In handing Luis Suárez over to Atlético Madrid at the start of the season, Barcelona essentially gave up on what had been a perennial guarantee of league title contention. Even with the unmistakable signs of the 34-year-old Uruguayan’s decline over the years, the combination of Suárez and Lionel Messi, with the pair’s telepathic understanding of each other and their unfading nose for goal, meant Barcelona would always find enough goals against the overmatched bulk of La Liga’s teams to at the very least keep itself in the title race all the way through the home stretch. With Suárez’s consistency now spurring on the title charge of a direct rival, and without a direct replacement, Barcelona had to concede its immediate aspirations and look instead to the future.
This shifted time horizon, so foreign to the club during Messi’s silverware-laden decade-and-a-half, has been a struggle to get used to. Messi didn’t even want to be a part of the transition, and after failing to secure an exit of his own in the summer, he proceeded to put together some of the worst performances of his career. The club’s past six months have been marked by chaos and instability off the pitch, and by inconsistency between the field’s lines. Today, a little over halfway through the campaign, Barcelona finds itself a distant second place in the league standings behind Suárez’s ascendent Atlético, with one foot out of the Copa del Rey following a 2–0 defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of their semifinal tie, and with only a puncher’s chance of making a trophy run in the Champions League. On top of all that, the club is on the brink of financial ruin, and is still without a club president or a concrete vision of where Barcelona goes next and how to get there.
In many ways, the situation is dire. In the Guardian, Sid Lowe makes the case that the decision to allow Suárez to go to Atlético “has been disastrous” in how it has weakened Barça and fortified Atleti, arguably by itself swinging the title. What this overlooks, however, is the absolute necessity of Suárez’s exit in order to initiate the long overdue changing of the guard at Barcelona, as well as the fact that, after the bizarre language test cheating scandal scuppered Suárez’s Italian citizenship exam and with it his chance to join Juventus, Atlético was the striker’s only realistic suitor. And to see exactly how necessary it was that Suárez leave Barça, and how the resultant dimmer present could lead to a much brighter future, you need to look no further than to the team’s latest emergent starlet, Pedri.
At just 18 years old, in his first season at one of the biggest teams in the world after joining from second-division Las Palmas, Pedri has been the talk of the town at Barcelona. Coming into the year, hopes were high that the relatively unheralded (Barça signed him for only €5 million) Canary Islander could eventually parlay his preternatural comfort, command, and creativity with the ball into a contributing role at his new club. But no one could’ve imagined just how well and how quickly he’d take to life on the big stage. Fighting for playing time for one of the attacking midfield spots alongside the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, Francisco Trincão, Carles Aleñá, and Riqui Puig, Pedri has leapt ahead of most of those names and made himself a linchpin of Barcelona’s starting lineup. No matter where he plays—left, right, or center, further forward or deeper back—Pedri’s impact is evident whenever he’s on the pitch, earning him more La Liga minutes than every Barça central midfielder except Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri’s skills are as subtle as they are breathtaking when you make sure to look out for them. Like Andrés Iniesta, Pedri is a creative wizard who is always weaving magic, even though it’s rarely the sort to show up directly on the stat sheet. Pedri has that special knack for never appearing hurried or harried when carrying the ball, perfectly at ease no matter how many defenders surround him, always able to make for himself that inch of space or second of time to keep possession or flip out a pass. His movement off the ball is languid but constant, and he’s always slipping into just the right pocket of space to open himself or a teammate up for a pass. With each touch, dribble, or pass, he’s somehow able to simultaneously transmit calm and order and danger and unpredictability. Unlike many young players nowadays, he has not had his reliance on his own instincts trained out of him, and so he is always alive to the possibilities of the moment, which, along with his brilliant understanding of what any given play needs from him, makes him the perfect accomplice to impromptu bits of genius. It’s not for nothing that Messi’s improved form, and the return of his smile, can be traced directly alongside Pedri’s increased playing time.
Saturday’s Barcelona-Alavés match was a good example of what Pedri brings to the team. Out of the starting lineup with an eye toward the upcoming Champions League match against PSG (the rotated side testifying also to Barça’s acknowledgement that the league title race is already practically over), Pedri came into the match at 2–1 with just under a half hour to play. He didn’t score a goal, nor did he assist one, but his presence immediately steadied his team’s performance, and his fingerprints were evident on the 5–1 final score. Of the following video of his individual highlights, the prettiest and most indicative moment was the gorgeously stroked pass that sent Messi clean through on goal and which set up Trincão’s second goal of the day:
So yes, if Suárez was still in Barcelona rather than Madrid, the league picture today would probably look different. But with Suárez in the fold, would manager Ronald Koeman have had the wherewithal to bench Suárez and his guaranteed goals and instead commit to the 4-3-3 formation that has returned Messi to the center of the pitch in his old false 9 role, in doing so finding a coherent team structure around Messi’s highly unorthodox talents that also integrates Griezmann and Dembélé? Would the no-doubt more competitive Suárez-led Barcelona have been able to find as many minutes and as much prominence for Pedri, who in half a season has already become a foundational building block for the late-career- or even post-Messi Barça that is to come? And beyond Pedri, what would Suárez’s presence have meant for Dembélé, who has completely turned around his still-young career this season and once again looks like a player of incredible promise, or Griezmann, who looks comfortable for the first time since leaving Atlético, or Ansu Fati, who was tearing it up as a starter before suffering a bad knee injury, or Trincão, or Sergiño Dest, or Puig, or Konrad de la Fuente, or Ilaix Moriba, or Ronald Araújo, or any of the other players new and old who’ve been able to play, learn, and grow during this strange season?
As Spanish soccer analyst Miguel Quintana has pointed out before, young players, and especially homegrown ones, who break out at big clubs are almost always children of chaos, of ruin. It usually takes something not going to plan, or a plan going badly, for even the most promising youngsters to wrestle away the reins from the old guard and start charting the course to the future. Things had been going badly at Barcelona for a long while, in spite of players like Messi and Suárez having the impressive ability to disguise that fact. Suárez’s departure last season might have been more evidence of this ruin—and more so in the way his exit was mismanaged and poorly planned rather than the exit itself—but like a new phoenix arising from the ashes of an old one, Suárez’s departure created the conditions for Pedri’s entrance. And if Pedri’s, and thus Barcelona’s, future is as glorious as it looks like it could be, in the end the painful transformation will have been worth it.