Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets admitted the embattled LaLiga giants needed to beat Espanyol after the Xavi era opened with a 1-0 victory in Saturday's derby.

Xavi's first match in charge resulted in three points against city rivals Espanyol at Camp Nou, where Memphis Depay's 48th-minute penalty settled the contest.

Barca have struggled this season, leading to the sacking of Ronald Koeman and prompting the return of club great Xavi, who had been in charge of Qatari outfit Al-Sadd.

Reflecting on the result, which saw Barca move within eight points of top spot before Real Madrid's fixture at Granada on Sunday, Busquets welcomed the win.

"We needed this victory for the team to continue to grow and regain our confidence. We have a new coach, a new philosophy and we will find a way up," Busquets said.

"I think generally we played well. I think the scoreline is a bit tight. They had some great chances, any team can cause you problems but we needed the win."

 

Barca have not lost any of their last 23 matches against Espanyol in LaLiga (W18 D5), keeping 17 clean sheets in those games, their longest unbeaten streak against the Periquitos in the competition.

At home, Barca have won their last 12 meetings against Espanyol in LaLiga, after winning just one of their previous five (D3 L1), since a 1-2 defeat in February 2009, in a match that featured Gerard Pique, Busquets and Xavi in the Blaugrana side.

"We need to believe, to regain confidence, little by little we will get better, with new ideas, a new philosophy, and we will find a way up," Busquets added.

"Right now we have a group of youngsters helping us. It's really important to have this young blood, especially right now because of the financial situation and we can't make many signings."

Depay has won three penalties in LaLiga this season, becoming the Barcelona player with the most penalties earned in a single season in the competition since Luis Suarez in 2018-19 (also three). Since 2005-06, only Neymar has won more in the same campaign in LaLiga for Barcelona (eight).

Barca's Depay has scored in each of his last three games in LaLiga (three goals), his best run in the top five European leagues since March-April 2018 (six games for Lyon – seven goals).

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's future is in doubt as Manchester United continue to struggle.

United were outclassed effortlessly by neighbours Manchester City in Saturday's Premier League derby.

Struggling for form, Solskjaer could pay the price at Old Trafford.

 

TOP STORY – SOLSKJAER SET FOR AXE?

Manchester United are considering the departure of under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to the Daily Mail.

Manchester City eased past United 2-0 in the Premier League derby showdown at Old Trafford, where Solskjaer's side were left sixth and nine points off the pace.

There are reports of a player revolt as Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo grow frustrated with life in Manchester.

Zinedine Zidane and Ajax boss Erik ten Hag have been linked as possible replacements.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato claims Real Madrid and Newcastle United are interested in Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. The Egypt international, who is contracted to Liverpool until 2023, is keen to sign a new deal at Anfield.

City are weighing up a move for Juventus and Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, says El Nacional. De Ligt has also been linked with Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United.

Karim Benzema is open to joining Paris Saint-Germain should Madrid sign Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, per El Nacional. Benzema has reportedly snubbed a move to Newcastle, while Haaland has been linked with City, United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, PSG, Chelsea and Juve.

Gerard PiqueSergio BusquetsSergi Roberto and Jordi Alba will be allowed to leave Barca under new head coach Xavi, according to El Nacional. Fabrizio Romano adds Xavi will look to re-sign Pablo Gavi and Ousmane Dembele.

- Calciomercato claims Atletico Madrid are interested in Udinese's Nahuel Molina, who is also wanted by Inter.

Barcelona threw away a three-goal lead to underline the issues faced by new coach Xavi as Iago Aspas' last-gasp strike secured a 3-3 draw for Celta Vigo.

Blaugrana legend Xavi was named as the new coach earlier on Saturday, but interim boss Sergi Barjuan remained in charge for the trip to Balaidos and Barca appeared to be cruising to victory after first-half goals from Ansu Fati, Sergio Busquets and Memphis Depay.

Yet an injury to Fati on the cusp of half-time dented the visitors' confidence, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen's error gifted Aspas a goal to spur Celta on.

Nolito headed home in the 74th minute to set up a grandstand finale and just as it seemed Barca had survived the onslaught, Aspas curled in with the last kick of the game. 

