As Lionel Messi ages, here’s what Barcelona has to do to remain relevant in Spain and Europe

There’s no replacing Lionel Messi. And thankfully for Barcelona, the club doesn’t have to just yet. The 32-year-old superstar is arguably as good as ever and continues to win consistently with the Catalan club. In his career, he’s won La Liga 10 times and the Copa del Rey six times, while taking home the Ballon d’Or on six occasions. But in the age of money running the sport, clubs like Barcelona are ultimately judged by how they perform in the Champions League, and those results haven’t been there for a while.

Messi won the European crown four times between 2005-06 and 2014-15, but since then the club has been marked by consistent UCL choke jobs and a revolving door of head coaches. 

Just in the last two editions of the Champions League, Barca has blown a three-goal lead against Roma in the 2017-18 quarterfinals and a 3-0 lead to eventual champ Liverpool last season. 

There is still a window there to win the tournament again with Messi, but in order to improve stability and get over the hump, these three things have to be done.  

1, Find a pure No. 9 to replace Suarez

Barca really need to start thinking past Luis Suarez when it comes to who is going to be that goal-scoring machine to finish off the passes from Messi. Suarez has been arguably the best striker in the world over the last decade and has scored at least 20 goals in each of the last seven seasons. But he’s 33 years old. Still capable, his window as an elite striker is likely to close in the next year or two. And as the injury concerns grow, so do the concerns of not having a backup. 

Barca has to invest in a striker to take the reins, someone who would fit the mold of what the club wants to do. Be it a Timo Werner of RB Leipzig or possibly Lautaro Martinez of Inter Milan, ideally the team would try to find somebody who is more physical and better in the air. Easier said than done, though. Martinez and Werner don’t have Suarez’s size, but they do have that ability to pull out wide, move inside and clinically finish in front of net. Barca has too many wing players and a lack of pure strikers. There’s Philippe Coutinho — who is certainly on the way out during the next transfer window — Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and more. Getting Messi the help he needs inside the box will be key to sustaining domestic success and improving chances in Europe.

Don’t be surprised if Barca is soon linked with Mauro Icardi, who played in the Barca youth system years ago. 

2. Target younger, more reasonable players

When talking about major clubs, maybe Manchester United is the only team that can give Barca a run for its money for the worst scouting and transfers in recent years. It’s quite shocking, really. Time and time again Barca has paid big money on talents that just haven’t really panned out. Enticed by the allure of adding a superstar or a budding one, Barca has to completely change its tactics in acquiring players. There is still time to see how things work out with Griezmann and defender Clement Lenglet, but neither have been consistently good. 

The list goes on and on of players who were brought in via expensive transfer fees that didn’t or haven’t cut it. If you consider all of that money and how it could have potentially gone to younger players for future progression, it makes you wonder where this team would be if it hit on just a handful of these signings. 

Here’s a look at the names just since 2015, with a star indicating those no longer on the current squad. 

  • Griezmann (€120 million in 2019)
  • Malcolm (€45 million in 2018)*
  • Clement Lenglet (€39 million in 2018)
  • Arturo Vidal (€19 million in 2018)
  • Philippe Coutinho (€121 million in 2017)*
  • Ousmane Dembele (€105 million in 2017)
  • Paulinho  (€41 million in 2017)*
  • Andre Gomes (€37 million in 2016)*
  • Paco Alcacer (€30 million in 2016)*
  • Arda Turan  (€34 million in 2015)*

Samuel Umtiti has been good when healthy, and Arthur and Frenkie de Jong look like quality players. But that’s still nearly €600 million on players who have failed to live up to expectations.

The focus must shift toward the players who fit the mold of what Barca wants to do. When you have top wing players, why bring in more who aren’t going to play all that much? When you have Umtiti and Gerard Pique, what’s the need for spending nearly €40 million on another defender?

That comes down to the sporting director, scouting and coaching, and it’s been a revolving door at the last spot. Current coach Quique Setien, who was brought in to replace Ernesto Valverde, is 61 years old and has never won a trophy as a manager, be it first division or second division. 

3. Build cohesion between players, coaches and front office 

Barcelona could do more to keep Messi happy. We’ve seen him take some strong stances over the last year or so on a couple topics, hinting at displeasure, which in turn has fueled transfer rumors. There was him criticizing the sporting director for comments he made about the team, and Messi said he didn’t accept a lifetime contract offer from Barca because he basically didn’t want to be tied down.

Lastly, Messi was critical of the decision to fire Valverde, posting a heart-felt goodbye to him on Instagram after he was sacked, saying “as well as being a great professional, you are a great person.”

None of these appear to be deal breakers, but obviously they didn’t sit well with him. Messi has looked frustrated in recent seasons, especially when it comes to the European failures, and dealing with these issues makes everything a tad more stressful. He’s managed to consistently perform and dazzle, but he knows that his window is closing. It’s important that the team caters to his tamed and far-from-inflated ego and takes more caution in continuing to construct the foundation around him, from the squad, to the coaching staff, to the front office.

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