On Tuesday, Lionel Messi won a ginned-up FIFA bauble called The Best, which should really be called The Messi.
Think of it this way: If every year, football decides to reward the best player in the game, how do you decide that, what parsing goes into the decision? Further, how does that penalize a player who is so reliably magnificent that it gets boring. We take it for granted. He makes a slaloming run and bashes a golazo from the top of the box, and we sit around looking at the other dozens of time he’s done it, and ranking them.
It’s like that.
But in the wake of the exultant glee of culers who claim not to care about individual awards when Messi doesn’t win but considers them justice when he does, it’s worth thinking about the current Barça board, and how it has completely and utterly failed the greatest player to ever play the game. This, of course, calls for another Michael Jordan analogy.
When Jordan was young, he could fly. He took the shot, got his own rebound, drove the lane from halfcourt, he was as self-contained as a player could be. As he aged, the Bulls braintrust adapted the roster. They added players who could make open jumpers, as Jordan lost a bit of that savage edge, and defenses began to play him differently. They added Dennis Rodman, a rebounding machine, to get missed shots back so that Jordan could remove that task from his repetoire. They got athletes, for when Jordan decided it was time to start assisting and passing. The Chicago Bulls, built around Jordan, were a chameleon that adapted to the changing skill sets of the greatest player in the history of that game.
The technical staff understood, and changed. Compare that to Barça’s board and technical staff, which has committed the cardinal sin of thinking about Messi in the exact same way his fanboys do, as the player he was ten years ago, who can still score that Getafe goal, or that absurd Athletic Club goal. The problem with that thinking is while it honors a great player and his effect on the game, it also fails him because it doesn’t equip him with the people needed for him to maximize his skill set right now.
Look at the big transfers that Barça has done, and how few of them make sense. Suarez did. That he is still at the club is failure, because he is no longer capable of playing in a way that complements Messi. Neymar worked, until he needed the ball too much, which changed what Messi wanted to do, at the time when that part of his game was developing. Griezmann’s ideal position is that of Messi, but since that slot is already occupied, Griezmann plays on the wing, because the Lumbering Uruguayan is clogging up the middle.
Messi can’t track back like he does, so you surround him with slow mids who can’t intercept a break and win the ball back, which forces Messi to track back on breaks. One of the few players who have successfully complemented Messi if he can stay healthy, is Dembele, who can make the runs, take the passes and do stuff with them. Here is the weird thing about Messi, even as it’s a bit of an exaggeration: He’s an egoless goalscoring superstar.
Picking up his latest bauble, he said that individual achievements are secondary to the success of the collective. Messi has become the best passer in the game, but he has to make runs because there too often isn’t anyone to pass it to. A video of the wasted Messi passes is enough to make the eyes start to water. That each and every season, the technical staff hasn’t sat down, watched video of Messi from the previous season, talked to him about where he is physically and acquired players that work best with him, is stupefying in its failure, verging on malfesance.
Earlier in the season, one of my notions was that Barça should go as young and as fast as possible, staring every key lineup with Messi then building around him. Messi shouldn’t have to carry the team. Messi should be the sun around with the team revolves, working to capitalize on his excellence, rather than deferring to him. We can appreciate how well Jordi Alba looks for Messi on his runs up the wing, but we should also question what that is still a thing.
People catewaul about the fact that Messi functionally plays as a midfielder, but it was always the natural evolution of his game as the pace diminish, as that lost step becomes two and suddenly, defenders can catch him. So what the hell is going on? Arthur is wonderful, but why isn’t Messi a midfielder, or a natural 10, by now? Because the club needs Messi to be THAT Messi, the goalscoring wizard. A goal has more marketing value than a perfectly laced pass. Xavi never won a Ballon d’Or, despite his years as the most influential player in the game for club and country. Barça is Messi, but Barça is also a money machine, one that is aiming for a billion Euros in revenue this fiscal year. That beast doesn’t want its best player taking any sort of a step back, so they sign big names, chasing the marketing. Neymar was a marketing transfer, rather than a footballing one. If the club was really needing a winger, and it should be, you get a gazelle who can run onto a pass and turn it into a scoring chance, or danger. Ansu Fati is already looking like that talent, even more than Carles Perez. Dembele is another one. Why chase a winger at all, except for marketing.
Barça has become like a classic hip-hop group, a thing that shouldn’t exist in a temporal genre. Pop music is always changing, always shifting as the timeline changes. Hip-hop, which reached its fullest flower as what Chuck D of Public Enemy called “CNN for the hood,” was of the moment. Classic hip-hop is a stain. Likewise, Barça has become a tribute band. It takes the stage, plays the same songs, and nostalgia takes over for a fanbase that mostly wonders why it can’t be 2009 again, why the “proper way of playing” isn’t working, so Valverde/Martino/Luis Enrique/ out. The game has adapted to that way of playing, just as the game has adapted to what its greatest player can do, in addition to being better equipped to combat him in his athletic dotage.
Think for an instant about what a fast, mobile striker, an Eto’o type, could do running off Messi as he makes a run with the ball, stops and slots a pass. Right now, Suarez doesn’t move, so Messi uses him as a pylon, trying a slick 1-2 that fails when the ball bounces off Suarez’s shins as everyone claps their hands to head in chagrin.
Years ago, I wrote about the dangers of marketing men and accountants being given the reins of a football club, about the lack of humanity and foresight necessary to allow that beast to evolve, to constantly complement its most precious jewel. People talk about “Valverde out,” but for me, that’s just a start. The board and the technical staff need to also hit the bricks, because they have failed in their mission to keep a pop cultural gem from becoming a classic rocker. Change and adapt, figure out what is needed, not from the sense of what will keep the money flowing in, but what does the team need, what does its best player need. That failure has been an ongoing, long-term process, and it affects what we are seeing now. Barça didn’t suddenly get like this. People made decisions that make it that way. Their ultimate legacy, no matter what the team does this season, should be one of shame.