Fati's quality was on show from the off, and he did brilliantly to keep his balance and curl a wonderful finish between two defenders and over Matias Dituro.

Barca's second came from a more unlikely source – Busquets curling a superb finish into the bottom-right corner from 20 yards out – before Depay made it three with an excellent header from Jordi Alba's cross.

Fati's game was cut short just shy of half-time, the winger pulling up and clutching his left thigh after trying to race clear of Celta's defence.

The offside flag came to Barca's rescue when Thiago Galhardo slotted in, though there was no such reprieve two minutes later as Ter Stegen fumbled Javi Galan's effort, with Aspas on hand to tuck in.

Hit by injuries to Eric Garcia and Nico Gonzalez, Barca wilted, with Nolito seeing a goal disallowed for handball before he directed a brilliant header beyond Ter Stegen.

Frenkie de Jong hit the crossbar as Barca tried to put the game out of reach, but it was to no avail and, in the 96th minute, Aspas found the bottom-right corner to snatch a share of the spoils and leave Xavi with plenty to ponder.

Pedri has thanked Ronald Koeman for giving him his breakthrough at Camp Nou and says he "will always be grateful" to the former Barcelona head coach.

Barca confirmed the departure of Koeman on Wednesday shortly after a 1-0 loss to Rayo Vallecano that leaves them ninth in LaLiga with 10 games played.

The Dutchman lasted just 14 months in the job after replacing Quique Setien in August 2020, during which time he won just 58.21 per cent of his 67 games in charge. 

Koeman had more success when it came to nurturing young players into the first-team fold, though, with Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza and Pedri breaking through last season.

And with Barca's financial issues well-documented, Koeman made further use of the academy this term by giving Alejandro Balde, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez and Yusuf Demir chances.

None of those players have had as big an impact as Pedri, who made the fourth-most appearances under Koeman (56 games), despite this season's injury issues.

Pedri's form last season saw him rewarded with a call-up to the Spain squad ahead of Euro 2020, where he started all six of his country's matches in their run to the semi-finals.

After a memorable 12 months for club and country, the 18-year-old has personally thanked Koeman for giving him a chance to shine.

"I'm sorry things didn't turn out the way we wanted, mister," he posted on his personal Instagram account on Thursday. 

"I will always be grateful to him for everything he has done for me: for giving me his trust from the first moment and for the opportunity to fulfil my dream at Barcelona.

"I wish you the best both personally and professionally."

 

Sergio Busquets was the most used played during Koeman's tenure, featuring 63 times in total – one more than Frenkie de Jong – with 56 of those being starts.

The experienced midfielder also paid tribute to his departing boss on social media on Thursday, posting: "Thanks for everything, mister. Good luck in the future."

Koeman's win percentage is the lowest of all coaches to have taken charge of Barca since Pep Guardiola left in 2012, the next lowest being Setien (64 per cent).

The 58-year-old is also the only Barca boss to average fewer than two points per game in LaLiga (1.96 PPG), again comfortably behind the next worst in Setien (2.21 PPG).

Barca announced on Thursday that Sergi Barjuan will take interim charge while a permanent successor for Koeman – expected to be club great Xavi – is found.

Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets believes his side deserved more after losing 2-1 to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season 2-1 on Sunday.

David Alaba and Lucas Vazquez gave Madrid a 2-0 lead before Sergio Aguero grabbed a late consolation for Barca deep into added time.

The defeat was Barca's fourth consecutive Clasico defeat across all competitions - their longest losing run in the fixture since seven losses in a row between April 1962 and February 1965.

Busquets, 33, felt that the Blaugrana should not have ended up on the losing side, but were undone by conceding the first goal.

"They got it right in the first part and we didn't," Busquets said to Barca TV post-match. "We knew they were going to let us have the ball but they had speed with Rodrigo and Vinicius.

"In a team with these characteristics, when you lose the ball it is difficult to recover. And they have scored a goal in a kick, not in a play. That changes the game completely. I don't think we deserved to lose, but that's football.

"When there are games of these characteristics, the one who scores first has the advantage. In the second half, we had possession and control, but we had not made clear chances."

Busquets refused to blame the referee for the result and insisted that Barca remain positive despite being five points behind the top three.

