Lionel Messi was almost unrecognisable and so were Barcelona as a rare defeat by Atletico Madrid on Saturday cast further doubt over the direction of the Ronald Koeman project.
Atletico had not beaten Barca in the league since 2010, their 1-0 win at the Wanda Metropolitano a timely affirmation that they are contenders and arguably now favourites to win La Liga.
For Barca sitting 12th, albeit with a game or two in hand over some of those above them, the immediate blow of a third league defeat in eight games was compounded by a knee ligament injury to Gerard Pique, which leaves Koeman with only one fit central defender.
But perhaps more concerning is the sense that Koeman’s Barcelona appear already to be stalling, devoid of either a clear identity or renewed enthusiasm, both of which might have been expected to follow the appointment of a new coach.
“Like any coach, I am responsible,” said Koeman on Saturday. “We have to improve the results. We have to improve defensively and in attack and after that I can’t do anything more.”
It was almost a year ago that Ernesto Valverde was sacked mid-season with the team top of the table, both a jolt reaction to stodgy performances and a delayed one after historical Champions League failure.
His replacement Quique Setien arrived with a purist approach believed to be consistent with Barca’s DNA and for a while there were signs of it, only for results to dive and another split become unavoidable.
But Koeman’s first four months have brought neither the pragmatism to grind out results nor the imagination to impose a style that dominates opponents or endures through adversity.
Atletico absorbed a handful of chances late on but the onslaught never came and as Barca chased an equaliser, they grew more desperate, the lack of a plan – or at least their belief in one – becoming more and more apparent.
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The result feels like a season already set to be consigned to a period of transition, even if Barcelona’s starting line-up against Atletico had only two new players and just three aged younger than 25.
– Koeman in the hot seat –
Koeman may be renovating but what team in the world would not find space for the likes of Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Frenkie de Jong, Jordi Alba, Pique and Marc-Andre ter Stegen?
There has certainly been a glance to the future, with the emergence of Pedri, who started against Atletico, and Sergino Dest and Francisco Trincao, who came on.
There has been a new formation too, a shift to 4-2-3-1, with De Jong as a pivot and Griezmann, and Messi, playing more central.
Yet change needs commitment and leadership, with one of Koeman’s biggest problems the drift of his captain.
When Messi ran beyond Atletico’s defence in the first half onto a pass from Alba, like he has done so many times before, the expectation was he would fire early past Jan Oblak, even from an acute angle.
Instead, he hesitated, looking up for a pass inside, before a tame finish rolled straight into the hands of the goalkeeper.
At full-time, Messi was among a number of senior players that could have taken responsibility for the team’s post-match media duties but instead it was the 17-year-old Pedri in front of the cameras, just as Dest had spoken after the loss last month to Real Madrid.
Messi’s efforts on the pitch cannot be questioned but he also looks increasingly burdened playing for Barcelona, with the enjoyment seemingly gone and the buzz lost ever since his failed attempt to leave.
“I’m fed up being the problem with everything that goes on at this club,” said the frustrated 33-year-old on Wednesday, when questioned by reporters about his relationship with Griezmann, after a 15-hour flight back from Peru.
If Koeman does not inspire Messi, perhaps someone else will given a new club president in January could mean a new coach, either immediately or next summer, when Messi himself could walk away for free.
Every change will bring fresh upheaval. Koeman’s transition could be the first of many.
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