Lionel Messi admits that there is a simple trick he tries when the going gets tough and the game is slipping away. He looks for Andres Iniesta and says: “come closer.”
On Wednesday night, as Real Madrid overran Barcelona, he couldn’t — Iniesta was 600 km away, injured — and, when the league campaign begins on Sunday evening at home to Betis, he won’t be able to either. Messi won’t see his teammate unless he glances to the stands. Nor will he see Luis Suárez, who has a knee problem. And as for Neymar, he’s in Paris, of course.
As he looks around, Messi might well think: “You’re on your own, pal.” He might even think: “You’re going to have to do this all by yourself.” And while it might not be the first time, while it might work and while Messi is, well, Messi, that’s about the worst thing a footballer can think. Worse still: the rest of the Barcelona players may well be thinking much the same. Natural, perhaps — after all, even Neymar and Suárez deferred to him — but not always helpful. As for the opposition, they’ll also be aware; it’s easier to work out which of the MSN you have to worry about when only M is there.
It is not just Suárez or Neymar or Iniesta, it is others. Nor are these “just” teammates. It is the model, the whole thing and it’s not just Sunday; this runs deeper.
Suárez is Messi’s best friend in the team; it is not only the forwards who are close, it is their families. Sure, it is only five weeks that the Uruguayan forward will miss but it might be worth floating a question or two: Will this happen again? How many more seasons does Suarez have?
When Neymar went, Messi dedicated him an emotional message that ended with an expression of love. Dani Alves went; Messi was close to him too and no one provided more assists. That right side was theirs, with Ivan Rakitic acting as a facilitator. It is often empty now.
Barcelona’s ideologue and architect, Xavi admits that he spent all game, every game looking for space, looking for passes and he gave Messi the ball more than anyone else; at the right time and in the right places. He has gone, too. And, at 33, Iniesta is on his way. This season might be his last and it is legitimate to have doubts about how much of it he can play. Last term he started just 13 league games and Luis Enrique admitted that he wanted, but was not always able, to protect him.
That matters, Messi knows. In Iniesta’s book “The Artist,” Messi says: “[Andres] has more contact with the ball than me; he is the person who starts moves, who gets things going. I know how difficult it is to do what he does… on the pitch I like him to be near me, especially when the game takes a turn for the worse, when things are difficult. That’s when I say to him: ‘come closer.’ He takes control and responsibility. In the finals Xavi, [Sergio] Busquets, Andres and I come together.”
Only Busquets remains and he plays deeper. The ball is not theirs as it once was; Messi has to look for it more. He has to do more. That responsibility he talks about Iniesta having is increasingly falling upon him. Up to a point, it is a natural process. Up to a point, it is also a welcome one, so long as it does not become overwhelming, so long as it does not become everything. But that is the risk and all the more so if the three up front is not so fearsome as it was.
At 30, Messi is evolving — in truth he has been evolving all his career — and so are the team’s needs. Managers have changed but he remains. On the face of it, it is beneficial for him to be more central and deeper, on the ball more often. As Xavi’s departure loomed two years ago — an issue that becomes more acute with Iniesta, almost his “other half” coming towards the end as well — there was talk about who would play his role. There might be no better candidate than Messi, it is true, but if Messi is Xavi then does he stop being Messi?
Even with Neymar and Suárez, even as they won a treble and then a double, there was a debate about Barcelona losing their religion, about the tilt toward the top of the pitch, the control ebbing away. Last season as they lost the league title to Madrid, there was concern that Messi’s brilliance — and 2016-17 may just have been, individually, the best of his career — hid deeper problems, structural flaws. And that was with two players alongside him, who could argue that they were the second- and third-best in the world.
Now Neymar has gone, like Xavi, Alves and, soon, Iniesta. Suárez is out for at least a month. Some Messi dependence has always been there and it is inevitable — how could you not depend on him? How could you not defer to him? — but it has concerned some observers and now it is greater than ever. Many don’t want that; Messi does not want that either.
New Barca manager Ernesto Valverde must find a solution and entrusting everything to the Argentine forward is not it, tempting though it is. There is a difference between getting the best out of a player, playing toward him, and leaving him to play for you. Valverde knows that, so does Messi.
There is a reason why Barcelona renewed the contracts of Neymar and Suárez first, supposedly taking them to 2021: It was part of a process, a means of convincing Messi to stay, showing him how serious they were, how good the team around him would be and that he would not have to do it all alone. There were promises of other signings, as there needed to be: His contract was drifting toward its conclusion and his future — and, with it, that of the club — was no longer entirely in their control.
It worked, or so it seemed. At the end of a season that was Barcelona’s worst in three years, it was announced that Messi had agreed to renew his deal to keep him at the Nou Camp until he is 34. Everyone, who had feared him fleeing, breathed a sigh of relief.
But then Neymar decided to leave — something the players found out at Messi’s wedding — while Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé have not (yet?) arrived.
And here’s another thing: Messi’s new deal hasn’t actually been signed. “It’s in the president’s hands,” sporting director Robert Fernandez said this week, which wasn’t exactly received as the message of tranquillity he intended.
More realistically, it is in Messi’s hands. Like so much else.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.