"Yes, I have seen [the controversial incidents], but it does not matter," Busquets continued. "The referee has been good in general lines and I am not going to respond to the controversies.

"A small gap [in the table] is opening but I think we are growing little by little. Now we are going to recover Ousmane who will give us things in attack. We have to continue."

Barca head coach Ronald Koeman - who has now lost five games against Real Madrid (three) and Atletico Madrid (two), as many as in the previous nine seasons in the competition - agreed with his veteran midfielder, insisting that his men played well but that going behind allowed their opponents to play on the break.

"It is always difficult to understand a result like this because we made merits to have another result, especially in the first half," Koeman said. 

"It depended on a very clear chance to have 1-0 and instead, they scored 0-1, then it was complicated because they defended the result and we knew that is very dangerous.

"The crowd was phenomenal until the last second, we tried but we didn't get the result we wanted. We were good in the first half. We had a lot of ball possession."

Jules Kounde is seemingly bound to eventually move to the Premier League.

But where will the French centre-back land?

Manchester United and Chelsea are both believed to be interested.

 

TOP STORY – ANOTHER DEFENDER SET FOR OLD TRAFFORD?

Manchester United are in the race to sign star Sevilla defender Jules Kounde, according to Fichajes.

Kounde was tipped to join Champions League holders Chelsea but a transfer did not materialise before the end of the previous window, much to the frustration of the player.

Despite the arrival of Raphael Varane, United are reportedly set to make a move for the France international centre-back.

 

ROUND-UP

- The front page of Wednesday's Diario AS claims Real Madrid have re-activated their interest in United star Paul Pogba, who will become a free agent at the end of the season. A deal for Pogba would reportedly provide further encouragement for Kylian Mbappe in their pursuit of the Paris Saint-Germain forward.

- Corriere dello Sport claims PSG and Atletico Madrid want Nicolo Barella as his contract talks with Serie A champions Inter stall.

- The Express reports United are considering a move for Monaco and France sensation Aurelien Tchouameni, who is also attracting interest from Madrid, LiverpoolChelsea and Juventus.

Barcelona will sell Sergio Busquets in order to sign Milan's Franck Kessie, says El Nacional. Kessie is out of contract at the end of the season and the star midfielder has been linked with United, PSG, Liverpool, Arsenal and Inter. The front page of Wednesday's Mundo Deportivo, meanwhile, reports Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana, Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger and Pogba are among several soon-to-be free agents being eyed by Barca.

- Le10 Sport claims PSG could join the race for Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic, who is seen as a potential replacement for Madrid target Mbappe. Vlahovic has been linked with Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Juve, Inter, Arsenal and Liverpool. PSG are also believed to be interested in Borussia Dortmund's sought-after forward Erling Haaland.

Luis Enrique lauded Spain "pillar" Sergio Busquets after his exploits in the country's trophy-less Nations League Finals campaign.

Spain fell short in Sunday's Nations League final, beaten 2-1 by reigning world champions France at San Siro in Milan.

Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe cancelled out Mikel Oyarzabal's 64th-minute opener and while Spain were left emptyhanded, veteran captain Busquets produced another impressive display in the middle of the nation's rebuilding project.

Busquets provided his 10th assist for Spain and first since November 2019 having teed up Oyarzabal, while the 33-year-old captain led the team in tackles (four) and total duels (17) after finishing with a 92.2 per cent passing accuracy – only bettered by Eric Garcia for La Roja.

"Busquets has been named the best player of the tournament. That says a lot about his level. He's vital for us. He's the captain, but not only that," Luis Enrique said during his post-match news conference.

"He's also somebody who gives some values off the pitch and on the pitch. He gives you calmness, quietness. He's our pillar on which our defensive and attacking game are based.

"How much we've won, I don't know, but I know we were able to win against the European champions and play almost evenly with the world champions, so for the players and the team, that is all good.

"And of course, every time it will be more difficult for me to make the next selection, and that is good for me and good for us. The important thing is the team maintains its personality and will to win."

Spain ended the decider with 63.9 per cent possession and 624 passes, compared to France's 354 total passes.

Luis Enrique's Spain were left to rue a missed opportunity, having lost to eventual champions Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

"Nothing was missing. It was a shame that once we scored that opening goal, that France went up the other end. It was a shame to concede when we just scored, because that's when France were at their weakest. That's the only regret we can have," the former Barcelona boss added.

