Lionel Messi’s number 10 shirt was still warm, metaphorically, when Barcelona handed it to Ansu Fati following the Argentine’s shock switch to Paris Saint-Germain. Of course, Ansu is widely expected to succeed Messi at the Camp Nou much like Messi succeeded Ronaldinho, so this was fitting. But another Barca attacker has already embraced the challenge of replacing the club’s greatest ever player.
Initially signed to play alongside Messi, Memphis Depay has now been charged with filling the void left behind by the 34-year-old. Barca find themselves in the midst of a generational transition and the Dutchman, captured as a free agent this summer, must deliver the firepower to keep the Catalans competitive.
So far, so good in that respect. Memphis has notched two goals and one assist in his first three La Liga appearances and has very quickly become Barcelona’s attacking apex. He is the player Barca look to more than any other to make something happen in the final third of the pitch.
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While Memphis certainly doesn’t possess the individual quality of Messi - because who does? - he is proving himself as the best possible replacement for the Argentine at Barcelona. They couldn’t have found anyone better suited to perform the role Messi performed for 15 years.
Positionally, Memphis is capable of playing in a number of different roles across the forward line. Ronald Koeman has used him as a left winger and a centre forward this season, but no matter where the 27-year-old is deployed he has the freedom to drift into space wherever he can find it. This is what Messi used to do for Barca.
As an all-round forward built for the modern game, Memphis is just as comfortable dropping deep to receive the ball into feet as he is spinning in behind - see his equalising goal for Barca against Athletic Club last month. He can dribble past an opponent, or thread a pass through for a teammate. He can shoot from distance or finish from close range.
Koeman has built his Barcelona attack around Memphis with the former Lyon and Manchester United man essentially expected to do it all. After a meandering career which threatened to fizzle out after an ill-fated spell at Old Trafford, Memphis now has a platform to demonstrate every one of his qualities.
Memphis’ suitability as Messi’s successor isn’t solely down to his ability on the pitch, but the strength of his mindset. The Dutchman is stronger for his past experiences and has the character to handle the pressure of being a Barcelona player. It’s as if Memphis has waited his whole career for this opportunity at this moment, and he’s not prepared to let it bypass him.
With Antoine Griezmann back at Atletico Madrid, Sergio Aguero out until November and Martin Braithwaite now sidelined through injury, the onus will be on Memphis to an even greater extent to provide Barcelona with an attacking spark. The return of Ansu from injury will help ease some of the burden, but Memphis is very much Koeman’s main man.
The midfield unit of Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri might be where Barcelona are strongest, but Memphis gives them a purpose. While the Dutchman was derided for being a showpony earlier in his career, everything he now does in the attacking third is geared towards taking the shortest route to goal.
After a difficult summer, Barca are surely relishing the chance to focus on simply playing football with a match against Bayern Munich to open their Champions League campaign this week. Koeman’s squad is significantly weaker now than it was at the end of last season, but in Memphis the Catalans might just have found someone to fade the memory of Messi in blaugrana.
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