How long can Barcelona rely on Lionel Messi and the sporadic brilliance of an erratic midfield?
It’s a question that will continue to grow in resonance with each passing month: how long can Barcelona lean upon the brilliance of Lionel Messi to dig them out of problems?
It is pertinent both in the short term as Barca seek to turnaround the dominance that Real Madrid enjoyed over them last season, but also with a view to the future.
Several factors make this quite such a pressing issue. Firstly, Messi is not getting any younger. In June, he turned 30, and though the Argentine has not yet come away from his peak, given that most players are considering retirement by the time they are approaching their mid-30s, Barca better put in place a plan that offers them as smooth a transition as possible.
Secondly, the sale of Neymar in the summer showed that even a club like Barcelona is not infallible from losing its greatest players. He was meant to be the Argentine’s heir; now they have to find another solution to replace him.
Finally, there is the thorny issue of his new contract. It remains – officially, at least – unsigned. Barcelona may be positioning themselves to offer the player a “lifetime” contract, but there remains the possibility he could leave on a free transfer in June, with rival clubs able to approach him in 10 weeks’ time.
Losing a player of such quality is unthinkable, but to see him depart for nothing would verge on the criminal, a fatal blow to the credibility of president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
As Messi has shown already this season, he is still more than capable of carrying the weight of this side, despite the absence of Luis Suarez, the man expected to be his most effective foil this season. He has already scored 11 times in La Liga – a quite phenomenal return – while he has been decisive against Juventus in the Champions League, too.
For the moment, there is no suggestion of his slowing down – yet even the greatest cannot keep going on indefinitely, particularly when they are being asked to pull the weight of a superclub behind them.
Even such a genius, however, cannot continue at such a superhuman level of form over the course of the season, and if Barcelona are to taste success in the chase for any of their major targets, they will have to see others step forward.
Messi acts as a facilitator to Luis Suarez, bringing the best out of the Uruguayan, who is not such a capable individualist as his team-mate if he is not given the correct ammunition. If he tumbles, there is a sense that it will have to be the midfield that becomes more consistent to support the forward.
This is where Barca should begin to have concerns. At 33, Andres Iniesta, though still a classy performer, is no longer the player he once was when playing in the teams that won the Champions League, while he has also grown increasingly injury prone and will, therefore, need more regularly rotated.
Paulinho may have made a positive start since arriving from Guangzhou Evergrande in the summer, but doubts still linger if he can do it on a consistent basis, while Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes have never really made themselves a force in this side, even if the former’s early-season form has carried promise.
It means there is a great deal riding on Ivan Rakitic, whose creativity in the centre of the field now seems more important than ever.
Indeed, while Barcelona have made a strong start to the campaign to open up a four-point advantage over second-place Valencia and a five-point lead over Real Madrid, there is still something of a sense that they are walking along something of a tightrope due to a lack of squad depth available.
An injury to record signing Ousmane Dembele was an unfortunate and unforeseeable blow, yet there should have been greater insurance against the injury problems from which the squad has suffered to date.
In the short term, it has made Messi’s role even more important, but it has also brought into stark relief just how vital he remains to this team, strengthening his position further ahead of the latest round of contract negotiations.
It is a problem that they should not have stumbled upon, but such was the disastrous summer presided over by Bartomeu. That coach Ernesto Valverde and his squad, but overwhelmingly Messi, have mitigated the damage to the extent they have speaks volumes of their qualities.
Barca simply cannot afford to allow their star man to leave, but if they cannot find a way to make him sign before the beginning of January, it may suddenly be out of their hands.
They may be on top for now, but their position remains precarious.