"What are we missing? We're not missing anything at all. We still need to keep that same confidence, and we need to try press ahead with what we've been doing." 

"As usual, no matter who we're playing against, Spain will always play its game," Luis Enrique said. "Sometimes we play a bit better than other times, but that's normal. But I think all fans would agree that Spain always plays the same way. No matter where, no matter against whom. So I am satisfied with what I have seen this tournament."

Sacking Ronald Koeman would be the easy way out for Barcelona, with Sergio Busquets calling on the players to take responsibility for their "critical situation". 

Barcelona were on the receiving end of a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Benfica in the Champions League on Wednesday, meaning they have lost their first two matches of a European campaign for only the second time in their history. 

Darwin Nunez put Benfica in front after just three minutes at the Estadio da Luz and the Uruguayan added a second from the penalty spot after Rafa Silva doubled the Portuguese side's advantage in the second half.

Barca finished the game with 10 men after Eric Garcia was shown a second yellow card for a foul on Goncalo Ramos. The Catalan giants have now lost four of their past five Champions League games, conceding 14 goals in the process. 

Calls for Koeman to be relieved of his duties will surely intensify after another disappointing result, but Busquets believes the fault does not lie solely with him. 

"It's the easiest thing in the world of football [to sack the coach], but the responsibility also belongs to the players. We are in a critical situation," Busquets told Movistar. 

"We have zero points. You have to think about moving upwards because there is no other option. 

"We have to win both games against Dynamo Kiev and see what the other teams do. There is a lot left [to play for] and we have to try to be positive." 

Frenkie de Jong made his 100th Barca appearance in the meeting with Benfica and despite the shock defeat does not think getting rid of Koeman would turn the club's fortunes around. 

"I can't talk about Koeman, it's not for me. I don't think changing the coach can solve anything," he said. 

"We are trying everything, working hard in training. We tried our best on the field but today was not the day, that is clear. 

"We have to keep fighting, be together, overcome this situation because you only escape from situations like this when you work hard and are united as a team.  

"We have lost and we have not scored. We are in a very difficult situation. We have to continue and look forward."

Ronald Koeman believes Barcelona have a "unique opportunity" for revenge as they prepare to host Bayern Munich in Tuesday's first round of Champions League matches.

The last time the two teams met, the visitors inflicted Barca's heaviest defeat since April 1951 in an 8-2 thrashing in the 2019-20 Champions League quarter-final.

Bayern have won also each of their last 17 openers in the competition since 2003-04, but Barca are unbeaten in their last 22 such fixtures – a run stretching back to 1997-98.

And Koeman is looking forward to the test against Julian Nagelsmann's side as the Catalan club prepare for their first Champions League campaign since 2003-04 without Lionel Messi, who departed for Paris Saint-Germain in August.

"Tomorrow we have the first Champions League game and we are changing things," Koeman told Monday's pre-match news conference.

"Chelsea won last year and was not among the two or three favourites. We know that Bayern is a great team, with individual quality and experienced people.

"We want to compete in the Champions League and we play at home. We will try to get a good result to start the Champions League.

"It's been more than a year and several players suffered a lot in that game [the 8-2 loss]. We have a unique opportunity. We can hurt Bayern and we have a good team. We have to look for our style to hurt the opposition."

Sergio Busquets started in midfield in the crushing defeat, but he is expecting a different challenge with Nagelsmann at the helm.

"They have a new coach and he will try to play his way," Busquets told reporters. "He has kept the entire squad, except for some who have stayed on the road like Thiago.

"He will surely try to win. What happened was difficult to accept, but the world of football is like that. Time has passed and we are psyched that it will be different."

Asked to discuss his team's Champions League hopes following Messi's departure, the midfielder said: "Anything can happen in football. Chelsea won the Champions League and were not favourites.

"The important thing is the collective level and we know that we do not have Leo [Messi] or his individualities.

"We are here, excited and we are aware of the difficulty, but we have a lot of ambition and we want to win."

Spain captain Sergio Busquets has expressed his concerns at FIFA's proposals to hold the men's and women's World Cups every two years. 

