Messi’s out. So who’s in?

Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona

On Saturday, Barça did exactly what it was supposed to do in dispatching newly promoted Las Palmas. The 2-1 scoreline didn’t really reflect the almost constant danger posed by Barça in a match that could well have ended 4 or 5-1. But nobody counts those goals (unless it’s a draw and goal differential comes into play). Almost is for horseshoes and hand grenades.

There really isn’t much to say about the match beyond the fact that Ter Stegen got screwed by his defense again, after a tremendous cock-up by Mascherano, who seems to have forgotten everything that he knows, which is late in a match with an opponent pressing for anything, don’t hold the ball. He had an easy pass back to Bartra beckoning. He was even facing Bartra and had to have seen him as a viable passing option. Instead he held it, got stripped and the rest is history.

But of course, the biggest event of the match was the Messi knee injury, another contact knock that finds the best player in the game out for up to two months. It is impossible to replace a player of that quality and unpredictability. Period. But there is something else that is pretty important to remember, which is that Barça doesn’t exactly suck without Messi.

The championship Chicago Bulls were, essentially, Jordan and some other guys. To be sure, the effect of one guy in a 5-player team is outsized compared to the effect of a single great player on an 11-man group. But if you take Jordan away, the Bulls were a mid-table team, peopled with talented players who would probably have scraped out enough wins to make the playoffs, before heading home after a first-round beating.

Barça is entirely different.

Alves to the midfield

The probable XI without Messi will be: Bravo/Ter Stegen, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Suarez, Sandro/Munir. But there a number of interesting wrinkles available to Enrique, assuming that FIFA’s absurd non-answer on the Arda Turan question continues to be an absurd non-answer/veiled threat.

For some matches, dropping Rakitic and adding Alves to the midfield, a position he was functionally playing toward the end of last season, is worth a consideration, particularly as it also gets Sergi Roberto and his energy on the pitch. The midfield becomes Busquets/Iniesta/Alves, who functions as a modified version of the Rakitic role, but with better ball skills and interplay on and off the ball.

This option would also add a shot from distance, something that Alves is a lot less loath to use than Rakitic, who has a rocket but seems interested in keeping his powder dry. The other thing Alves would add is that Messi-like quality of passing and moving, close control dynamics that would work very well with the intelligence of Sergi Roberto.

The problem that Enrique has isn’t as much how to replace Messi, since you can’t, but rather how to replicate some of the things that he did within his team’s system of attack. Suddenly, the right side looks a lot like the left in that it is rather dependent upon fullback overlaps to create attacking danger in a Messiless side. So it goes without saying that the emergence of Sergi Roberto as the team’s best right back on form right now, is perfectly timed. He dropped a pass directly onto Suarez’s bonce today for a goal, and is as capable of controlling an opponent attack as he is starting a Barça one.

With a fit Rafinha, you don’t really have a difficult a quandary to resolve, but he is out as well, another victim of a contact injury. The easiest thing to do is stick Sandro or Munir on the right wing, but neither of those players, though Munir was quite good against Las Palmas, has shown the kind of quality that makes them anything other than a stopgap that opponents won’t really have to take seriously until they have the ball.

Ivan the Terrible

At Sevilla, Rakitic ran the show, running, passing, distributing, shooting and controlling the Sevilla attack in the way that Iniesta does at times now, and in a way that might be useful in the absence of Messi. This might mean a front line of Neymar/Suarez/Iniesta. Because even though Iniesta can’t seem to score a goal to save his soul (which has already been given to vampires), he is a devastating passing and attack option from the left, working with Alba and feeding Neymar and Suarez.

Of course, this would mean something that culers would find repulsive, which is a midfield with two DMs, in Busquets and Mascherano, not that Enrique would care about the weeping and rending of garments.

When Rakitic came to Barça, he became another player who played one way to draw the attention that made him transferable and worth it, who then had to assimilate into a system that in many ways didn’t want many of the same skills that made him a top Liga midfielder. It’s those skills that are being held in abeyance. People have forgotten that he ran the midfield that gave RM fits. Wonder if Enrique has?

