This article was published before Barcelona's defeat Bayern on Tuesday, September 14
Replacing the irreplaceable is, by definition, impossible. It is also the task for Barcelona as life after Lionel Messi begins.
It is rendered tougher by the reality that they could not spend.
If they face the question as to whether they can regain La Liga without Messi, who topped the division’s charts for both goals and assists last season, the reality is they have only become champions of Europe once without him playing any kind of part: in 1992, when Ronald Koeman was the player who got the final winner, not the manager charged with designing a masterplan that does not involve their greatest player.
So Messi leaves a huge void as their European campaign begins. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has more Champions League goals than the Argentinian, with 120. But his return of 0.81 per appearance is the best of any player with at least 35 goals since Gerd Muller. He has been top scorer in the competition six times, even if four were in consecutive campaigns under Pep Guardiola.
Last season, Messi’s average of 1.05 goals per 90 minutes was the best in the competition. However, four of those five goals were penalties; not since 2006-07 had Messi only mustered one non-penalty goal in the Champions League. Since he was the top scorer in 2018-19, he has only mustered eight goals in the competition. He was only Barcelona’s second highest scorer in 2019-20 in the competition: but behind Luis Suarez, who has also left.
Indeed, in consecutive summers, Barcelona have offloaded two players other than Messi with a combined 51 Champions League goals, in Suarez and Antoine Griezmann. It is offset by the arrival of Sergio Aguero, who has 41 and who scored in the competition in each of his 10 seasons at Manchester City.
Those 41 goals – the first five were for Atletico Madrid - came at a healthy average of one per 125 minutes, compared to Messi’s Champions League average of one every 102. However, only one of them came in the quarter-finals or later; Messi scored 20 at such stages, albeit in more successful teams.
Another newcomer at least has an encouraging recent record: Lyon were not in last season’s Champions League but in 2019-20 Memphis Depay scored six goals, averaging 0.92 per 90 minutes on the pitch and finding the net with 21 percent of his non-penalty shots. Depay’s six goals then came from an xG of 3.5, whereas Messi has underperformed his expected goals in the last two seasons.
Depay also brings a different kind of Champions League pedigree: in 2018-19, he averaged 5.71 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. It put him 11th in the competition, with his new (if injured) team-mate Ousmane Dembele (6.74) fifth. Messi was third.
Depay provided more key passes than Messi that season, though the Argentinian’s 42 successful balls into the penalty area was nine more than anyone else. He has topped that category in each of the last three seasons.
And, of course, Barcelona have not just lost a scorer. Messi’s 36 Champions League assists puts him second (to Ronaldo, inevitably) in history. It amounts to an average of one every 342 minutes.
Arguably, however, he has become more creative of late. He averaged 9.33 shot creating actions per 90 minutes in last season’s Champions League; as the next best was 6.11, it was off the charts. No other Barcelona player was in the top 23.
But Dembele was 24th at 4.24 and it is notable that two of Barcelona’s worst signings actually have fine numbers in the Champions League. Dembele averaged a goal every 138 minutes in 2018-19 and one every 127 last season.
Philippe Coutinho has shown he can both score and create. The Brazilian averaged 0.52 goals and 0.52 assists per 90 with Bayern Munich in their 2019-20 Champions League-winning campaign, when his average of shot-creating actions per 90 (5.72) was actually higher than Messi’s. With Liverpool in 2017-18 (albeit only the group stages, as he was then sold), he averaged 1.30 goals and 0.52 assists per 90 minutes. Messi’s best average was of 1.29 goals per 90, in 2018-19.
Admittedly, Coutinho’s finest form in the competition has come in the colours of other clubs. However, Jordi Alba got the joint most assists in 2018-19, with five, at an average of 0.45 per 90 minutes. The Spaniard has tended to be the competition’s most creative left-back in recent seasons.
In some respects, however, Messi was unparalleled. He had more than twice as many successful dribbles as any current Barcelona player in the Champions League in both 2018-19 and 2019-20.
In others, Barcelona may hope the combined contributions of others can compensate. The issue is that they are either a small sample size – Martin Braithwaite averages a goal every 78 minutes and Ansu Fati 7.52 shot-creating actions per 90, but both from a handful of games – or at other clubs, sometimes before their fortunes declined at the Nou Camp.
But if players such as Aguero, Alba, Coutinho, Dembele and Depay could repeat their past exploits, the numbers might stack up for Barcelona.
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