The Michael Jordan analogies when it comes to Leo Messi abound.
— He has helped lift the club to greatness, and define it.
— His value to that club is incalculable.
— He has been in the thrall of small, petty, power-hungry men.
— Finally, at the end, he has spoken out.
For those who haven’t yet watched the enthralling Chicago Bulls drama (documentary would be a stretch) “The Last Dance,” it’s worth your time. Throughout Messi’s playing career, there have been very clear Jordan analogies. So perhaps it’s fitting that at the end, there is this last.
For the unfamiliar, Jerry Krause, general manager of the Chicago Bulls, who at that time had won five NBA championships, felt it was time for a new sporting direction for the team. Some key players, such as Horace Grant, began that last season on the move to other teams. Still other key players, such as Scottie Pippen, felt on the outs and disrespected by management. And Jordan himself was, and had been for so long, at odds with the men tasked with running the team, men who knew better, men who made stupid, selfish decisions driven by money and ego and Jordan finally lashed out.
There was a fairy tale ending to that final, acrimonious season as the Chicago Bulls, led as usual by their deeply unhappy superstar, won a sixth NBA championship as the team rallied around the agreed-upon detestation of the men who were wrecking a sporting project for no reason other than they thought they were the smartest people in the room, and held the fiscal whip hand. They surrounded Jordan with a collection of role players, marginal players and single-task athletes, and Jordan and Pippen did the rest.
Sound familiar? Can FC Barcelona have its triumphant version of a “Last Dance?” It’s highly unlikely, but not entirely impossible. So much depends on correct decisions being made by men who desperately need to clear the books in the last year of their mandate. They have old players they need to get rid of, but being on big salaries the most effective way to clear the wage bill is letting senior players go on an effective free so that new clubs can swing their salaries. Rakitic is at Sevilla. Vidal is all but done to Inter Milan. Suarez isn’t training with the group as his departure to Juventus is looking increasingly likely.
The day after Lionel Messi laid waste to the men who are tasked with running this institution, it’s business as usual. Supporters are using him, now ascribing his anger to player transfer rumors. Assuredly, the board is using him, working on sponsorship agreements based on having the most valuable property in football in the clubhouse. New manager Ronald Koeman has to change his plans again, from initially including Messi to not including Messi to now wondering how to handle an angry, fed-up player who doesn’t want to be there. The most difficult job in football is now immeasurably worse and like Quique Setien who came before him, Koeman is going to be perceived as a caretaker by a team looking at the prospect of a new board and president, and almost certainly a new manager, unless Koeman can work some sort of miracle, a “Last Dance” that is a three-step.
The dressing room
Any worry about Messi in the dressing room is unfounded. Players care a lot less about stuff than we think. Am I going to get paid, and do we have a chance to win are the foremost things on their minds. Players will hug Satan if he can put in an accurate cross. Messi is far from Satan. Messi is their talisman and the best player in the game — still — by streets. ANY club is better with him on the roster and the team knows that. The team also already knows how unhappy he was, and how awful his relationship with management is. The dressing room and how it reacts to Messi will be the least of anyone’s concerns in the coming season.
In that interview, as Messi talked about not being able to compete, he wasn’t JUST talking about the board. If teammates aren’t doing serious mirror checks, they should be. There is a lot of focus on the “humiliations,” but Barça hasn’t gotten a sniff of a Champions League final for more than six seasons. The degree of a loss matters more to supporters. For athletes, you win or not. A goal or six goals, you still lost. All the rest is narrative. Can Koeman field a competitive team, and what of the people who have impeded the team’s ability to compete in the past?
Rakitic, a whipping post for supporters, is gone. Arturo Vidal, a hard-working chaos agent right down to a wildly uncertain first touch, is gone. Luis Suarez will be gone, a living, breathing spit in the face of the belief that the attacker should be the first defender. But who else should be on that list of one-way plane tickets? Rumor is that Sergio Busquets has been told that he will have to fight for a place like everyone else. He shouldn’t be in the picture. He’s still brilliant on the ball, without question. But when the opponent has the ball the team might as well have one of those giant inflatable men that whip and wave in the wind. Jordi Alba might be a lucky beneficiary of the technical staff’s ineptitude. He isn’t very good at his job any longer, unless the description calls for headless chicken who blindly crosses, and lays in that one cut back pass to where Messi no longer is. When I talked about his deficiencies a season ago, people screamed at me. It’s clearer now. Roma got him for two goals, and so did Liverpool. All the talk post-Bayern was about Semedo because of the Davies Dance, but Bayern also laid waste to the left side of the pitch as an absent Alba left a slugging Lenglet on an island. But the only option for Koeman is Junior Firpo who is, most generously put, a massive question mark.Fullbacks matter, but fullbacks are also made better when the people around them can run and help defend.