The “Wheeee!” option

The last time Messi was out for an extended period of time for Barça was coincidentally also 8 weeks, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez were unleashed to devastating effect. As both players thrived in an open game, improvising on the fly coupled with constant movement, this meant unpredictability and goals. Sanchez became the player many wanted him to become, and Neymar was the high-flying trickster.

With Suarez in the XI, the potential for devastation through movement is even more significant. The second goal that Suarez scored today was a prime example of that, as he found himself in shooting space that was created through team movement, and CBs not quite knowing what to do.

So yes, put Neymar in the middle, flank him with Suarez and Munir, and move. A central Neymar gives him the option of cutting in either direction, passing or shooting, and it also takes advantage of his ability to, on the dead run, assess options and make things happen. On the ball, Neymar is deadly in a way that is different from Messi, but one that must still be respected by a defense. Having Neymar on the left means that he is just a little easier to play. But with the entire pitch as a playground, Suarez becomes potentially more dangerous, particularly if the link-up play and intelligent movement displayed by Munir today are a trend rather than an anomaly.

Having Vermaelen healthy would make this option even more interesting, as you could move Busquets up the pitch almost in a Xavi role, free up Iniesta to be the player he used to be and have Mascherano providing the long outlet pass, something he does quite well, to the mids and attackers running up the pitch.

Culers would complain about not having a midfield, etc, but that wouldn’t be the point of such an attack, though it would be easy to revert to ball control when necessary. The whole point would be speed of attack and unpredictability, with a link-up man and dangerous 9 playing off a pair of dribbling whizzes who also possess an impressive array of passing options.

No, I’m NOT kidding

Barça has a player who has pace, ball skills, crosses well and can link up with teammates, a player purchased as an RB but who seems to be better suited to the RW slot in selected situations. Yes, I’m talking about Douglas.

Like it or not, and most don’t, Douglas has looked best in an attacking role. And at a time when all bets are off, it’s certainly worth considering such an option. I wouldn’t consider him as a part in the XI, but would certainly think him worth a look against less-dangerous sides, as Enrique looks for a way to rotate his team and still keep wing attacking options open on the right side.

Or what about Pique as a 9, flanked by Neymar and Suarez in a more traditional attack with a big man at the center. With the sudden depth that the team has as CB, particularly if Vermaelen returns to the cause soon, it’s an off-the-wall notion that is, in certain situations, worth considering. Pique is physical, has very good ball control skills and can get a shot off quickly. He also heads the ball very well. Let’s get crazy.

Back to reality

Though a lot of people took umbrage with the observation in the wake of the Atleti victory, different things happen to Barça when Messi is absent. On the pitch, the best player in the game demands attention, even when he’s just standing around. He influences play through almost any movement. But when he isn’t on the pitch, the defense is faced with a very different array of possibilities.

When Messi is out there, you know who is going to get the ball. When Messi isn’t out there, what do you know, as a defender? Suarez can pass, make runs and shoot, as can Neymar. Iniesta can keep the ball in a hurricane and find the open man in a telephone booth. Busquets is the closest thing to Xavi that Barça has right now, all command and control combined with intelligent movement and passing.

Barça has world-class talent all over the pitch, even in the absence of its best player. And because everyone’s role is different, in many ways it enhances the diversity of possibilities in attack for a defense, who will have to figure out what to do in a world in which everyone is empowered. And there is no looking to the bench for No. 10, because he isn’t coming. Neymar will have to step up, as will Suarez. I suspect a more attacking Iniesta will be a consequence, or perhaps Rakitic returns to the role he had at Sevilla, in another very interesting tactical twist.

The unfortunate thing in some … many … most ways is that Claudio Bravo will be returning to the side. With an attack that will suddenly have to find ways to attack from different directions and do so quickly, having a keeper who can start attacks with throws or his feet like Ter Stegen can, will be of immense value. That Bravo plays slowly is a function of the kind of more traditional keeper that he is. So where Ter Stegen catches a pass and almost immediately has picked a target for the throw, Bravo all too often holds the ball, yelling various commands at players, giving the opponent defense plenty of time to get set.

