Although it has got lost in the debate over Messi’s non-awarded ‘ghost goal’, Barca were absolutely excellent in the opening period of Sunday night’s game at Valencia.
The hosts were coming into the game full of confidence and in superb form after stringing together a run of eight consecutive wins, and their atmospheric and noisy Mestalla stadium is renowned as one of the most uncomfortable environments for visiting teams when Valencia fans are in the right mood.
In that context, then, the fact that Barca utterly dominated their high-flying hosts more or less without interruption from the opening whistle until the half-time interval was even more impressive.
All over the pitch, the Blaugrana were infinitely superior to Valencia during that opening 45 minutes. Samuel Umtiti marshalled the defence imperiously; Sergio Busquets made the task of running the midfield look easy; Andres Iniesta shone with magical flicks and tricks; Paulinho blended brawn with brain, and Messi masterminded virtually every attacking move.
But it wasn’t really about individuals: this was a true team performance, with the eleven moving parts appearing to move as one, almost as though they were connected by an invisible string which prevented them from ever becoming drawn too far apart.
The home team just couldn’t get their foot on the ball – and on the few occasions they did manage to gain possession, they were quickly harried into losing it almost immediately by Barca’s fierce pressing.
The second half was a much more even contest, as Valencia upped their intensity and the game started to open up. But even then the visitors remained largely on top, and finished the game making 753 passes to Valencia’s 328, while also restricting the hosts to just one attempt on target.
The nature of Barca’s most important touch was also telling, with Jordi Alba running onto an outrageous lofted through ball from Messi to volley home and secure a point which was the very least the visiting team deserved.
Last season, Alba would not have scored that goal – the space that he ran into would instead been occupied by Neymar, who along with Messi and Luis Suarez executed the overwhelming majority of the team’s attacking movements.
Now, though, Neymar has gone and Barca have been forced to rethink their approach. Rather than relying on MSN they have been forced to find other solutions, and along with the arrival of a pragmatic new coach in the form of Ernesto Valverde, that has resulted in a more controlled and structured style of play.
Notably, there was only one change in personnel from the front six that started most games last season, with Neymar’s place being taken by another Brazilian – albeit one with an extremely different skill set: Paulinho.
The move from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 with a showboating winger replaced by a muscular midfielder neatly encapsulates the change undertaken by the team in the last few months, and there have been definite improvements in the overall shape.
Last season Barca at times resembled two teams within a team, with MSN responsible for nearly all the attacking and everyone else playing a supporting role in the background. This season, however, has seen the introduction of a far more collective approach: Paulinho has as many league goals as Suarez; Alba has as many assists as Messi.
The fruits of this greater balance, as Messi described it, has been a much more solid team defensively, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen only conceding five goals in 13 league games and spending large periods of time mainly focussed on his excellent distribution skills in the ‘sweeper-keeper’ role.
That improvement was plain to see during Barca’s outstanding first half in Valencia – but so too was the other side of the coin.
As Messi admitted, the departure of Neymar has also taken away a great deal of the team’s firepower, and despite all their dominance over Valencia it was notable that Barca struggled to create clear chances – even the first half ‘goal’ they scored only came through a gross goalkeeping error.
As time ticked on and the ageing Iniesta was forced to retire, Barca’s lack of creativity was increasingly obvious. With Suarez delivering another poor performance, only Messi looked capable of fashioning a breakthrough – as he eventually did – with the rest of the team showing calm control but a lack of imagination.
This is where Ousmane Dembele should enter the picture. The €150 million summer signing was obviously recruited as Neymar’s replacement, and his long absence with a thigh injury has deprived the team of one of their most dangerous attacking forces.
In particular, Dembele possesses one specific quality which the team otherwise badly lacks: pace with the ball. Even Messi, for all his greatness, is never going to break down a defence by speeding past them, and neither are any of his teammates with the possible exception of Alba.
