It’s an undesired reality for any sane Blaugrana supporter, but there will be a Barcelona after Lionel Messi.
For now, the Argentinian talisman isn’t going anywhere, though, in the interim, Barcelona will be without Messi after he broke the radial bone in his right arm during Sunday’s pivotal table-topping victory over Sevilla. With Messi ruled out for “approximately three weeks,” the Catalan giants face the prospects of an El Clasico clash with nemesis Real Madrid bookended by continental soirees.
Manager Ernesto Valverde’s squad rotation habits have become a point of contention this season at Barcelona. Usually dependable veteran pieces have flirted with atypical drops in form and summer signings struggle to homogenize with the Gala XI, and with a spell that saw the club drop seven points in a six-day span ahead of the recent international hiatus, Valverde’s year-and-change reign at the Camp Nou has come into question.
With Messi out for Wednesday’s visit from Inter, Valverde’s squad selection will again be under the spotlight, and with a slew of options at the manager’s disposal, here’s a look at three potential lineups Barcelona could field for the midweek Champions League tilt:
Artistry in attack: 4-3-3
If Valverde fancies besting Inter with pace and panache, he could do worse than stick to a 4-3-3 that features Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho on the left of a three-man midfield alongside usual anchors Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. Coutinho’s versatility and ability to acclimate to the role previously held by Andres Iniesta makes this formation click.
The manager typically elects for this kind of setup for home matches against sides short in possession like he did in the 8-2 bludgeoning of SD Huesca and the Champions League victory over PSV Eindhoven. With Messi out, rarely used July addition Malcom lays claim to a spot on the right opposite Ousmane Dembele.
Pros: Elegant and proficient in attack.
Cons: Dearth of two-way support on the flanks, especially out left.
Midfield monopoly: 4-3-3
This version of the 4-3-3 amounts to a safer pick for the under-fire manager. Coutinho slides forward as Dembele moves out right to take Messi’s spot, sandwiching out-of-form Luis Suarez. With Rakitic and Busquets both displaying the early signs of late-career physical declines, summer signing Arthur’s insertion into the three-man midfield would add some much-needed agility.
Out-of-favour purveyor of mohawks and timely tackles Arturo Vidal could also add a spark to the midfield, though it’s doubtful Valverde will play both Arthur and the Chilean international in a three-man unit at the expense of Rakitic. Barcelona used a version of this at Tottenham, in which Messi starred in a 4-2 victory.
Pros: Balanced and likely to dominate possession in the midfield.
Cons: Taking Coutinho, who likes to dart inside, out of his natural position could create holes.
Balanced Blaugrana: 4-4-2
After turning Barcelona into a defensively shrewd side in his first season in charge, Valverde has witnessed a worrying trend of wastefully conceding goals. After allowing a scant .75 goals per match last season in the league, Barcelona have shipped 1.2 per match during the opening nine fixtures of La Liga’s 2018-19 offering, and without Messi’s certain scoring, Valverde may swap his preferred 4-3-3 for a 4-4-2 more commonly employed last season.
Valverde opted for the 4-4-2 in a league-opening victory over Alaves for which he selected the above starting XI. Messi registered two goals in the spot occupied by Coutinho in this scheme. The right-back tandem of Roberto and Nelson Semedo share the right flank, with the former tasked with providing wide service for Suarez.
Pros: Defensively rigid with potentially expansive width.
Cons: Flat-footed pairing Busquets and Rakitic could be exposed if Dembele and Roberto push too high up the pitch.