A keeper who can spank a long pass to a streaking Neymar, or lob a pass to Busquets to feed Iniesta who if off and running, would be very, very useful. Unpredictability will have to be the norm, as well as speed of attack.

Here are the matches that the team will face over the next 8 weeks:

Bayer (CL, H), Sevilla A, Rayo Vallecano H, BATE (CL, A), Eibar H, Getafe A, BATE (CL, H), Villarreal H

Messi returns in time for the first Classic, toward the end of November. Of that stretch of matches, a time helped by the international break (from the club perspective, that is. From the WCQ worldview, Argentina has some dilemmas.), every one of them is potentially winnable.

But more than the Barça attack, which will score goals, is the defense. If the goal-stopping crew can return to the command that it had last season, Barça could very well run the table, setting a springboard for the team to take off like a rocket when its leader returns.

As crazy as it sounds, if there was ever a good time for Messi to be facing an 8-week layoff, this is it. What Barça lose in his absence is that spark of genius, that wonder that makes any time he touches the ball a potential highlight. It’s a bailout as well, as when things are going bad, there’s Messi with a run, pass that wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else, or shot from nowhere. But there is potential for full and complete success over these eight weeks even as I suspect there will be a couple of draws in there, probably away to Sevilla and BATE. But your team is a powerful unit. Many want to panic, or freak out because Messi is injured. It is a blow, to be sure. Any time you lose the best at anything, it sucks.

But Barça has an array of talent that is more than capable of dealing with most teams in the world, even without a genius. Though the way it came is truly awful, it will be interesting to see what develops with this team over the next eight weeks.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. -Haha this is Lord Douglas’ chance to phase Messi out.
    -If we draw to BATE that will be a damn shame. I expect as many goals as Luiz Adriano got.
    -Our team is fragile and can’t take a knock without looking injured.
    -Messi will probably start El Clasico on the bench and come in if needed, or to kill morale once we take the lead.
    -Mascherano is not in my gala XI, neither is Alves.
    -I welcome the return of Bravo and our clean sheets. Ter Stegen needs to yell and tell Alves to get the fuck back like Kameni.

  2. My guts turned over when messi was hurt. Im glad its not worse. Anybody know much about this type of injury and or other athletes that have had it and come back 100%? I need some good news and hope. Im sure millions of people feel the same i do. Just horrible.

    I actually think well be okay – we will get through our group and shouldnt drop too many points in league. but we can’t afford any more wounded soldiers. This is crazy. And I haven’t heard any estimate on albas time out either.

    1. No medical knowledge here whatsoever, Ooga, but I’ve seen two types of knee ligament injuries. Those where you have no choice but to be carted off in severe pain and distressed because you know it’s the season and Messi’s, where you leave under your own steam, usually try to play on and if you’re lucky have the sense to realise it’s not wise. Saw what happens in the latter in my hometown team when someone thinks they can run it off. The whole knee is destabilised and weakened and the first hit results in the injury upgraded to the former.

      I reckon he’ll be back as good as new in about six weeks.

  3. — Yes a good Sergi cross, but i feel it was Munir’s backheel pass which inspired the linkup. I occasionally (as an amateur musician) come up with a creative live music solo, which pushes others in the band–experienced musicians who are sometimes going through the motions–to do something as cool or better.

    One tactic I would try out is setting up Rakitic at the edge of the box to shell the keeper and have others ready to pounce on the fumbled ball, a common but unplanned opportunity. I was pronouncing it Rack-itich, and thought “Rocket-ich” would be a perfect nickname, but then I heard some announcers pronouncing it Rah-ke-tich”

    — I think we are seeing the Evolution of the PEP Effect. First teams were trying to copy the passing system, then they started adopting bus-parking as the default setting vs much better opponents, Now we see more own-goals, micro-passing, and penalty kicks due to packing the box.

