelen, who makes glass look like onyx quartz; €34 million on Arda Turan, who’s yet to eclipse this moment in a Barca shirt; and €65 million combined on Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer, who are both young and both not good enough for Barcelona.
On top of that, La Masia, the youth academy that produced Xavi, Carles Puyol, Pedro, Pique, Iniesta, and Messi has dried up. Bartomeu, whose current term ends in 2021, sold this generation’s top prospect, Thiago, to Bayern, and Sergi Roberto is the only current La Masia product who’s even sniffing a consistent place in the starting 11. It’s not easy to produce players good enough for one of the best teams in the world, but the youth players they’ve sold haven’t brought back much either. Meanwhile, Real Madrid just sold Alvaro Morata to Chelsea for €65 milllion, and Dani Carvajal has become one of the best right backs around. They also bought then-18-year-old Marco Asensio from Espanyol for €3.5 million, and he’s now scoring goals in the Champions League final.
Once again, though, Bartomeu points the finger elsewhere.
"The problem is Xavi, and Iniesta, and Leo Messi, and those players," he told the Times. "It is very difficult to be a player, and when you have in front of you Leo Messi, or you have Neymar, or Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets or Piqué. It is very difficult to be there."
Well, Messi won’t be a convenient and misguided excuse forever, and now Bartomeu and Co. have the opportunity to find his successor or his sidekick—if not both. Quotes like these probably don’t make the Blaugrana faithful feel great about Bartomeu having so much money at his disposal, but it could always be worse; at least they’re not rooting for the Knicks.
In a Barcelona fan’s ideal world, the club would immediately fulfill this Daily Mail fever dream and buy Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé and PSG’s Marco Verratti.
As a teenager this past season, Dembélé was arguably the best player in the Bundesliga. He’s one of the best dribblers in Europe and an incredibly incisive final-third passer. On a per-90-minute basis, Arjen Robben, who’s always injured, has come to close matching Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Messi’s production over the past half-decade, and Dembélé’s attacking numbers were nearly equal to Robben’s last year. He’s already great, and he would thread the "help Messi but plan for the future" needle as well as anyone.
Verratti is four years older, but at just 24, he serves the same dual purpose. Iniesta’s ability to progress the ball forward—whether by dribbling or sliding passes through channels—is the element that’s taken Barcelona’s possession dominance from suffocating to devastating over the years. At 33, he’s still one of the most important players at the club, and Verratti would check many of the same boxes.
As always, though, every transfer is essentially a sub-50-50 proposition. Dembélé just turned 20 and his contract runs until 2021; Dortmund could probably shake all of the change out of Barcelona’s pockets, but why would they want to sell now on a player whose value could skyrocket after the World Cup? As for Verratti, he and Barcelona have been dancing around each other for more than a year now, but can you imagine PSG selling their best midfielder right after buying Neymar? It’d be a weird trade-off that’d seem counter to the Paris club’s ambitions.
A dual swoop for Verratti and Dembélé would be a near-perfect response to Neymar’s departure—and it might even make the team better—but it’s unlikely that even one of the moves happens, let alone both. Juventus’s Paolo Dybala and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho have also been rumored to be Barca targets: The 23-year-old Dybala profiles similarly to Neymar—producing a relatively even mix of goals and assists, while playing a key role in moving the attack toward goal—and Coutinho, who’s 25, does pretty much everything well outside of "taking good shots."
Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen would also fill the Iniesta role nicely. Beyond that, there are plenty of other options, but no sure things since everyone is either older and playing for a direct Barca competitor—could they just buy back Thiago from Bayern?—or young enough that they can’t be relied on to contribute for a few years.
Three seasons ago, in the midst of contract negotiations, Messi said, "Barcelona is one of the biggest teams in the world, and it should be represented by the best directors [on the board] too."
He wasn’t speaking directly about Bartomeu, but the club president now has another chance to prove his superstar wrong. Or he could just decide to put the money toward renovations for the Camp Nou and run it all back with last year’s squad. That might work for another season or two, but it won’t be long until he has to find someone else to blame.