Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry.
Lionel Messi was not as known a household name as he is now when these three strikers were present at the Camp Nou. He was when they left. But did they leave because of him?
Before Messi became a superstar at Barcelona, there were others whose shirts racked up impressive sales at sporting goods stores all over the world. There was the immensely talented Ronaldinho, the laid back Swede Henrik Larsson, the predatory Ludovic Giuly and of course the three strikers mentioned above.
Soon after Guardiola became coach of Barcelona, he decided to flog both Ronaldinho and his fellow Portuguese speaker Deco because they were too individualistic. They did not feature in his style of collective football that he planned to bring to the club.
But even when Eto’o, Henry and later Ibrahimovic were at the club, it offered Barcelona the presence of a Plan B. All of these strikers towered above the rest of the squad and were easily the tallest players at Guardiola’s disposal.
While Barcelona players do rarely cross the ball or pump long balls forward to reach their strikers, there would still be the occasional cross into the box for one of these three frontmen to head home. Eto’o and Ibrahimovic occupied the role of the central striker and Henry was fielded as an inside-forward to use the old-school term for the position and would often swap positions with the Cameroonian.
What these players gave Barcelona was an alternative to score goals when their passing method failed. All three of them could be deployed either as centre forwards or target men. Something that Lionel Messi cannot provide.
It was during Henry and Ibrahimovic’s time at Barcelona that Messi went up to Guardiola and asked to be played in the role that the two strikers both coveted. Having worked with the Argentine since his early days at the club, Guardiola knew exactly what Messi was capable of.
But what about what he was not capable of? What about what the strikers he replaced were capable of?
In the past, it was easy to be mesmerised by Barcelona’s style of football. Give the ball to Lionel Messi and let him run with it. That was (more often than not) enough to guarantee Barcelona victory.
But as Charles Darwin discovered so many years ago, all species evolve and develop over time. Other teams wised up to Barcelona’s style of play. And while Messi was fast becoming the centre around which Barcelona do play football, a succulent, attractive brand of football, there were tremors beneath the surface.
Because of the talent that Messi possessed, Barcelona were for long stretches of games untouchable. But these tremors are now starting to reach the surface. For all that talk of Barcelona’s football being from another planet, there is something about them that makes the Blaugrana look painfully human — and Bayern Munich exposed all of this in their 7-0 aggregate drubbing this season in the Champions League.
Take Messi out of the game and Barcelona look to be a wraith of their former selves. While that has been met with vociferous complaints in the past, that seems to be very evident with Barcelona. Against Paris Saint-Germain, they were unable to exert themselves in Paris once Messi had been taken off injured and struggled to replicate their form in Catalonia, only managing to do so when he did come on by which time his fellow Argentina international Javier Pastore had given the Parisians the lead at the Camp Nou.
That return to the fray was premature, but the end justified the means. What it meant though was that Messi was out for a far longer time than was originally anticipated. He was nowhere near fit when asked to take to the field against Bayern Munich and with his inability to run with the ball as he normally does because of a wonky hamstring, Barcelona looked lost for ideas, bordering on the woebegone as Xavi resorted to the occasional long ball and Alba was booked for stupidly hurling the football in Arjen Robben’s face.
Barcelona put four past AC Milan in the Round of 16 of the Champions League and required an effort of similar magnitude to overcome their walloping at the Allianz Arena — which did not happen because they got walloped again against the Bavarians. What was missing in the starting XI was Messi, so integral to their success against the Italians. He may be only one person but he means so much to both the fans and the players of the club.
Real Madrid knew this as well, and that was why he was shown special attention when the two arch rivals met in two closely-spaced Clasicos earlier this year. Every time he received the ball, there were two people waiting to close him down. When he wasn’t attended to, he scored at the Bernabeu.
For all that talk of the abolishing of an individualistic game, the presence of Messi in that starting eleven has essentially led to one. And Guardiola knew about this. In order to sustain the team’s success, Guardiola had requested for reinforcements the summer before he was to leave Barcelona. But new President Sandro Rosell’s war of words with Juan Laporta – his predecessor and the man who appointed Guardiola – meant that was not willing to give the manager what he needed.
For all we know, Guardiola knew what this overdependence on Messi would cost the club. It may not have been foreseen at the time, but it is quite evident now. Beating Levante, Real Sociedad and Mallorca in the Liga is all well and good and can even be done without Messi. But we all know what happened against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Which brings me to my next point. Because of the aura surrounding Messi and his presence that has a psychological impact on team mates and opposition players alike, Barcelona for a long time now have not invested in quality centre backs. Carles Puyol is the club captain but is fast approaching his sell by date, spending an increasing amount of time on the side lines. Several midfielders including new acquisition Alex Song and the likes of Javier Mascherano, Seydou Keita and Yaya Toure were employed at centre back. It wasn’t quite so glaring an insight into Barcelona’s bench (or lack of it) when Rafa Marquez and Gabriel Milito were at the club but now that they have only Marc Bartra in reserve, their stocks look quite depleted.
And maybe that is why Guardiola is moving to Bayern where he has players of the same quality to those he had at Barcelona. He already has the best players and has added to that very impressive arsenal even before the season has ended. He is going to Munich to show that there is more to his game than just Barcelona. More than just one blindingly brilliant superstar whose inclusion sadly comes before the rest because he is just so good.
Which for once is a very good thing, as Sandro Rosell and Co. found out as they failed to reach the Champions League final for a second year in a row. Still best team in the world? Not quite.