The sight of Lionel Messi on the Barcelona bench for Saturday’s La Liga match against Real Betis was a jarring one. Not for over a year had the Argentine been forced to watch a league match from the bench (or from the stands, as it has been so far this season due to Covid-19 restrictions).
Ronald Koeman’s decision generated much pre-match discussion. Messi sat out training on Friday, hinting at some sort of injury. There had, however, been no suggestion he would miss out. Others pondered whether the 33-year-old had been given a rest, but to do so before an international break appeared to defy logic. More bullish predictions were made of a behind the scenes rift.
Koeman himself provided an explanation after the game, admitting Messi “was not fit enough to start today.” Messi came off the bench for the start of the second half, scoring two and assisting another to help Barcelona to a 5-2 victory having been pegged back to 1-1 in first half stoppage time, but his absence from the starting line-up is still enough to ponder on.
From the moment Koeman arrived at the Camp Nou this summer, it was reportedly made clear to Messi he wouldn’t enjoy the sort of “privileges” he’d benefited from under previous managers. Saturday was perhaps the first time the Dutchman has followed through on his warning, proving there was more to his words than just posturing.
While there’s no reason to doubt Koeman’s word on Messi’s fitness, it’s pertinent to think back to when the Argentine played much of last season while carrying a knock. Under previous managers, the likes of Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien, Messi played no matter what. Not necessarily because that’s what the manager wanted, but because that’s what Messi demanded.
That Koeman felt emboldened enough to drop Messi to the bench either revealed the two men have reached an agreement on more rotation, more rest when needed, or the Dutchman has acknowledged he is likely to be out of a job at the end of the season anyway and isn’t so concerned about losing the support of Barcelona’s most influential figure.
Antoine Griezmann celebrates his goal with Lionel Messi
Image credit: Getty Images
From Messi’s perspective, his second-half performance proved a point. Koeman’s starting line-up offered a glimpse into how Barcelona’s attack might look next season should their number 10 choose to leave at the end of his contract. For all the energy and chances created, something important was lacking.
Messi provided that something after the break, creating the opening for Antoine Griezmann to put Barcelona 2-1 ahead with an effortless step-over that really should have counted as an assist. He scored Barca’s third from the penalty spot and would have had a 39-minute hat trick had it not been for a marginal offside call.
If Koeman’s starting line-up was a preview of Barcelona after Messi, there is a lot of work to be done to prepare for that moment. Ansu Fati and Pedri are both among Europe’s most exciting young players, with Frenkie de Jong growing more comfortable as Barca’s midfield driver and Ousmane Dembele starting to find form and fitness, but this is a team unit still dictated by Messi, whether he’s on the pitch or on the bench. That Griezmann, who spurned numerous first half chances including a penalty, needed Messi to put a goal on a plate for him just minutes after coming on reflected a lot.
This may seem a rather profound conclusion to draw from a match Messi merely didn’t start due to a minor injury. Indeed, the reaction to Koeman’s decision could outweigh the actual impact of it. But the relationship between Barcelona’s head coach and their number 10 is a fascinating subplot to the 2020/21 season in La Liga and the events of Saturday offered another insight into its true nature.
'Leo had a small problem' - Koeman explains benching Messi