Finding an identity in the post-Lionel Messi era was always going to be difficult for Barcelona. It would be unjust and untrue to say the Argentine became bigger than the club, but he was certainly the glue that kept everything together as the crippling financial reality began to take hold.
The fact Messi was forced to depart because Barcelona couldn’t afford to pay him has been forgotten far too easily. That should have been a seminal moment for modern football, a line in the sand to stop it thrusting itself into more turmoil. Barcelona were really on the brink of a catastrophe before “pulling financial leavers” to balance themselves. They had a choice of their next direction, knowing that without major surgery to their first team squad, they may fall irreparably behind their rivals. Their choice was a bigger risk, adding a string of talented players for big money, banking that they could reduce their astronomical debt by continuing to challenge at the top.
None of those signings made in the summer of 2022, a year after Messi’s exit, were bigger than Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker was arguably the best striker in the world and wanted to leave Bayern Munich having helped them win eight Bundesliga titles and, in 2020, the Champions League. Having helped Bayern to a stunning 8-2 win over Barcelona in the semi-final of the heavily COVID-impacted end to that tournament, he really should have won the Ballon d’Or, but the impact of the pandemic meant the award was rather harshly void that season.
He had made no secret that he’d done all he could at Bayern and wanted to move to Spain. Barcelona made sense; replacing Messi was always going to be an impossible task, but the only way they could even attempt it was to bring in a similarly talismanic figure. Lewandowski guarantees goals, and he certainly started with real intent, scoring 17 goals in as many games last season, before going on to add another league title to his collection.
But things aren’t going as well as the stats suggest. Lewandowski has not had the same impact this season, with just two goals in his last seven games and a huge chance missed in the win over Atletico Madrid at the weekend. The difficulty for Barcelona is their playing style is not overly defined, and at 35, perhaps Lewandowski is lacking the mobility needed to reach the levels of fluidity and intensity that Xavi demands.
Xavi is Barcelona through and through; a fan and, crucially, a believer in Johan Cruyff’s ‘total football’ principles. He was brought in to help a drifting club regain its identity, but he has faced issues with implementing it, publicly questioning whether he has the players to play the way he wants. Whichever way you look at that, it doesn’t reflect well on him, but given how intelligent Messi was, attempting to recreate that style, which peaked with him in attack and Xavi in midfield, it is a tough job to try and maintain that DNA without the man who defined it more than anyone else.
In November, Xavi said that Lewandowski wasn’t being “looked after” by his teammates and the movement wasn’t right around him. But Barcelona don’t seem to have settled on a way of playing that gets the best out of him and simultaneously adheres to the club’s philosophy. Perhaps, because he is getting older, the two things just aren’t compatible anymore.
With Victor Roque coming in and expected to make a big impact in years to come, and more suitable options for a more fluid attack like Lamine Yamal and Joao Felix available, could it really be the end for him?
Maybe, but it is worth remembering that form is temporary and class is permanent. Lewandowski should never be entirely written off.