All clubs go through the phase which FC Barcelona are currently undergoing. After putting behind an agonisingly painful La Liga season behind, Lionel Messi and company now look forward to making something big happen in Europe.
However, Barcelona are now at an important juncture in their history. From 2008 to 2016, the club enjoyed its most successful years. This success was overseen by a group of talented, La Masia academy graduates who had the club’s DNA ingrained in them.
Barcelona managed to produce the three best players in the 2010 Ballon d’Or race; Lionel Messi won the coveted award, followed by Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez respectively. Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo finished that season in sixth position in the Ballon d'Or rankings.
However, things have now changed at Barcelona. Xavi and Iniesta have retired, and the 33-year-old talismanic Messi is approaching his twilight. Other key players from that great generation of Barcelona superstars like Gerard Pique (33) and Sergio Busquets (32) are also in their thirties.
The Uruguayan striker is now 33 while the 28-year-old German goalkeeper is not getting any younger as well. Both of them tasted European success in the summer of 2015.
But the other Barcelona players have no experience of winning top honours in Europe. Barcelona must now look at the future, as the Catalan giants are surely at the end of a cycle.
Barcelona stars of the future
The 2019-20 season may have been a disappointing one for Barcelona, but the season also saw the rise of Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, two La Masia graduates who are tipped to take big strides in the future.
Puig enjoyed a decent amount of game-time during the latter half of the season after a knee injury side-lined Frenkie de Jong. Only 21, Puig seems to be the heir-apparent to the throne of Andres Iniesta in the Blaugrana midfield.
The midfielder’s contribution may not look impressive on paper, but his introduction rejuvenated the team. Puig has registered two assists in 508 minutes of La Liga action.
Puig is an energetic player who likes to dribble with the ball and play incisive through passes. He performs the role of the enganche, or the ‘hook’ who enjoins the midfield with attack. This aspect of his game was in full display in Barcelona's final league fixture of the campaign against Deportivo Alaves.
However, it is the emergence of 17-year-old Ansu Fati that has taken the whole of Europe by surprise. With seven goals and one assist in the league this season, Fati already has more goals for Barcelona than club captain Messi had at the same age.
It is an impressive return from the teenager playing in a position, which until recently, was occupied by a player of the stature of Neymar. It remains to be seen whether Fati continues his good form for Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League.
Barcelona need to prepare for a future without Lionel Messi
It was Neymar who was hailed to be the long-term replacement for Lionel Messi at Barcelona, or at least his presence was supposed to complement Messi and raise the level of the Blaugrana attack.
It did happen for four seasons, as Neymar, Messi and fellow South American Luis Suarez crated a deadly front-three. The potent partnership, however, was severed in 2017 when Neymar chose to leave for Paris Saint-Germain in a record €222 million transfer.
If truth be told, Barcelona have indeed struggled since the Brazilian’s departure. They have lacked confidence going forward, which has only heaped more pressure on the shoulders of Lionel Messi. But sooner, rather than later, the Catalan giants will have to address the Lionel Messi situation.
This is exactly what the Barcelona presidential candidate Victor Font is aiming to do. His rallying cry is ‘Sí al futur’ or ‘Yes to the Future’. Font wants Barcelona to prepare for a future without the talismanic presence of Lionel Messi. He wants the Blaugrana to promote and rely on their academy players.
In all honesty, no player can ever replace a player of the stature of Lionel Messi. In fact, it is wrong for teams and clubs to replace one player with another, expecting the new arrival to fit seamlessly into a new role.
When Philippe Coutinho arrived at Barcelona, he was brought in to fill the void left behind by Neymar. It proved to be an enormous challenge for the talented Brazilian player. Coutinho struggled during his time at the Nou Camp, with wobbly confidence being the main issue.
It is important to find a collective solution when great individual players leave clubs. Instead of expecting a new player to assume the role of a club-great, coaches should attempt to integrate new systems.
What does the future hold for Barcelona?
Barcelona have no choice but to rely on their youngsters. With current president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s buying spree that has reached a billion pounds’ worth of players, the club needs to find more financially sustainable solutions.
At the back, Ronald Araujo and Jean-Claire Todibo could be the solutions. Others such as the 19-year-old winger Konrad de la Fuente, who plays for FC Barcelona Juvenil A, could be a long-term prospect for the first team. The youngster recently signed a contract extension with Barcelona until 2022.
For now, Barcelona must concentrate on their Champions League campaign. But at the back of their minds, they must also be wondering about what the future holds for them - a future they may not be adequately prepared for.