Without Messi, what is there?

From 1991 to 1998, the Chicago Bulls won six championships, in two blocks of three, a span interrupted by the time that Michael Jordan was away from the team.

Jordan left the Bulls after that last championship in 1998, and the Bulls have been varying degrees of janky ever since.

Last season, Lionel Messi produced 51 goals and assists in 47 matches. But it was more than stats. As the old adage goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Messi, like Jordan, was a tsunami.

Koeman talks about what a competitor Messi was, how hard he drove training through his relentless pursuit of excellence, and how much he hated to lose. Those who know their Bulls history also know of the tyrannical nature of Jordan in training. He ran the hardest, lifted the hardest, did everything the hardest. He broke players who couldn’t meet his standard, stepped on their corpses and never looked back. The elevating presence of a great player is never to be underestimated.

There were people, myself included, who honestly thought that this Barcelona team had a shot at winning the Liga this season, were indeed even favorites. Messi left but the nucleus of that team was still present, and it gained something in flexibility, in being able to attack AND defend with 11, among other things.

What none of us took into account was that the team had absolutely the wrong manager to progress from a psychological nadir of the best player in history taking his talents to a hated European rival. Nor did we account for that loss of drive, that absence of pressure that comes from sharing the pitch with a legend.

Many have said that Barça is a mid-table side without Messi. While that is exagerrating matters, and more will be known when the likes of Fati and Dembele return, mentality is part of the question here and worryingly, it feels like the team has a mid-table mentality. They play like a bunch waiting for someone to bail them out, and in many ways who can blame them. They have never known life without No. 10 being on hand to do amazing things. And they seem to have no idea what to do with it.

Most crucially, when the team needed a manager, a stabilizing presence who could say, “Okay, let’s pull together and do this and here’s my plan,” they instead have a lame duck sideshow in a circus of a club, a manager trying various concoctions to stave off mediocrity while stories and rumors fly about a president who is actively looking for his replacement.

Players are supposed to be pros, supposed to be above al of that stuff, but players are also human. That Messi was human duct tape was always clear. And the biggest problem with Laporta decidiing that it was time for Messi to leave was that the entire project, the entire team was based around doing things for Messi. Winning one more for Messi, throwing blind passes to where Messi is, running up the pitch and dumping the ball to Messi. Everything was for and about Messi.

When Ronaldinho was booted out of Barcelona, Pep Guardiola had a plan, a system that would maximize the players available. He also had the psychological aspect nailed down. “If you do this the way that I tell you to, you will have success. But you have to believe.” And while the integration of Ronaldinho wasn’t as comprehensive as that of Messi, and his abilities were declining as his fondness for local nightlife increased, he was still a force. Guardiola had a solution.

Koeman has nothing. What’s more, his captains don’t seem to, either. After the match, Sergi Roberto talked about not giving up, about Barça being a team that was always going to compete, always going to try to win. Pique railed about the schedule. Both felt like whistling past the graveyard, deflections from the grim reality of the team, which is that now, only now, are we realizing how much Messi meant to the team, to the club. And nobody seems to know what to do next.

Laporta should have sat down with Koeman the instant Messi’s plane lifted off and said, “It’s crucial that we present a united front here, that we work to build this team, which is going to be damaged by this.” Instead a freakshow started, one that is only getting more ridicuous as the manager waits to be fired so that he can collect his golden parachute, and the president waits for enough pressure to build so that the manager will quit.

Koeman said that he would leave when it felt like he no longer had the belief of his team, when his words weren’t being heard. Nobody could watch the last matches — including Bayern — and believe they were watching a group of players who had belief in their manager.

In the past, in many ways managers at the club were immune from needing to instill that belief, because there was Messi, a genie, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, all rolled into one. Greatness is often fully understood in its absence, a thing that is hard to prepare for. It is, frankly, neglectful to the point of being criminal that Barça hasn’t been preparing for anything of any significance, even aside from Messi leaving. Busquets is still oozing around, Pique is still the best CB on the team, Alba is still the best fullback on the team. The presence of and belief in Messi forced a stagnation wrapped in the utter bullshit of “winning one more for Messi.” So no changes were made, no plans offered.

Alba worked so well because Messi worked so well. De Jong worked so well because Messi worked so well. Busquets had more playing space because Messi worked so well. Defenses played more tentatively because Messi worked so well. And everyone assumed that Messi would always be there, not even alarmed by the reality of a Burofax that indicated that maybe, just maybe, the idea of forever was finite.

Messi didn’t want to leave the club. Just like Jordan didn’t want to leave the Bulls. In both cases, two men who believed they knew better, believed they had answers, chose that time to have them depart. Neither man really did have answers, neither club was prepared for the void left by that absence. Talent loves a vacuum, but gets lost in a black hole. The departure of both galactic talents from the clubs they made excel is indeed like an absence of matter into which everything collapses. And nobody knows what to do. No plans were made.

A president releases videos, saying be patient and have confidence, we know what we are doing, even in the face of evidence that suggests otherwise, that suggests they are just as bereft as the team and its manager. Have faith in what? Iconography only works when there is an icon. For seeming eons, Barça has been the Church of Messi, and we went every matchday. In watching the team now, it’s fair to ask, what is there to believe in when the thing you used to believe in is gone?

What we are seeing on the pitch is the answer.

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.