At a time when the world is filled with uncertainties, it’s almost reassuring to see that Barcelona are embroiled in a protracted transfer saga. At least some things never change.
While the possibility of Neymar returning to Camp Nou occasionally resurfaces, this summer’s permanent resident of the gossip pages is Inter’s Argentinian striker Lautaro Martínez.
A 90min exclusive revealed that Barcelona are confident of reaching an agreement with Lautaro as the Catalans desperately search for the financial means to secure his signature. However, it’s no foregone conclusion that Inter’s number ten will seamlessly slot into Barça’s frontline – partly down to Lautaro’s compatriot and, more specifically, where he plays.
Lionel Messi may turn 33 before the start of the next campaign, but La Liga’s top scorer and top assister this season has only shown signs of dipping below his stratospheric standards, rather than entering the realm of mere mortals.
The concern for Lautaro is that he will fall foul of the same fate as many other Barcelona centre forwards over the years. Namely, pushed out wide for Messi to play through the middle.
Of course, Barcelona’s number ten hasn’t exclusively been fielded in a central role – alongside Luis Suárez and Neymar he was nominally the right winger of Barça’s fabled ‘MSN’ attacking trident, with his Uruguayan teammate through the middle. But Suárez was the arguably the first of a long line of forwards afforded this role.
The latest to suffer the consequences of placating Messi has been Antoine Griezmann. The proven La Liga goalscorer hasn’t exactly set the world alight in his first campaign since arriving for north of £100m in the summer. If he had, Barcelona wouldn’t be so blatantly pursuing Lautaro.
Even in Suárez’s absence this season – following a severe knee injury in January – Griezmann hasn’t strictly been given licence to attack through the middle. Instead, the Frenchman has often found himself drifting wide on the left, with Diego Simeone’s deeply embedded defensive drills compelling him to help his full-back out of possession.
However, Griezmann is not the first, or even the most high profile, name to be pushed to the flanks in a bid to at times appease but largely get the best out of Messi.
As early as his teenage days in the youth team Messi has expressed a desire to play in the middle. When asked his favoured position he simply replied, ‘enganche’ – literally, ‘hook’ – the Argentinian term for a number ten.
Various coaches at youth and senior level had at times fielded Messi centrally but he was largely a winger before Pep Guardiola deployed him in the fabled ‘false nine’ position – dropping deep from a centre forward’s role to outnumber the opposition in midfield.
At first he wasn’t always played there but when he was, it saw the likes of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o cast to the flanks. Two extraordinary forwards who, perhaps in any other team, would have lead the line with distinction.
The most famous case of this positional dilemma was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A classic striker who looked awkward anywhere wider than the width of the posts, Ibrahimovic blames Guardiola’s placation of Messi (and Guardiola’s character on the whole) for his single season disappointment at the Camp Nou, explaining: “Messi wanted to play centre forward and he got his way.”
The seemingly quietly-spoken Messi was the driving force behind the tactical switch, privately going to Guardiola and imploring his manager to ‘stick the others out wide’.
This advice was largely adhered to and Ibrahimovic was swiftly replaced with the man who had been central (quite literally) to Spain’s World Cup triumph that summer. Yet, despite being promised a central role, David Villa ultimately found himself on the left of Barcelona’s front three with Pedro the other side of Messi as Barcelona became one of the greatest club sides in the history of European football.
The team, and Messi, were able to truly thrive with players flexible enough to coalesce around the magisterial number ten. In his season and a half of European football – a worryingly small sample size which should also be cause for concern – Lautaro has provided little evidence that he could play out wide.
However, that’s not to say it’s out of the 22-year-old’s skill set. He’s formed a formidable front pairing alongside Romelu Lukaku at Inter this season, with the duo plundering 39 goals between them. And Ernesto Valverde (the Barcelona coach replaced by the incumbent Quique Setién) had experimented with a 4-4-2.
But should Barcelona even be going for a player who would need to alter their game? Why not buy someone who is a wide player rather than someone who can play out wide? Perhaps the answer to that lies in the uncertainty of Messi’s future.
After a turbulent campaign which has seen dirty laundry continually aired between the club and their captain, Messi could, in theory, leave Camp Nou at the end of the season for free given the ludicrous clause willingly inserted into his contract by the club.
Perhaps the question isn’t really whether Lautaro would fit in the same team as Messi, but whether he can be the spearhead of a side in the great man’s absence.