The Catalans’ form has changed significantly since the beginning of the season, thanks mainly to their Argentine talisman and coach Ronald Koeman.
It’s almost as if Lionel Messi and Barcelona made a New Year’s vow to become great again.
A dismal 1-1 draw with Eibar after Christmas looked to have ended the club’s championship aspirations, but the Catalans have earned 34 points from 36 in La Liga since the turn of the year, relentlessly narrowing the gap on faltering leaders Atletico Madrid to four points.
Messi, back on top as the best player in the world and on a phenomenal run of form, and coach Ronald Koeman, following a rocky start to life in charge of his former club, have been pivotal in that run.
Barcelona began the season in disarray, already licking their wounds from an 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich in August and Messi’s offer to leave. A draw with Sevilla, a toothless loss at Getafe, and a Clasico defeat at home to Real Madrid demonstrated that this was a side that required a lot of effort.
Barcelona drew at Alaves before losing to championship contender Atletico Madrid, exposing the team’s flaws once more. The defeat in Cadiz was humiliating, and it was followed by a 3-0 Camp Nou thrashing by Juventus, who finished second in their Champions League table.
Despite criticism, Koeman declined to change his 4-2-3-1 formation, but he used a 4-3-3 against Levante in a 1-0 victory on December 13. It was a tentative move forward, but it was significant because it signalled a turning point in Koeman’s thought. He will become more likely to change his formation, with a 3-5-2 providing the best performances for the club in 2021.
Messi has been the pivotal shift, but Koeman’s management and the green shoots emerging at Camp Nou have also played a role in Messi’s rehabilitation.
Messi also sees Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza, and Ilaix Moriba come in from Barca B, indicating that the club’s future is promising. Koeman, charged with rejuvenating an ageing and fragmented squad, has positioned his confidence in youth, and they have reacted admirably.
Players like Miralem Pjanic have been pushed to the sidelines, regardless of their standing in the league, because Koeman feels that the youngsters will provide more now and in the future.
Despite his scant time at the club, scouting La Masia talent is a selfless choice on behalf of a club he adores.
The coach gave Messi the time and space he needed to clear his head, never placing too much pressure on him when singling out others such as Antoine Griezmann and his midfield favourite Frenkie de Jong.
Messi continued to reflect on what he knew best once he began to trust in the players around him.
He wasn’t trying in the first half of the season because he wasn’t trying, but because he was distracted and hurting, trying and unable to regain his best form. Since January and a reset, a break from football, he has come into view and is almost invincible at times.
“We’re going to try and convince him to stay because he’s the best ever and, forgive me for this Leo, but I love you and Barca loves you, too,”
“I’m sure you couldn’t quit if this stadium was packed.”
Messi says he will not make a decision about his future before the end of the season, but if he has two more cups in his collection, young and hungry teammates by his side, a president he likes, and eventually yes a project, leaving could not be as appealing as it was last summer.