The men's World Cup has taken place every four years since the inaugural edition in 1930, aside from in 1942 or 1946 due to the Second World War, while the women's World Cup has followed suit since it was first staged in 1991. 

Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has been campaigning for the change in his role as the governing body's chief of global football development. 

Meanwhile, the FIFA congress in May saw a vote go heavily in favour of carrying out a feasibility study into the project. 

On Friday, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said the European governing body had "serious reservations and grave concerns" surrounding the concept. 

Busquets has supported those views, expressing his concern for the potential impact the change would have on players. 

"We have little voice. Less and less is looked at by the player," the Barcelona midfielder said. 

"There will come a time when the player is going to explode. I see it as very difficult.  

"You have to sit down and value it. You have to see it from many points of view, not just wanting more." 

Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have followed Gerard Pique in taking pay cuts to allow Barcelona to register Sergio Aguero and reduce financial concerns.

Lionel Messi could not be signed to a new deal because of spiralling costs at the Catalan club and, with no signs of improvement, Barca risked not being able to register new signings Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia and Aguero.

However, after Pique agreed to a salary reduction and deferral of payments, Ronald Koeman's side confirmed they were able to register Depay, Garcia and Rey Manaj.

Alba and Busquets have now, too, agreed to alterations to the terms of their contracts.

Both players will collect reduced wages for this season and deferred payments for the rest of their deals, with also Sergi Roberto reported to be negotiating changes to his terms.

The agreements with Busquets and Alba mean cash-strapped Barca can now register Aguero, who is expected to be out injured until the middle of October, while avoiding complications with financial fair play regulations.

Left-back Alba created the second most chances at the club last term in LaLiga (53), while Busquets led the way for tackles and interceptions while also completing the second most passes.

Gerard Pique says cash-strapped Barcelona's captaincy group are "proud" to take a pay cut after he scored in a 4-2 LaLiga victory over Real Sociedad.

Barca revealed on the eve of the club's opening game of the campaign that Pique had taken a "substantial" reduction in his wages in order for Depay, Eric Garcia and Rey Manaj to be registered.

Pique's gesture ensured the Catalan giants, who were unable to keep Lionel Messi due to their financial troubles, are within the salary cap.

Fellow skippers Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba are also prepared to take a pay cut.

Depay started to repay Pique by setting up the opening goal on his debut and Martin Braithwaite struck twice, with Sergi Roberto completing the scoring after late goals from Julen Lobete and Mikel Oyarzabal gave La Real hope of salvaging an undeserved point at Camp Nou.

Pique criticised the way the club has been run following Messi's departure, but the Spain centre-back was determined to do everything in his powers to ease their problems.

He told LaLiga TV: "I was born here, I was brought up here. I've lived all my life pretty much in Barcelona and I've been a player for Barcelona for a long, long time.

"It was a gesture [to reduce his wages], I think it was the gesture that was required. I'm in contact with the other captains as well. I think they're going to make a very similar step very shortly. I wanted to be the first to get it done.

"We're a family here. All the captains have the same intentions to help the team. It's a decision that we've taken and we're proud of the decision we've taken. There's plenty of desire to keep performing and keep playing well

"I think sometimes people talk a lot and don't understand the situation properly. Right from the end of last season I've been in touch with Sergi Roberto, with Jordi Alba, with Sergio Busquets and it's something that has to be agreed with the club.

"The club needed someone to do this so we could register the players in time for the first game. I was the one that did it but the other players are prepared to do it.

"Sometimes the information that comes out isn't 100 per cent clear. It's not complete. But the club have asked players to make a sacrifice and players are going to do that. All the players have wanted to help the club."

Some Barca fans chanted Messi's name in the 10th minute, although some were not impressed with that gesture.

Pique is confident Ronald Koeman's side can have a season to remember without their leading all-time goalscorer, who joined Paris Saint-Germain after his contract expired.

"We knew the supporters would react the way they've reacted," said Pique. "I'm not going to talk to you about what Lionel Messi means to this club, we all know that. The most important player in the history of this club and the most important player in the history of football.

