New season, new beginnings, aka “Barça dominoes”

It seems almost weird to have football beginning at a time such as this, when the club that we follow (those who haven’t become PSG supporters overnight) is reeling from a succession of body blows.

Yet a new season begins for FC Barcelona this weekend with La Real, not exactly the opponent that a team that must be in a psychological state right now will want to face. To deal with the important stuff first, this season will be no different in that my prediction for FC Barcelona will be no silver.

That isn’t just pessimism. There hasn’t really been a season where they have had the horses to win stuff on a level that can provide assurance since the first year of the Messi/Suarez/Neymar attack. And even then there were lots of questions, from how the three would come together to whether the defense would be able to support them.

This year the uncertainty is even more acute. The team is stuffed with kids and geezers, with a few players of quality who are either new, or have yet to show that quality in full at FC Barcelona. And it’s the precise kind of team that a club managed on spite, fiscal excesses and hubris deserves. And from that jumble of a roster, a manager who was more than out than in until it was too expensive for him to be out, has to smush together a lineup that won’t suck.

We excited yet?

Well guess what? There are reasons to get excited, even as unfettered pessimism is the bread and butter of culerdom. And because we are indeed culers, let’s start with the gloom, shall we?

DOOOOOMMMMM

Messi is gone. Everything starts there, doesn’t it? The greatest player in the history of football (yes, he is … don’t even try that) was allowed to leave his boyhood club because of reasons that are still unclear, even to him. This leaves behind a group that never showed any capability of being able to play without its talisman for any extended period.

This might have been psychological. The people of Metropolis got used to Superman rolling in to save the day, so when trouble popped up the first thing they did was look to the sky. Barça essentially reverted to a team in waiting when Messi was out, and for good reason. He was the best passer, creator, scorer and assist maker. But he’s gone, so what next?

The biggest battle for this year’s team will be psychological. Messi is gone, so who steps up. Those players who were in the shadows, claiming that they would be at their best if Messi wasn’t playing their position? Here’s your moment, Griezmann and Coutinho. Want the ball at your feet without needing to pass to Messi, Dembele? Take that shot.

With Messi there it was easy to slack off. Genius could rescue you with a dribble, a pass, a free kick golazo. Now we see who’s what, and what they have. We haven’t seen Dembele, who is recovering from surgery, or Coutinho, still returning to fitness after a … surgery. But what we have seen of Griezmann doesn’t fill me with confidence. In preseaon, when the moment is ripe to seize a team by the reins, he has reverted to form. He will be needed, in full.

The defense is still hamstrung by a midfield that makes it all too easy to get at the back line, just as last season. A slow midfield that lacks athleticism is still a problem. You can juego de whatever all you want, but folks still have to be able to run, and stop the ball. There has been little indication that anything will be different about that midfield.

And the defense is the same, with Pique another year older despite shaving to make himself look younger. That didn’t work with his legs. Lenglet and his limitations are still there, a CB poorly suited to play a high-risk system such as Barça’s, which puts its CB on an island. Alba is a winger, not a fullback, a defensive liability that Dest is doing his best to match, but without the offensive output that Alba offers.

The likely back line of Dest/Pique/Lenglet/Alba should fill us with about as much confidence as it did last season, which is little to none. This means that Ter Stegen, who should be healthy and raring to go, will still be facing his share of unstoppable shots.

Two key attackers start the season fresh off a surgeon’s knife, in Dembele and Coutinho. Both are quick, fast and creative on the ball, necesssary qualities in this new world. Both are uncertainties as we await their post-op appearances.

There is still no real replacement for Busquets, who has been needing such a thing for his own rest for at least three seasons now. So he starts. And as he can’t run, this means that the team’s DM can’t stop the ball. That’s a whole passel of ugh.

Last season was defined by points lost thanks to goals that shouldn’t have been conceded. There is no indication that this season, with the same people manning the same spaces, is going to be any different. Sorry.

And how is the team going to score goals? Messi made space for others by his mere presence. He’s gone, so the attack becomes easier to defend. What can Koeman create to take advantage of his attackers. The running with the ball, 1v1 stuff of last season isn’t going to work this season because suddenly, everyone has a lot less space because Messi isn’t going to pop up to kill. This could mean a goal drought as defenses just pack it back without even set piece fear, and play off the counter, capering through the daisies of a turnstile midfield. It’s easy to see a succession of 1-0 losses defining a season, a reverse Atleti. leading to a team that barely makes it into a European spot. Barça in Europa League? Don’t laugh. It could happen.

The team is also too old at key positions thanks to lack of anything like a succession plan, after a series of “win one more for Messi” seasons. And younger replacements aren’t fully ready yet. Everything that isn’t uncertain about this team is a mess, in other words.

On the other hand …

If you think about those domino videos that we watch in amazement, how everything goes beautifully as all the dominoes fall into place. It’s an ecosystem where something great happens because not a single domino doesn’t fall into place.

If that happens with Barça, something wonderful can happen, even something as crazy as winning the league. Let’s start up front as we look for reasons why.

Into the leadership and creativity void has strolled Memphis Depay, a free transfer from Lyon who looked ready for the next level right as he also became available. And instead of being a Messi deputy, he’s his own man — in full as it turns out, since Griezmann seems just as happy to defer to a new person.