So a lot will rest on Dembele to provide the penetrative spark which the team has been badly missing so far this season.
The good news is that he the young Frenchman is only a couple of weeks away from returning to training, and could be fit in time for the Clasico trip to Real Madrid in four weeks’ time.
The bad news is that he is still very much unproven and lacking familiarity with his new teammates after spending so little time on the playing or practise field with them, so he could need at least a few weeks before he starts to become effective.
But if he does click, using his pace and direct running into the penalty area to provide an ingredient which is currently missing, Barca might well find themselves with the perfect balance.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at how the Argentina forward fared at the Mestalla.
DENIED A CLEAR GOAL
Messi had a perfectly good goal chalked off after 30 minutes when his drive from the edge of the area was fumbled by Valencia goalkeeper Neto, with TV replays showing the ball clearly crossed the line. But since goal-line technology is not available to officials in LaLiga, Valencia were let off the hook.
Messi found his opportunities limited against a well-organised Valencia defence in the first half but did cause a few scares when he ran in behind, with his speed and trickery making him a handful. But in the second half, Messi’s superb ball into the box was turned into the net by Jordi Alba as Barca found a late equaliser.
There were a few neat one-twos with Andres Iniesta as Messi was involved in some of Barca’s best build-up play in both halves. But the 30-year-old was guilty of a number of sloppy passes which saw Valencia win back possession when they were 1-0 up.
Messi spent a fair amount of time in the middle of the park, looking to carry the ball forward using his pace and skill. But he did cause problems on the few occasions he managed to work his way into the box.
Despite the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s relationships with Sergio Aguero and Pep Guardiola though, he put all speculation of a move to the Premier League to bed by signing an extension with Barcelona until 2021.
The deal also includes one of the highest release clauses in world football, now set at €700 million.
Here, we look at the best XI made up of players with the highest buyout clauses.
GIANLUIGI DONNARUMMA (€100m)*
The AC Milan keeper is only 18, but he’s already regarded as one of the top goalkeeping talents in Europe. He was on the verge of leaving the Serie A giants this summer, before signing a new contract.
RAPHAEL VARANE (€200m)
GERARD PIQUE (€200m)
It’s hard to imagine Gerard Pique ever leaving Barcelona – there’s arguably no player who embodies the spirit of the club more. Even if someone did trigger the release clause, you’d think Pique would choose to stay put.
SERGIO RAMOS (€200m)
What Pique is to Barcelona, Sergio Ramos is to Real Madrid. The fact that they have identical release clauses just completes the parallel.
TONI KROOS (€300m)
Speaking of Madrid players with prohibitively high release clauses, Isco is going to be pretty much untouchable when it comes to transfers. The Spaniard is set to rival Neymar for the tag of the world’s best player whenever Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo pass the torch – and Isco’s release clause is the same as Messi’s.
LUKA MODRIC (€500m)
For what Luka Modric brings to Real Madrid, his release clause may even be undervaluing him. His vision and passing provide the inspiration for the attacking play that services the star names ahead of him.
LIONEL MESSI (€700m)
Messi’s new release clause is over three times the buyout that was in Neymar‘s contract at Barcelona – so even PSG would have to think twice about trying to lure the Argentine away. They may have missed their chance – Messi’s previous release clause was €300million.
GARETH BALE (€500m)
In all likelihood, Real Madrid will end up selling Gareth Bale for far less than his release clause, but in case they hold firm, they’ll get a world-record transfer fee for the Welshman.
CRISTIANO RONALDO (€1bn)
The Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi debate will continue endlessly, but on this score, at least, Ronaldo comes out ahead. Will anyone ever pay €1billion for a player?
KARIM BENZEMA (€1bn)
While others debate whether Karim Benzema is world-class or overrated, Real Madrid made their stance clear long ago by putting the same release contract in his contract as they did in Ronaldo’s.
*Donnarumma’s release clause set at €100m if AC Milan are in the Champions League and €50m if they are not.