Pique is still an excellent center back. Whether he is an excellent center back for the system that Barça will need to play is another question, as neither he nor Lenglet are suited for a high line. What happens there, what decisions will Koeman have to make? Umtiti is another one looking for a one-way plane ticket, a broken shell of the man who used to be on anyone short list of the best CBs in football.
It’s weird that all of the transfer rumors surrounding the club involve players for areas where the club doesn’t need any help. Wijnaldum would come to a full midfield, and Depay arrives to a stuffed front line. The only rumors we are seeing so far on the defensive end involve the ongoing saerch for a new forever home for Todibo, not because of talent but because the club has to make money off player transfers, and old folks only have value as a big salary off the books. The defense is still suspect, and will continue to be unless the team can figure out how to surround Messi — of course he starts. Don’t be crazy. — with players who can press and run, along with Koeman making Messi understand the value of pressing in a constrained sphere of influence. But defense is a bigger problem than attack.
Sergi Roberto should be on the “new home” list, along with Rafinha, diminished by so many injuries.
Coutinho and Griezmann are essentially where they ended last season, as players whose ideal spots are occupied by the best there ever was. Is there a way for Koeman to solve that? And who didn’t watch De Jong and the freedom he had in that Netherlands friendly, or against Napoli, and wonder about how a Barça midfield should look for a new season, and who it should contain. Pjanic has been added, and Alenya has returned to the side. Puig is chomping at the bit as well. Pedri is a massive talent, but it’s doubtful he sticks with the team unless something extraordinary happens. Don’t rule him out because of age. He’s 17 like Fati was when he exploded onto the scene.
Trincao and Dembele will be in the frame on the wings, which is a lot of why Koeman has been said to be talking about using Fati as a 9. If you don’t hear that and start thinking of Samuel Eto’o, you’re nuts. Quick, creative in shotmaking, agile on the press. Fati is a better dribbler than Eto’o. Seeing him in the center of the attack is an enticing prospect, especially as we recall the waste that a pressing Gabriel Jesus laid for Manchester City in Champions League.
The question still remains, what to do with Messi and how will Koeman handle that? The team could play a three-man back line if it wasn’t hell-bent on selling the most athletic, pacey center back it has. Messi needs a full-time job. For all of the past seasons, he has been a fixer. Forward sometimes, midfielder sometimes, 10 sometimes, as he went whereever he needed to be to plug holes in a broken team. If that has to happen again, any “Last Dance” will be toward the grave.
Without a single additional transfer, Barça has a strong team. Try this XI on for size:
Semedo Pique Todibo (allow me my wishful thinking)
De Jong Pjanic Puig
Dembele Fati/Griezmann Trincao/Coutinho
The only player who can’t be a full part of the running and pressing is Messi, but that would still be a massive change from past seasons. Last year’s XI featured too many players with that deficiency. Busquets, Rakitic, Vidal, Suarez, Sergi Roberto were all part of a sieve-like team that allowed pretty much any opponent run of the pitch. And we still have no idea how Semedo is when he isn’t tasked with covering multiple players. Davies rinsed him? What do you think would have happened to any other fullback left on an island like Semedo was against Davies.
The biggest part of the coming season is going to be defined by psychology. If the team bands together as the Chicago Bulls did, against the men looking to ruin them and the people who doubted they could do it, we could see some fun this year. That last Bulls championship was much out of spite as anything else. Koeman has the tools. Koeman also has the best player in the game on his roster. And “let’s win one for Leo” wouldn’t be a bad rallying cry for a Last Dance.
As usual, everything depends on Messi. That he will set the proper tone of energy, hard work and professionalism features as much doubt as the sun rising. This would be so much fun to look forward to if it all wasn’t tinged with sadness, rancor and regret.