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How Barcelona's over-reliance on Lionel Messi has been their undoing

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter-final
Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter-final
FEATURED WRITER
Modified 15 Aug 2020, 23:49 IST
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All empires fall. Time stands supreme. This has always been the way of Gods. Nothing truly lasts forever and last night, the final nail on Lionel Messi's Barcelona’s coffin was stuck down by Bayern Munich.

Mighty Barcelona have officially fallen.

The signs were there – they had always been there – and yet, Barcelona chose to ignore them like a man feeling ill but refusing to go to a doctor due to a false sense of belief that the illness will just go away.

It never does. It never will. Not without intervention.

As Bayern Munich carved open Barcelona’s defence numerous times and defiled them like Enkidu at the gates of Ishtar, it was just the making of an epic. The once-kings were now subjects to be toyed by the ones battling for supremacy.


Bayern Munich's revival is a lesson for Barcelona

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter-final
Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter-final

The scoreline was Frankfurt 5-1 Bayern Munich in the 2019-20 Bundesliga. The Bavarians were, for many, finished. Most were convinced that their hegemony in the Bundesliga was about to end, but then one decision changed everything.

Bayern sacked Niko Kovac and replaced him with Hansi Flick.

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Flick wasn't supposed to be a permanent option; he was just there to warm the bench before someone else would come and took over. At best, he was going to be there for just a couple of weeks.

However, an impressive upturn in form, coupled with the players' backing, saw the Bavarians stick with Flick. And now, Bayern have already won the league and the domestic cup title, with Champions League glory looking closer than ever.

So, how did this amazing turnaround happen? How did Bayern turn it around within a span of few months, something which Barcelona haven't been able to do for years now?

Firstly, Bayern, as a team, were already better than Barcelona. Sure, the likes of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski are getting old. But even then, their squad consists of ultra-talented players like Thiago Alcantara, David Alaba, Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry, Leon Goretzka and the imperial Alphonso Davies, who was perhaps the main architect in the destruction of Barcelona.

This is the reason why a 'small' decision to change the coach worked for Bayern but it will not for Barcelona. It must be added that Setien is not the type of coach who can work with the big egos at Catalonia, which is something Ernesto Valverde exceled at.

Despite Barcelona fans' dislike of their former manager, Valverde had a way with the players, which is why most of them vouched for him despite back-to-back capitulations in the Champions League. As a result, the former Athletic Club coach never finished a season without a trophy during his two-and-a-half year stay with the Catalan club.

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There is a proper institution in place at Bavaria. They don't spend like madmen in the transfer market and actually play it very safe when it comes to player transfers.

This season, Bayern brought in Philippe Coutinho and Alvaro Odriozola - both big-money stars - on loan. The Brazilian poured molten salt on the wounds of his parent side when he scored a brace after making an assist for Robert Lewandowski deep in the second half .

It has to be added, however, that both Odriozola and Coutinho haven't really set the stage on fire for Bayern. So the German giants are most likely to send them back to their parent clubs, which just goes to show their caution in the market.

For Barcelona, Coutinho, a very gifted player, is a headache worth close to £150 million. They don't know how to incorporate him into the team, and they certainly aren't aware of how to sell him without recouping the money that they paid for him.

Such a problem doesn't exist at Bayern, which is a direct result of their sound transfer strategy. Indeed, the Bavarians' starting XI against Barcelona had a combined fee of less than what the Catalans paid for Antoine Griezmann alone.

But the most important advantage for the Bavarians is that they don't have a single star player: they don't have a Lionel Messi.


Has Barcelona's decline coincided with that of Lionel Messi?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter-final
Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter-final
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Barcelona's biggest ever defeat is also their greatest source of shame: an 11-1 drubbing at the hands of their eternal rivals Real Madrid. There is, however, a theory, which somewhat aleviates a bit of pain off the Cules.

The story, as it goes, is that the General Franco's Director of State Security entered the Barcelona dressing room at half-time, when the score was already 8-0 in favour of the Galacticos and reportedly threatened them with subtlety. By the end of the match, the scoreline was 11-1 and the humiliation was complete.