    More players are also paying homage to a lot of Messi stuff, like the beeline into the box, a curling shot from the far inside corner of the box, and basketball-like stuff like the “pick and roll” version of the give-and-go (in the congested box and from midfield), and that body roll when the back is to the defender, carrying the ball on the leading foot (is that his, or an existing move?)

    — For a list of Messi’s injuries and time out, a nice infographic here:

    1. Yeah that’s a great tactic with regards to Rakitic firing shots and for the strikers to pounce on the rebounds. I keep telling my younger brother that. I don’t know why Lucho doesn’t see that and why Rakitic is so reluctant to take shots. His accuracy is great. Never too far off target ala Ronaldo.

      Speaking of which, I would like to see his injury list. He hardly gets injured. Quite astonishing. He plays hard but hardly gets injured. Although last season they kept on saying he had a knee injury whenever he didn’t score. When he scores there’s no news about it. Only for the news to reappear wHen he doesn’t score 😆

    2. Re: Raki’s lack of shots, I get the feeling he simply does either not have the blessing from coach, or not the confidence to assume the responsibility of a risk-takers (you can always pass MSN or Iniesta, it’s safer…). I share your hopes that he will manage to step up his game, as other things will be asked of the players is Messi’s unfortunate absence.

      As I agreed with Cieran under the last post, and Kxevin in this: Alves in mid (and Roberto as FB) makes a lot of sense at this point. Arda will not be allowed to play. A crisis is always an opportunity, as the Chinese sign for it allows, and this is an opportunity for Neymar to show he can be the man (he has already shown he can assume the responsibility of missing penalties!), for Iniesta to dominate in a more free role, Raki and perhaps Busi to show more creativity, and Sandro/Munir to break out, and Suarez to score…

      This season has hit the team with a shit-storm of some size, with injuries, bans and suspensions, as some kind of antithesis to the last season – but if they address it with the right attitude, shit can be turned to gold. Let’s hope for a Midas-effect!

  4. I just wanted to point something out; I meant to say it before. But one of the qualities of Bravo which helps our defense is that he organizes the defense by all that yelling. All great keepers do this. Buffon, Cech, Khan for sure, etc. This is one of the stabalising features of a defense.
    No knock on Ter Stegen. But I personally prefer Bravo. As I don’t live in the future, Bravo is best right now IMO.

  5. Kevin, i am horrified that you had to deak with such abject and blatant racial abuse here. Please, don’t let that stop you from writing. Your articles are amazing (as are levon and isiahs’).

    I want you to know that I was really effected by the earlier abuse, but also to encourage you to keep working in spite of it. One asshole is not representative of the majority.

    And absolute shame on whomever decided ro make such a username. Yoy can hide behind the internet screen, but you are a coward. Shame on you.

  6. The site has been cleaned up, everyone. Apologies to anyone who had to see that. I have been getting some harassment on Twitter as well, and some accounts were suspended. Apparently that individual has decided that this forum is fair game.

    I can’t begin to wonder about people who do those sorts of things, but all we can do in this space is moderate the comments, and move on. But the important thing is to not respond, or your comments will get caught up in the cleaning. Thanks.

  7. Glad I missed the unpleasantness, and thanks kev for doing the dirty work.

    I hope to heaven that the injury is something they know how to fix — sports medicine these days is pretty sophisticated so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

    I enjoyed this article very very much, I have to say. As thin as Barca is right now, they are an immensely talented group, and the sense of team appears to be one of their strongest attributes. They really pull together and seem to enjoy supporting each other, so I’m looking forward to Suarez, for example, turning on the afterburners. Neymar, too — he hasn’t yet had to really carry a team’s attack (I consider the brazil ’14 fiasco to be a bad idea that in fact never happened due to his injury). Anyhow, the brainstorming options you present all sounded really really interesting and I hope Leo gets some rest and the team finds a new level of maturity and confidence without the talisman. And then, come December, we start to rampage! 🙂
    This time will be over before we know it, and we’ll only have youtubes of the team to enjoy. Bittersweet.