In Depay the club has an attacker who drives the ball, is creative, can score in odd positions from off-kilter shots. His work rate is off the charts, and what a joy it was to see him expressing chagrin that other attackers weren’t tracking back as he was in preseason. If leaders are made rather than born, the time appears perfect for the Dutchman with plenty of sauce.

If Ansu Fati returns to anything like he was when he left us, you suddenly have a pair of dynamic, quick, creative attackers who can make shots from nothing, and are fearless. Instead of looking at number 10 and thinking, “Stop him,” there is an array of options, both equally dangerous.

We haven’t yet stopped to consider Dembele and Coutinho, and the possibilities they bring. Dortmund Dembele wasn’t possible because Barcelona Messi was present. “Hell no, you can’t have the ball. Give it to the genius.” Now? Why not try unleashing Dortmund Dembele. He even has gazelles to run with in Fati and Depay. A front line of him, Fati and Depay is a tantalizing possibility.

When Yusuf Demir’s loan was announced, with hooey like “the Austrian Messi” floating around, a fanbase that had already seen and dismissed the “Croatian Messi” was like, “Dude wut.” Then Demir started playing.

To be clear, he isn’t the Austrian Messi. There is only one Messi. But the array of skills that Demir brings makes him another 18-year-old that could well be a permanent fixture in the XI. Smart and creative on the ball, dynamic and elusive off the ball, this kid is a wonder that grabbed the attention of Barça supporters almost from his first touch. What the team lost with Messi, Demir brings some of, even operating in roughly the same space. If he functions as to the manor born as Pedri did last season, things are looking a lot brighter.

Speaking of midfield, Nico Gonzalez has arrived. Not in full, but when he was deputizing for Busquets in midfield, there was something approaching comfort as we watched a sharp, smart player with (imagine that!) physical skills begin to come into his own. There were squeals of delight in the man cave as he sprinted over to front an attacker on the counter, stopping a break. Then did it again. The future is suddenly now for him, and if he rises to the occasion …

If he doesn’t, Sergi Roberto becomes an important part of Koeman’s planning, a player who, when the Wijnaldum reports were coming fast and furious, looked about useful as last week’s bread. This man, one of the captains, should never be allowed near the RB position again, but his work rate, ability to read play and smart runs make him very useful in midfield.

And then there’s Emerson, a new arrival from a convoluted transfer/loan path from Betis. The one time he came in for Dest, who has struggled in preseason, it was like, “Oh yeah … that’s what a fullback who can defend looks like.” People started in with, “He doesn’t go forward like Dest.” Well, no, because he’s thinking about when to go forward and how it might help/hurt the team. That ain’t a bad thing.

Those who watched Emerson at Betis understand how good he is at going forward. And he’s a Brazilian fullback. So worries about his forward-thinking capabilities are needless. He’s a real and much-needed upgrade at a key position. And once Mingueza returns fit, you suddenly have a quick, fast right side of the defense, assuming Koeman rightly begins the process of fitting Pique for his gold watch.

Araujo also looks ready. He has improved on the ball as well, which along with fragility hamstrung his season last year. Is he ready to be an everyday starter? Well, given that my XI would include even Umtiti over Lenglet, signs point to “Yes.”

Pedri is Pedri, despite having played 4,435,233 matches over the last two months, and don’t forget about Gavi, that 16-year-old magician who looks ready for some consistent looks in midfield. Masia talent who looks to have every last little thing necessary to succeed. His presesaon prep was derailed by a jaw fracture in the wake of a very unfriendly friendly with Red Bull Salzburg, but watch out for him.

The biggest domino that will need to fall into place is Koeman. If he has the courage to create an XI with players who can all work and track back, Barça could be a movement-based team that creates a maelstrom of ball and player flitting that could be fun to watch, and also effective. He can now attack AND defend with eleven, something we haven’t seen in a very long time, outside of preseason. Messi is a genius, but he wasn’t what anyone would call a defensive dynamo, and that created difficulties and dangers in midfield after possession was lost. Busquets looked at that gaping corridor and we all saw the results. Yes, your defense should be able to stop the ball when an attacker loses it, but having everyone working hard to track back will be a blessing.

If Koeman goes young (and he should), the XI is fascinating. My idealized lineup would be:

Ter Stegen
Emerson Mingueza Araujo
Busquets De Jong Pedri Demir
Dembele Fati Depay

Subs are Griezmann, Coutinho or Braithwaite, depending on what is needed, and this is a very interesting team that would be lots of fun to watch, and watch come into its own. Of course, we all know Koeman isn’t going to roll like that, so more likely we will see:

Ter Stegen
Dest Pique Lenglet Alba
Busquets De Jong Pedri
Griezmann Coutinho Depay

This group will still be fun to watch, and almost certainly less mercurial and mistake-prone. It just won’t be as much fun to watch come into its own.

Make no mistake, Barça has the talent to win the league and make Champions League knockouts, but that means a lot of dominoes falling into place, including injuries staying away from the team. And you’d think last season’s sacrifices would have sated the injury gods.

My crystal ball, faulty as it is, has Barça finishing second in league and making the Champions League quarterfinals as well as the Copa del Rey semis. And lest anyone think that’s bad, for a team that has gone through what this team has, that would be an excellent first post-Messi season.

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.