"But everything changes, nothing stays the same for ever. We have to keep going and I think we've got real quality. I'm convinced we're going to compete for everything this season

"We'll miss Leo, of course we will, but the team has shown in this game that we're all together, we've got goals in the side and despite the fact we were a little bit looser in the second half they didn't create too many chances throughout the game. I think we're going to enjoy ourselves this season."

To paraphrase the apocryphal question asked of Abraham Lincoln's widow, "Aside than that, Mr Laporta, how was the lunch?"

When Lionel Messi jetted into El-Prat last Wednesday, it was to complete the formalities of a long-awaited contract extension that would commit him to the club of his life for the rest of his career.

At least, that's what the six-time Ballon d'Or winner and pretty much everyone else thought until he sat down for lunch with club president Joan Laporta on Thursday. After that, all hell broke loose.

"We had everything agreed but, at the last minute, it couldn't happen," he said at his tearful Sunday news conference, with the rampaging shambles of Barca's financial, internal and political affairs having put paid to the best laid plans.

Messi is now a Paris Saint-Germain player. It will be a jarring thing to type and read for some time, and the claims, counter-claims and recriminations over how Barcelona allowed things to reach this point of collapse will rumble on for some time.

It feels like a barely relevant sidenote that four days on from their greatest ever player addressing the media and being paraded around Paris, Barcelona will host Real Sociedad to begin their LaLiga campaign. What, if anything, can Ronald Koeman and his players salvage from the wreckage?

 

The Barcelona Way

The delayed election campaign that secured Laporta's return to the top job – his initial term between 2003 and 2010 having overseen the transformative tenures of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola – was a fraught one for Koeman.

Victor Font, one of Laporta's rival candidates, pledged to bring in club great Xavi if he was successful, while the eventual winner's support for Koeman was tenuous and conditional at best.

After a chaotic 2019-20 season, where Ernesto Valverde's lamentable sacking cleared the way for Quique Setien to surrender LaLiga to Real Madrid and oversee the humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, Koeman was not a universally popular choice and easily viewed a stop-gap appointment.

Whereas Messi wanted to stay but had to leave this time around, last August he wanted to leave but had to stay – relations with Laporta's predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu having broken down. On the field, the Blaugrana were inevitably a little bit all over the place.

But after a chastening 2-1 loss to Cadiz on December 5, Barcelona and a rejuvenated Messi went 19 games unbeaten in LaLiga. It was almost enough for an unlikely title success, but the run ended with a 2-1 defeat away to Real Madrid on April 10.

Koeman lost both Clasicos and his Barca only took a point from Atletico Madrid, failing to score in either game against the eventual champions. There were heavy Champions League losses to Juventus and PSG, and Koeman's record in big games was and is an obvious concern.

Yet, it was fairly bizarre to see the Dutchman treated with such disregard during the electioneering, which ran parallel to the long undefeated streak. After tinkering with various formations earlier in the season, Koeman had settled upon a 3-4-3 in which his team thrived.

Nevertheless, in May, it was reported by Mundo Deportivo that Laporta demanded Koeman commit to Barca's classic 4-3-3 and brand of football married to the club's traditions. A stay of execution would be dependent upon one of Johan Cruyff's former disciples committing to the Barcelona Way.

Back to the future

Looking at their performances from last season, it is easy enough to spot elements of classical Barcelona in Koeman's side.

They scored the most goals in LaLiga and had the highest expected goals (xG) figure of any team, indicating they cumulatively created a better quality of chances than their rivals.

The way they got to this point was also very Barca.

No side in LaLiga had a higher average sequence time than the Blaugrana's 14.27 seconds, while their average of 5.52 passes per sequence was also a league best. They were the only team to average above five.

In terms of sequences featuring 10 or more passes, they were streets ahead with 910. The next most 10+ pass sequences came from Madrid with 662. As a consequence, Barcelona also ranked top for build-up attacks – open-play sequences of 10 or more passes that end either with a shot or a touch in the opposition box.

Now as then in the glory days of Guardiola, you spend a lot of time chasing the ball against Barcelona.

Pedri enjoyed a breakout campaign so good he's only just been allowed to finish it, shining for Spain at Euro 2020 and the Olympic Games, while the evergreen Sergio Busquets ticked away in his customary style to average 95.52 passes per game. The next best midfielder in LaLiga on that metric was Madrid's Toni Kroos on 85.76.

