On July 26th, I sat on the upper deck of FedEx Field in Washington, DC, and watched the Catalan giants FC Barcelona defeat Manchester United 1-0, with a goal from Neymar Jr deciding the preseason friendly. I had no idea I was a witness to his last ever goal for the club. One week later, the Brazilian winger would smash the world record transfer fee in a 222 million euro move to the mega rich French side Paris Saint-Germain, and Barcelona were in a crisis.
It had already been a disappointing year for Barcelona. The previous season was a disaster by the clubs lofty standards, winning nothing but a Copa del Rey, leading to manager Luis Enrique being sacked. The new coach, Ernesto Valverde inherited a squad full of aging once-great players and average deadwood, no right back on the roster at all, and very over reliant on their brilliant front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (MSN). Their top choice for a right back was Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, who they tried unsuccessfully to get and had to settle for second choice Nelson Semedo. They had been trying all summer to recruit PSG’s Marco Verratti to the club without any success at all, Suarez was out of form, Messi and captain Andres Iniesta had yet to renew their contracts expiring at the end of the season, and they were stuck in a months long transfer saga over Neymar. The whole preseason was dominated by will he or won’t he talk about Neymar’s future, a position Barcelona are unfamiliar with, seeing as they are usually the ones dragging superstars away. They lied to themselves constantly, saying “nobody can pay that kind of money”, and club icon Gerard Pique very boldly tweeted a picture of him and Neymar with the caption “Se Queda” (he stays in English). To Neymar’s credit, he did not go on strike or quit training, but at the start of August, he got his move, and Barcelona were screwed.
After his departure, things turned from bad to worse. The club turned to Ousmane Dembele of Borussia Dortmund, and Phillipe Coutinho of Liverpool as their possible replacements, but their clubs were not willing to let them go so easily this late in the window. They then lost 5-1 to archrivals and back to back Champions League winners Real Madrid in the Supercopa Espana, and Pique admitted in an interview afterwards that he had felt inferior to Real for the first time in his career. Madrid were top dogs in world football and Barca had just lost a superstar and heir to Messi’s throne, with no replacements even close to coming in. Valverde not only had to replace Neymar, he had to add some creativity to a distinctly average midfield, but suffered a major blow in that department when Verratti finally announced he would stay with PSG. They then moved on to Angel Di Maria, who also decided he’d rather stay in Paris, and then, after noticing all of the fans tweeting about him, scouted Nice’s Jean Michael Seri, until a few days later deciding he was not good enough, infuriating Seri, who then threw a tantrum in the Nice club office and spoke of a “broken dream”. Absolutely desperate for a midfielder, they bought Paulinho, a former Tottenham flop who was playing in China, and everyone ridiculed it as a panic buy, especially when he failed to even juggle a football at his unveiling. Some good news finally came in when Dortmund finally relented and they got their hands on Dembele. Dembele wasn’t enough though, they needed Coutinho to come even close to filling the hole left by Neymar, and despite the Brazilian going on strike, submitting a transfer request, and in general burning every single bridge he had on Merseyside, Liverpool would not budge, and Coutinho stayed. To make things worse, in one of his first games Dembele tore his hamstring, leaving him out until Christmas, and Barcelona was left with nothing. Through all this, main man Messi had still yet to sign a new deal. The whole football world laughed as this century’s major power declined, and everyone thought this season would be a battle between top dogs Real Madrid, and new boys PSG for major trophies in Europe, with Barcelona left for dead. For this omnishambles of a summer, the board voted no confidence in President Josep Maria Bartomeu, and he was whistled and fans shouted at him to resign in public. To put it mildly, Barca has about the worst summer they could get.
Fast forward to today, and things could not be more different in Barcelona. The club is unbeaten after 11 matches, winning 10 and drawing one, and finds itself sitting four points clear atop the La Liga table, and eight points ahead of Real Madrid. It is also unbeaten and on top of its group in the Champions League, including a definitive 3-0 win over Juventus, the side that eliminated them last year. How did this happen, after such an awful summer?
