, September 09, 2021

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How will Ronald Koeman's Barcelona shape up after Lionel Messi's exit?


  •   3 min reads

They didn’t wait long to erase all evidence of Lionel Messi as a Barcelona player at the Camp Nou, as images of the legendary Argentine were removed from the building within just 24 hours of his transfer to Paris Saint-Germain being confirmed.

It will take much more to erase the memories, though.

Indeed, Barcelona without Messi are now a shell of a team. There are still talented players left at the club, plenty of them, but so much was built around the 34-year-old that his absence could leave the Catalans without purpose. Messi was Barca’s beating heart and Ronald Koeman is charged with ensuring his team doesn’t flatline now that the crown jewel has gone.

Koeman, however, will now have the freedom to fully mould Barcelona in his own image. While the Dutchman shifted Barca out of their traditional 4-3-3 shape and into a 3-5-2 formation, it always felt as if he was pinned back by having to accommodate Messi in some way. Most commonly, the Argentine was given a free role.

Of course, this was justifiable given Messi’s shimmering quality – if you have to adapt your tactical masterplan to fit him in, you do it. But it’s perhaps only now that Koeman will present his true vision for Barcelona. His job will be tougher without Messi, as it would be for any manager, but the Dutchman can now be liberated as a coach.

After a highly impressive debut season at the Camp Nou, Pedri will now be Barcelona’s pace-setter. The 18-year-old is a key figure for club and country having played every game for Spain at Euro 2020 and Tokyo 2020 having clocked 3,526 minutes on the pitch for Barca over the 2020/21 campaign. Pedri’s importance will be underlined further without Messi alongside him.

However, the Camp Nou support, who will be back inside the famous stadium for the first time in 18 months this season, must afford Pedri patience. While the teenager may appear close to being the finished product, players of his age tend to suffer from dips in form. It’s just part of their development and so Pedri can’t be counted on to do it all himself.

Pedri operated on the same wavelength as Messi last season, but some others struggled to forge much of a partnership with the Argentine. Most notably, there was always a sense that Antoine Griezmann suffered for playing in the same team as Messi, particularly with the Frenchman pushed out to the left wing.

Now, though, Griezmann could be installed as Barcelona’s main man in attack, although Koeman might favour new signing Memphis Depay as a centre forward. Nonetheless, this season will be Griezmann’s chance to prove what he can do for the Catalan club after two years of having to fit around Messi.

Sergio Aguero will also give Barcelona an edge in front of goal, although Koeman will have to make do without the former Manchester City through injury. By the time he returns to action, Barca might well have found their post-Messi identity, although Koeman will surely still have a role in mind for the only penalty box poacher in his squad.

Despite the psycho-drama of Messi’s departure and this summer in general, there are still reasons for Barcelona to be positive ahead of the 2021/22 season. Koeman has done more than any other manager before him to transition the Catalan club into a new generation, with a number of youngsters making their first team breakthrough last season.

Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza proved themselves as reliable performers in defence with Sergiño Dest becoming Barcelona’s first choice right back following his arrival from Ajax last summer. Pedri, as already detailed, is already a key pillar of Koeman’s team. Frenkie de Jong grew in stature last season with so much of Barcelona’s midfield play flowing through the Dutchman.

Ansu Fati is another key piece. The attacker missed much of last season through injury, but has the potential to be Messi’s heir at the Camp Nou. The 18-year-old has all the attributes to be a true difference-maker for Barcelona and has a remarkable instinct for when to go for goal and when to look for a teammate. Those instincts make Ansu one of the most potent attackers Barca have, even at such a young age.

Koeman might not have Messi in his dressing room any longer, but there’s still plenty in there for him to work with. Messi’s exit may have signified the end of an era for Barca, but it could also be the start of something else.

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