 

Frenkie de Jong developed a knack of chiming in with some important goals from midfield after the turn of the year, while also showing his versatility by slotting into the back three when injuries and circumstances required.

Consider the presence of Riqui Puig and teenage sensation Gavi and the "take the ball, pass the ball" part of the Cruyffian legacy remains in safe hands, albeit with the fairly large assumption that there remains room for all of them on the accounts.

Pressing concerns

The other key facet of the teams in which Messi rose to his place at the top of the world game was their work without the ball.

Teams being at their most vulnerable in transition is now an accepted reality of the modern game, but Guardiola's Barcelona swarming opponents as soon as they lost the ball altered perceptions of what was required of elite teams in terms of intelligent commitment to the cause.

Barca operated under their six-second rule, which had nothing to do with anybody dropping food on the floor. They attempted to retrieve possession within six seconds of losing it via immediate and intensive pressing. If this was not possible, they would fall back into a defensive shape to guard against opponents now settled in possession and more able to play through the press.

Pressing methods and teams' aptitude in dealing with them have obviously evolved since Barcelona scared the life out of European football a little over a decade ago, but the principles remain. If a team wishes to play a high-possession game with a high defensive line, their defending from the front as to be impeccable.

In 2020-21, Koeman's side were merely quite good in this regard. Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a metric that indicates how well a team presses. The lower the average number of passes an opponent is allowed to make outside the pressing team's defensive third before being met with a defensive action – such as a tackle, interception or a foul – the better the press.

Barca's 10.6 PPDA put them sixth best in LaLiga last season, below Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Getafe and Real Betis. Although they scored the most goals from high turnovers (seven), this can be attributed to the sharp finishing of Messi and others, as their 37 shot-ending high turnovers were only the eighth highest.

They are not numbers that suggest Laporta's fantasy of seeing a whirring 4-3-3 back in motion is one grounded in reality. By comparison, Luis Enrique's "MSN" Barca of 2014-15 averaged a staggering 7.0 PPDA. Had Messi remained, his capacity to do this sort of work is diminished, but that is now a puzzle for Mauricio Pochettino to solve.

Messi's great friend Sergio Aguero is one of the attacking reinforcements, although a calf injury means he will be sidelined for 10 weeks. If the masterful Argentina striker's body still allowed him to press with suitable intensity, he would probably still be with Guardiola at Manchester City.

 

Memphis Depay is fit to start the new season and some of the onus will fall upon the Netherlands international to sharpen Barca up a little.

He comes from a Lyon side who forced more shot-ending high turnovers than any other in Ligue 1 last season (62), while his 25 instances of winning possession back in the final third placed him joint fifth among forwards in the French top-flight. 

Antoine Griezmann won the ball 24 times deep in opposition territory last term in LaLiga, alongside 37 tackles and 100 recoveries, all of which were highs among Barca forward. He and Depay could certainly prove a useful nuisance in tandem.

Getting on with the job

Of course, it is not entirely certain Barcelona will be able to register Depay with LaLiga in time to face Real Sociedad, such is their parlous financial state.

Laporta claims this will not be a problem. But then, he said he'd re-sign Messi and essentially ran for election on a pledge he spectacularly failed to fulfil.

If it turns out Barca passed up on Messi because they decided to reject LaLiga's deal with CVC Capital Partners and its associated cash injection in favour of remaining in cahoots with Real Madrid and Florentino Perez's doomed Super League project, it's unlikely holding Laporta to account over whether or not Koeman plays 4-3-3 will be the top of anyone's agenda. It should be noted Madrid president Perez said it was "impossible" for him to have had such an influence, in response to allegations levelled by former Espai Barca Commission member Jaume Llopis.

One of the major reservations surrounding Koeman's appointment was whether he was the man to win Messi more Champions Leagues, with the clock ticking on the great man's career.

 

This might feel like an absurd grasp for positives and Koeman would be better off if the greatest player of all time was in his squad, but he is at least without one of the big over-arching narratives that Barca have specialised in both constructing and crushing themselves with over recent years.

Valverde was saddled with "only" winning LaLiga as European glory painfully slipped away. If Koeman can wrest back domestic control in these conditions, it would be recognised as a brilliant achievement in its own right. The atmosphere among fans back in Camp Nou might be perilous in the initial post-Messi weeks, but a few wins will place a defiant siege mentality within reach.

Since Cruyff was appointed head coach in 1988, this will be the first season without the late Dutch master, Guardiola or Messi – those three giants of the modern Barcelona – having any active association with the club. It is time for an institution on its knees to let go and turn the page.

Koeman put together a team that functioned well amid considerable turbulence last season and should be allowed to improve upon that template with the fine players that still remain, free from any Mes Que Un Club self-flagellation as Laporta tends to the dumpster fire he inherited and chucked a vat of petrol all over last week.

Sergio Busquets insists Barcelona are "looking to compete on all fronts" despite club legend Lionel Messi departing.

Messi was expected to sign a new contract but financial complications at Barca left the forward no option but to leave, with Busquets now assuming the captaincy role.

Prior to Sunday's Joan Gamper Trophy clash, the 33-year-old took the opportunity to reassure the Blaugrana faithful who were rocked by the news of Messi's departure on Thursday, with the Argentina international set to join Paris Saint-Germain.

"We'll do it with you [the fans]," Busquets said at the Estadi Johan Cruyff. "We need you more than ever. We need your help, your support, and we're sure you'll give it to us."

Busquets, who led the tackles and interceptions charts at Barca last term while also completing the second most passes, joins an illustrious group of players to have captained the Catalan club.

Carles Puyol, Xavi and Messi all came before the midfielder and Busquets acknowledged he must now "meet the standards" set by those club legends in a role which he is "very proud" to take.

Having made his debut four years after the Argentina captain, the Spain midfielder was also quick to pay tribute to his former team-mate, with whom he enjoyed a 14-year spell with.

"I want to give a special mention to Leo," Busquets continued. "Thank you, Leo, for taking Barca to the very pinnacle; for making history while being the best player in the world, and for beating all the individual and collective records [imaginable].

"We will always be very grateful for everything you have done. We will miss you and we wish you all the best."

While Messi, who netted 672 times in 778 appearances for the Spanish giants, edges closer to joining PSG, Barca begin their LaLiga campaign against Real Sociedad on August 15 as they begin the post-Messi era.

Ronald Koeman is excited about what the future holds for Barcelona despite the departure of superstar forward Lionel Messi.

Messi is bringing an end to his 21-year association with Barca as the Catalan giants were unable to honour the new contract agreed with him due to LaLiga's salary cap limit.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner became a free agent on July 1 and confirmed at an emotional news conference on Sunday that joining Paris Saint-Germain "is a possibility".

Barcelona will head into the new campaign without Messi for the first time since 2003-04, but Koeman is remaining upbeat regarding his side's prospects.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's Joan Gamper Trophy match with Juventus at Estadi Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman said: "Despite Messi's farewell, we are excited about this season.

"With the signings made and the youngsters, who are the future of this club, we have a great squad. We are convinced we will provide the fans with many joys this season.

"With some help and sacrifice we will achieve the maximum. We know what it means to be from Barcelona and what this club represents."

 

Messi leaves a huge void for Barca to fill, the Argentina international having scored 672 goals in 778 games for the Catalans in all competitions, as well as providing 265 assists.

That amounts to 937 goal involvements during his Barca career, which began as a 17-year-old in 2004.

Among an array of other achievements and personal honours, Messi is LaLiga's all-time top scorer with 474 goals and is the second-highest scorer ever in Europe's top five leagues behind Cristiano Ronaldo (476).

Sergio Busquets, who takes over the captain's armband permanently following Messi's exit, paid his own tribute to his team-mate of 13 years.

"For me, it is an honour to be the captain of Barca, the best club in the world," he said on the pitch ahead of the Juventus match.

"I have had great examples such as [Carles] Puyol, Xavi, Andres [Iniesta] and Leo. I will try to be up to the task. 

"I want to make a special mention for Leo. Thank you for taking Barca to the top, making history, being the best in the world, breaking all individual and collective records. 

"We will miss you a lot. Eternal thanks, Leo. Now a new season begins, full of emotion, and we will fight for all the objectives together with you [the fans]. We need you more than ever."

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