First, I must point out that Real Madrid have had an awful start to the season. They have dropped points to the likes of Girona and Real Betis, been absolutely destroyed by Tottenham in the Champions League, and their megastar Cristiano Ronaldo has scored just one goal, and has a 2.3% shot conversion rate so far this season, the lowest rate of anyone who has scored so far this season. To put it this way, Lionel Messi would need to miss his next 507 shots to equal Ronaldo’s conversion rate. Madrid also suffered from the classic big winner syndrome, where they let key backups leave and do not reinforce enough in the summer, because they think they are untouchable. Look at how well that strategy worked out for Barcelona after their 2015 treble, or Jose Mourinho’s dominant EPL champions that same year at Chelsea, and perhaps Madrid’s awful start is not a surprise.
However, to pin this all on the failings of Madrid would be doing Ernesto Valverde a disservice, he has done a truly remarkable job turning around this team. Defensively he has sold those who were no longer needed, reinvigorated the likes of Pique and Jordi Alba who struggled last year, and developed Samuel Umtiti into a future world class center back. They do not concede nearly as many silly goals like they did under Enrique. In midfield, they have been very improved, and a lot of that is down to the much maligned Paulinho. Paulinho’s energetic, box-to-box style is a rarity in Spain, the land of short tiki taka passing and registas who control the game. He has taken La Liga by storm, is tied for second in goals at the club with Suarez, and teaches us all a lesson to not give up, and not to judge signings harshly based on their background. This has led to the revitalization of newly resigned captain Andres Iniesta. Thanks to Paulinho, Iniesta does not need to do as much attacking, leaving him free to spray magical passes and control the game the way only he knows how. Sergio Busquets is also showing he isn’t quite finished yet, and still is a top class defensive midfielder. In attack, to fill in for Dembele, they have put their faith in fringe players like Gerard Deulofeu and Paco Alcacer, the latter of whom scored a brace to defeat Sevilla 2-1 last weekend. He has also decided to move Suarez out of the striker role to the left wing, to build the team around Lionel Messi, and that has been the real key to everything.
Despite the good work of Valverde, and the failings of Real Madrid, there is absolutely no way Barcelona would be doing so well if it wasn’t for Lionel Andreas Messi. This man is the greatest player to ever take the pitch, bar none. I could honestly write a novel about his greatness but that is another post. With Neymar gone, Dembele out, and Suarez struggling for fitness and form, it has been up to Messi to carry this team, and boy has he delivered. He has 15 goals in all competitions so far this season, 12 of them in the league, and was the first player in Europe to score double digit goals this year, setting new personal milestones like his 500th Barca goal, and scoring his first goal past the great keeper Gianluigi Buffon along the way. Now that he is the only main man, he can just take over games with his mesmerizing dribbles and outstanding finishes the way only he knows how. The second highest scorers have been Suarez and Paulinho with 3, and Alcacer and that brilliant new signing “own goal” are the only other ones to score more than one goal so far. Without Messi, they would be toast. This team would struggle to even make the Champions League without him. To compare this situation to American sports for readers more familiar with that, Neymar is Kevin Durant who left for the rich new super team, and Messi is playing the role of Russell Westbrook, on a one man crusade to carry his team with ridiculous performances week in and week out. Out of all the amazing accomplishments of Messi, if this continues, and he is able to carry this weakened Barca team to the Liga, that would be his most amazing one yet, and I do not think anyone could argue his GOAT status then.
This season is far from over, and a lot could still happen between now and May. Messi could get injured, Suarez will need to find his form fast, Ronaldo will eventually find his old scoring touch, El Clasico is still yet to happen, Messi still needs to sign a new deal, and the club itself does not even know its own future due to the region’s political turmoil. But one thing cannot be denied, for a club supposedly on its deathbed, Barcelona are doing very very well right now.