  8. Slightly off topic, but I happened to watch the RM-Malaga (?) game yesterday and damn if that keeper doesn’t up his game against the big teams. He seems to give Messi fits, but you should have seen what he did to cr7! Had him spitting hairballs by the end of the match!!!

  9. The Halilovic Watch: Don’t know about the improvement of his defending, but from the highlights of the Betis-game he looks pretty good. Seems to be creating quite a few chances, handling the ball really well and finding space and team mates. If these signs are anything to go by, the loan is doing him a world of good! (almost wish he was available for Barca at this point…)

  10. Interesting that Sergi Roberto has found himself a new role and seems just about our most in form player this season so far. Proof of the importance of hard work. He is a shining beacon at the moment.
    With so many of our squad being in somewhat of a slump it’s hard to say what our current strongest XI is.
    I’d sure be nice to have Arda as an option.
    I’d say we’ve maybe 7-8 positions covered with the rest up for grabs.

  11. In other news, the Catalan election is over and the pro-independence parties seem to have won

    Now what?

  12. I didnt read any messages here, but it looks like everybody is talking about racial abuse. What a pity.

    One good thing about the Messi injury would be that, we would be defended differently by other teams. We might not come against stern buses now.

    Alves in the mid and Sergi roberto – our best player in las palmas game – in the RB would be very interesting.
    And Masche seems to be regressing. Even in the Argentina blogs, people want him to be replaced, not liking his show in the copa.

  13. Bayer Leverkusen are at Camp Nou today. Most readers here are very well informed and probably know what to expect today but for those of us wondering how the game will pan out, we only need to know one team’s name: Celta Vigo.
    Yes we should be a bit worried and beating Bayern is going to require all our physical and mental attributes in sync and firing on all cylinders. Roger Schmidt, their coach is a Pep favourite and like Pep and other high pressing, ball winning coaches he demands a fast and a furious style seen very recently in the game against Celta. Now I hate to be a party pooper but Schmidt’s Bayer take their high pressing football a notch or two higher (yes higher) than Celta. They just demolished Werder in Germany and would be looking at the Celta game quite keenly. Add to that the absence of Lionel ‘genius’ Messi and things suddenly dont look rosy for the Blaugrana. If we can hold em off defensively and if our midfielders have a solid game I expect Barca to win comfortably but for those of us stll looking at the 7-1 result a couple of seasons ago, do not expect a similar scoreline. This is going to be a tough match and is going to leave our team drained by the end of it. Keep a look out for Julian Brandt. He is very good. I expect Enrique or Unzue to shore up the defense and to impose our style on Leverkusen. If that happens I would take a 2-0 but I expect Leverkusn to score one. Time for Neymar to shine eh..
    Forca Barca!!

  14. Oh and I’m sorry Levon couldn’t connect with you when I was in Spain. Sadly I wasn’t able to watch the Celta game, I left for India the same day morning but I did manage to catch the fantastic “Atletico vs Barcelona” game at the Vicente Calderon. Man, its an imposing atmosphere they have there. All my wish came true. Barca won and it was a come from behind victory. Also Messi scored ad Baca totally dominated the match. We were sooo good that a friend of mine who is a United supporter, even she swicthed “loyalties” by the time half time approached. It was spectacular the passing and the movement. While watching our team train in front of the Atletico ultras 2 things made an impression. Busquests has a lovely lovely touch and Suarez has a bad first touch. like quite bad. As for the game, Iniesta looks angelic with the ball, and Messi: “Oh my God”, Messi can elicit a “woah” even from the most die hard Atleti supporters sitting around me. He is soo soo good. My trip has left me wanting for more and I hope to return to the Camp Nout in the next couple of years for a major game towards the business end of the season.
    Thanks guys if you read it. I can keep writing about my experience without stopping but hey “All good things must come to an end yeah”. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the comment. Glad for you too.
      Am one other person, who thinks Busquets has one of the best first touches ever in world football, and I watch football since 1986. What a player.

      Oh, are you still in India. I am from the southern state of Kerala, in Kochi. Should you need any assistance, dont hesitate.



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