Once upon a time they had the system the world envied but there is a ‘Galactico’ quality about Barca these days meaning they are more reliant on Messi
The accusation against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid side which won three Champions League titles in succession was that they were reliant on players over philosophy, magic over strategy. When the chips were down and Madrid were ‘suffering’ – to use a favourite word of Zidane’s – a block from Sergio Ramos or a goal from Cristiano Ronaldo would get them out of trouble.
Time and again – through knockout rounds they scarcely deserved to win – many observers looked on afterwards and tried to apply logic as to just how they’d done it. Teams would come and compete against them – and play well – but when all was said and done that Madridismo or spirit of Juanito or whatever you want to call it would carry them over the line.
That’s where Barcelona had an inherent advantage over their great Clasico rivals.
They not only produced players but systems. You could take the shirts off their backs and still recognise them as Barca. While Lionel Messi was a class apart in the Champions League-wining campaigns of 2009, 2011 and 2015, there was always a system of play he could slot into. He was the outstanding part of the system but a part of it nonetheless.
Real Madrid are coming for the Barcelona identity; not wholesale but they are cherry picking the best parts. Put it this way, if it went to court there’d be a convincing case to be made for intellectual copyright theft.
It’s Real Madrid producing the talent and giving chances to native players. Julen Lopetegui is taming the individualism in Madrid’s tactical blueprint. They are playing in a way this season not too dissimilar to the great Barca teams.
Barcelona fans might have to come to the realisation that it is their club stacking up the Galacticos – Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho – and Madrid nurturing teams for the future. But as long as they have Messi they have a chance.
There isn’t a footballer like him in the world. It doesn’t matter what’s going on behind him or around him. And when Messi is standing over a free kick from the edge of the box, well, it gives you the same feeling as watching a player approaching a penalty.
He has perfected the art of the free kick. It was one of the scarce areas of his game where Messi had room for improvement. Look through the record books and you’ll see names like Marcos Assunscao and Juninho Pernambucano up there as free kick specialists. Messi should now be regarded as a specialist in his own right and there is an argument to be made that he’s the greatest at those now too. It was his eighth of the year.
This is a good Barca with lots of talent but it’s not a great one. PSV did really well and could even have nicked an equaliser on numerous occasions but once they ran out of steam all bets were off.
Dembele displayed some World Cup-winning individual talent to score the second just as he had in creating the first. They waited and waited for the Frenchman to hit form last season but now they have the player they paid for. He is confident and productive.
Messi would score again shortly after before Samuel Umtiti was regrettably sent off. By the end he would have his 42nd Barcelona hat-trick. You run out of things to say about Lionel Messi; ways to describe him. Sometimes it’s best for the images to speak for themselves.
It is his individualism deciding things. Aside from the magic there is a certain clunky quality about Barca’s play. Too many attacking players are congesting the central areas. Suarez appears to be playing his way back to form and fitness. There is a slackness in the press that once made Barca famous. And they are giving up chances even against spirited also-rans like PSV.
There is work to do to for Ernesto Valverde to knock this team into Champions League-winning shape. But even if he doesn’t they will go close because they have Messi and because Dembele has awakened – the men masking their limitations.