Lionel Messi could cost Barcelona a shot at La Liga, Champions League
Lionel Messi's performance at Valencia was one of those which magicians have been using for centuries. Some marvellous passing, another of his goals from a rasping daisy-cutter shot, a spell of neat penalty box interplay to create the chance of an added-time winner, a firm left-footed shot past "Mr. Penalty Stopper" Diego Alves, and then the belligerence of a street fighter in the face of being targeted with missiles from some neanderthals among the Mestalla faithful.
Sleight of boot instead of sleight of hand, but from the same family. Sleight of hand makes the audience; the "marks" look one way when our gaze should be directed elsewhere, seeing what's hidden. For example, the media had so much to love about Messi's performance that there was zero analysis of the positional difference between what he did at Valencia compared to where and how he played, and what that meant to his team, against Manchester City.
In Valencia, Messi gave them drama, genius, defiance and anger: his version of "total" football and, admittedly, it's great box office. However, how he largely opted to play against Los Che on Saturday is damaging to Barcelona and may even end up costing them a shot at the big two trophies this season. (This man is a genius, arguably the greatest footballer ever so I use the word "may" advisedly.)
This is constructive criticism, not an attack. But it needs saying.
When Messi drops back to play in deep midfield, it further reduces what once was a playing system at Barcelona to a show where (almost) everything depends on whether he has a good day or a bad day. His talents, his will to win and his vision for how and when to use the array of superb footballers around him -- all these things make it look like it's shrewd of Luis Enrique to allow Messi to play as a fourth or even fifth midfielder, particularly in the case of a dramatic win like at Valencia. It will have thrilled sponsors, advertisers and broadcasters that pay heavily for the right to broadcast la Liga's best games. It will also have thrilled the football fans who want to see Jake La Motta fight rather than Sugar Ray Leonard, slug-fests rather than precise, controlled and tactical fights.
Barcelona once played positional football. It was Pep Guardiola's obsession. