If you had told me three years ago that Barcelona would lose Lionel Messi in the summer of 2021 in a way that was equal parts bizarre and heartbreaking, and that the club’s first post-Messi man of the match would be a mediocre Danish striker signed via a reviled and now-closed loophole … I probably would have said, “Yeah, sounds about right.” Nothing is ever too unbelievable for Barcelona.
That didn’t make what Martin Braithwaite did on Sunday less surprising, though. The Blaugrana No. 12 had his best game in the 18 months he’s been in Catalonia, nabbing two goals and an assist as Barca opened the La Liga season with a mostly dominant but still nervy 4–2 victory over Real Sociedad.
Though his goals weren’t particularly spectacular, both tallies showed exactly what Braithwaite’s value is to Barcelona. On the first strike, he moved himself to the back post for a Frenkie de Jong cross that found him wide open for an easy header.
On the second, as he stood lurking near the penalty spot, a deflected cross by Jordi Alba found its way to the Dane’s foot for a medium difficulty strike. Nothing too crazy, but Braithwaite is a hard worker with a nose for good runs and positioning. Those are the exact kinds of goals he was out there to score.
He also tallied a real “workman’s assist” late in the game, after Sociedad clawed back from 3–0 down to 3–2 with two wonderful goals (Mikel Oyarzabal’s free kick was, dare I say, Messi-esque). After a poorly chosen and delivered Antoine Griezmann pass found Braithwaite in space, the Dane hit a precision low ball across the goal that met a charging Sergi Roberto for a tap-in, which sealed not only the debut win for the post-Messi Barça, but also rescued the all-important good vibes from a match that could’ve easily fell into utter despair.
That Barcelona looked excellent at times isn’t necessarily a shock. The team is still loaded with talent across the field, and Memphis Depay especially was fantastic in the false nine role that Messi had once made so famous. (This touch, especially, was ridiculous.) Elsewhere, the midfield duo of de Jong and Pedri kept their great form from last season going, and la Real—one of the most impressive teams in the league last year—simply could not get anything going until it was too late. But that it was Martin freaking Braithwaite who made the difference is something genuinely unexpected.
There’s no precedent for the Barcelona’s current situation. Losing the greatest player of all time in such stupid, self-inflicted fashion is bad enough. Failing so totally to address the financial debacle that forced Messi out that it took Gerard Piqué taking a massive paycut to even register some of the new players mere hours before the first match is even worse. In other words, Barcelona is a club in flux and in crisis, and it no longer has Messi’s magical ability to wave his left foot and make all problems disappear.
There likely won’t be a single player that steps up to be the new singular star. Sure, Ansu Fati could come back from his injury and continue his meteoric rise, and Depay is good enough to dominate any single game, if not every single game, and Griezmann should be empowered to be the best version of himself again. Alternating starring performances could very well work in the league, and it might not even need to be a veritable star that steps up on any given day, as Braithwaite already proved. Messi’s absence will of course still hurt Barcelona, especially in the Champions League where the games are tighter and the opponents are better, but even a Messi-less Barça should be able to compete for the league title.
As for Braithwaite, he still might be more valuable as a salable asset than as a squad player, thanks to that same financial crisis. His performance on Sunday could very well wind up his first and last star showing at Barcelona. He’s a skilled but limited striker who can’t create and doesn’t score a ton but can score a little and does do lots of the dirty work very well. That’s still a role that can be worth a good chunk of change for a club of lesser stature and ambitions, and a good chunk of change is something Barcelona is desperate for at the moment. If he doesn’t leave, though, Braithwaite showed on Sunday that he can be a valued contributor on this strange, under-talented, but still competitive Barcelona group. Given the cataclysmic news from the last week or so, that might be all Barcelona can ask for. It also might just be enough to justify his spot on the field.