It was one of Barcelona's most embarrassing defeats, but they at least have a way of shielding it. Against Bayern Munich, however, Barcelona don't have General Franco to put the blame on. They do have another general, but they won't dare point fingers at him, though.

Lionel Messi is the general of FC Barcelona. Everything on the pitch goes through Messi. When a player as good as the Argentine plays for a team, it is only natural for coaches to build their teams around him.

For a time, it works. When Messi was at the peak of his scoring power, there was no way for anyone to stop him.

One such instance was seen in Barcelona's 2-8 defeat to Bayern Munich. When Messi received the ball in midfield, he raced towards Manuel Neuer with the ball at his feet. The Bavarian defenders were unsure what to do. They kept backing until Messi reached the danger zone and had plenty of room to get a shot.

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At that moment, with the score tied 1-1, a goal from Messi could have changed everything, but the Blaugrana captain could only muster a tame shot straight towards the German number one.

It was a far cry from what Messi could have done at his peak. As recently as three years ago, that move from Messi would have ended with the ball at the back of the net, but the Argentine's scoring prowess, especially against the bigger teams has taken a huge hit.

Indeed, Messi has scored only six goals in 15 league matches against the top ten La Liga sides this season, while the rest of his 19 goals came against the bottom ten teams. This disparity is quite shocking for a player of his calibre, something that simply cannot be overlooked.

Another damning stat is how Messi hasn't been able to score in Champions League knock-out matches away from home since 2013, which is simply unbelievable for a player of his class.

As a result, when everything is set up to get the best out of one player and that player isn't performing like he once used to, it becomes a big problem. It is not as though the rest of the players are the best in their respective positions, but it also won't be wrong to claim that the Messi-subservient system at Barcelona might be holding most of them back.

Philippe Coutinho was one of the best players in the world at Liverpool. Antoine Griezmann was the best non-Madrid Barcelona forward in La Liga at Atletico Madrid. Ousmane Dembele was arguably the most talented young player in the world at Borussia Dortmund.

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But none of these three players have a prominent role at the Camp Nou. Instead of utilising their abilities, the system at Barcelona restricts them to becoming an afterthought of the great Argentine.

A few years ago, it may have worked. Right now, even Neymar would struggle to play in a secondary role with this version of Lionel Messi.

Messi might be Barcelona's best player, but he is also holding them back like no one else. This is the same pattern that can be witnessed in the Argentina national team with Mesi. It won't be far-fetched to say that Argentina could win a trophy within four years of Messi's retirement from the team.


Not all is lost for Barcelona, though

FC Barcelona vs AC Milan - UEFA Champions League
FC Barcelona vs AC Milan - UEFA Champions League

There is still light at the end of the mazy tunnel for Barcelona, though. It is dependent on the direction the club chooses to take in the aftermath of their humbling defeat to Bayern Munich.

Lionel Messi is still one of the world's best playmakers. His ability to penetrate a defence with accurate passes is quite mesmerising, which is why he should take a backseat and let someone else be the star of the attack while he orchestrates the midfield.

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Messi has to do for someone - perhaps Dembele or Griezmann - what Xavi Hernandez once did for him. Barcelona have to let go of the idea of Lionel Messi and ten others, they have to become one team.

Barcelona need a few drastic changes, starting from their board members to the players. While a lot has been said about their backroom staff and the top echelons of the management, not much has been said about Lionel Messi.

Right now, no matter what the fans claim, the truth is that the Argentine is the centre of Barcelona. Everything begins and ends with Messi. To keep him happy is the ultimate goal of everyone at Camp Nou, which has been the undoing of the Catalan club in recent times.

Such is the stature of Messi that no one can really touch him apart from one person, which is himself. So, it is now time for Messi to take responsibility. He should step back a bit and let the younger attackers take over while he plays second fiddle

Sometimes, the most responsible thing you can do is to let go some of your responsibility. For Barcelona to return to winning ways, perhaps it is now time for General Messi to do just that.

Published 15 Aug 2020, 23:49 IST
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