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Transfer Talk

Barcelona won the double but Ernesto Valverde needs to make them fun again

Thoughts of heavy Champions League defeats in Rome, Turin and Paris returned to the surface as Barcelona were put to the sword by Levante on Sunday. La Liga's champions, who rested Lionel Messi, found themselves 5-1 down at one point in the second half as their unbeaten season was derailed in their penultimate fixture.

They did pull three goals back but there was no equaliser. A potentially historic season now ends on a slight downer, embarrassing performances against Roma and Levante casting a shadow over a third domestic double in four years.

Some may argue that's a positive thing. Despite the league results, Barca have not been nearly as good as they were under Pep Guardiola. There's rarely even been the excitement that Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez brought to Luis Enrique's side.

An unbeaten campaign could have served to mask the flaws that, every now and again, have reared their head in the last 18 months. Ernesto Valverde did well to cover them up with a solid defence for a large part of the year, but even that's disappeared down the final stretch of the season.

League and cup success should be celebrated (and it already has), but Barca must now focus on addressing the issues which have somehow left the double -- something most sides dream of winning -- feeling strangely unsatisfactory.

Defensive depth

Barca's defending has been one of their strong points this season but it was also their weakness as they were knocked out of the Champions League, losing 3-0 to Roma. Then it was exposed much more shockingly by Levante: Yerry Mina and Thomas Vermaelen struggled early on before the Belgian was, familiarly, taken off injured. Things didn't change when Gerard Pique replaced him.

The usual pairing of Pique and Samuel Umtiti is, in general, fine. The backup is not. And there can be question marks placed over Pique and Umtiti, too. The former is 31 and entering the final years of his career and the latter is flirting with a move to Manchester United -- his buyout clause is just €60 million and he's yet to agree a new deal.

Barca are already looking for solutions. Sevilla's Clement Lenglet is a reported target this summer and Ajax's Matthijs de Ligt is a long-term option.

Midfield revamp

Andres Iniesta is leaving at the end of the season; Rafinha's already at Inter Milan on loan, unlikely to return; Andre Gomes will be sold this summer for the right price. It leaves Barca with Paulinho and Sergio Busquets, both 29, and Ivan Rakitic, now 30, as their main midfield options. It's a different world from the riches they had in 2011, when Guardiola shoe-horned Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago into the same side for the Club World Cup final.

Replacing Iniesta -- like Xavi -- is impossible. Valverde says it cannot be done and that they must look for a different type of balance in midfield. Carles Alena will be promoted from the B team, Arthur Melo will join the club from Gremio next January, while Denis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho are other options.

Messi will also continue to play deeper, but something else may be needed, too.

Living without Messi

Regardless of the fact it would help not to be over-reliant on one player, the sad reality is Messi is not getting any younger. He turns 31 this summer and Barca will have to increasingly manage his minutes in the coming seasons. And when he's not playing, they're going to need to use other recipes to win games.

That hasn't been the case this season. The dependence on Messi has been, you could argue, bigger than ever. In the past, Barca built a platform for him to perform. Now, Barca only seem to perform when Messi's on song.

In La Liga, he's scored 34 goals and created 12 more (league highs in both cases) accounting for 47 percent of Barca's goals. His match-saving cameo off the bench against Sevilla in March was the perfect illustration of the Messi-dependence.

How do Barcelona play without Messi?

The Suarez question

This is an uncomfortable one because, on the face of it, Suarez has had a good year. The Uruguayan has scored 25 league goals and laid on another 11. That contrasts with one goal in 10 Champions League appearances, though, and there have been times when he's looked like a player on the way down. There have been better signs in recent weeks, although he was off-colour at Levante. His two goals -- a Coutinho shot hit him on the way in and then he scored a penalty -- will gloss over that.

He will turn 32 during next season and if -- when? -- Barca sign Antoine Griezmann, how will they fit everyone into the same team? Griezmann, Messi, Suarez, Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele (another issue they need to address)... something will have to give under the conservative Valverde.

Catalunya Radio have claimed that some directors have already floated the idea of accepting any bids which may come in. However, Suarez's friendship with Messi and his consistency over the last four years mean he has credit in the bank. Maybe he will just have to accept a slightly reduced role?

Make Barca fun again

The real kick in the teeth for Barcelona fans was not necessarily the defeat to Roma, but the manner of it. Valverde may insist otherwise but the truth of the matter is he sent the team out not to lose. Barca welcomed the Roma pressure and once it came they were unable to stop it. It was often the same story, albeit more successfully, in this season's high profile league games.

Next season, Valverde will have to compromise slightly. His ideals have brought him success throughout his career but he will need a little bit more to last at Barca -- and to compete in Europe.

With the players he will have at his disposal, as ridiculous as it sounds given the trophies won this season, he will need his team to evolve going forward if he wants to coach at Camp Nou for a third year.

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.


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