Barcelona have wasted Lionel Messi's prime years and he has every right to walk away

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Every couple of years or so Barcelona fans are confronted by the terrifying prospect of Lionel Messi walking away from Camp Nou.

The possibility of that transpiring has always been quashed by the Argentine committing to the club with a bumper new deal, extinguishing any glimmer of hope his suitors had held on to.

The latest bout of concern over his future may well be destined for the same conclusion but the threat of his departure has never been higher and its potential consequences never more severe.

Messi has a clause in his contract that enables him to leave Barcelona for free at the end of the season and given the tension between him and some members of the club hierarchy at the moment, he may just exercise it.

In the past, the 32-year-old has always decided to remain loyal to the club that took a chance on him as a child suffering from growth hormone deficiency.

They afforded him the necessary medical treatment and nurtured him into the best footballer of all-time. He was indebted to them. But after 16 years in the first team that has yielded 34 major trophies including 10 La Liga titles and four Champions League triumphs, that debt has certainly been paid in full.

In the last few seasons in particular, Messi has almost singlehandedly kept Barcelona competitive. His genius has papered over the cracks made by poor decisions and mismanagement.

The Catalans last won the Champions League in 2015 and have only made it to the last four once since. As one of the greatest clubs in the world with the finest player, they will be disappointed by that. You only have to look at what Real Madrid have achieved in club football’s ultimate competition in recent years with Cristiano Ronaldo for reference.

Instead, the club’s poor management and toxic politics have conspired to fail in making the most of Messi’s prime years.

Since the age of 27 the forward has carried a club that’s steadily lost sight of its identity. He’s delivered three league titles over that period, playing out of his skin, evidenced by his latest and sixth Ballon d’Or.

After the treble-winning season under Luis Enrique, Xavi left the club and though his presence in the team was already on the wane, the first piece of Messi’s support system fell away.

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That deteriorated further when the likes of Andres Iniesta and Neymar made for the exits and adequate replacements were not recruited. It meant Messi was burdened with far too much responsibility.

As players age, they generally make less runs, focusing more on their positioning in order be most efficient but Messi has gone the other way because of his circumstances.

His dribbling stats have remained consistently high but the areas in which he executes them and the nature of them have changed over the past few seasons.

A reasonably accurate metric to depict this is the ‘progressive runs’ stat.

According to Wyscout, Messi used to make 2.69 progressive runs per game for Barcelona in the 2015/16 campaign – the second season of the fabled MSN front three.

In the current season, that figure has more than doubled to 5.57. So why is Messi, now five years older, having to carry the ball so much further than he used to?

While the likes of Xavi and Iniesta dictated play in midfield in the past, the onus is now on him to drop back and influence the game.

When teams sit deep and frustrate Barca, Neymar’s pace and skill isn’t around to help punch a hole in the defence, Luis Suarez simply isn’t the threat he used to be and Ousmane Dembele can barely get off the treatment table.

The Argentine is having to do the bulk of the direct running in order to make inroads into the opposition. He’s picking up the ball deep and attempting to progress play himself because the team simply isn’t good enough to create openings by consistently moving the ball forward.

He used to receive possession and dribble in the final third where his talents can be best utilised, now he has to beat men around the centre circle first.

It’s a criminal misuse of the finest talent football has ever seen and the fact that the Argentine has managed to maintain his phenomenal scoring form through it speaks volumes of his brilliance.

Terror among the Barcelona support has never been more warranted. If Messi does decide to walk away from Camp Nou, his departure would be justified.

And for their part, the club will only have themselves to blame and a massive void that will be impossible to fill.

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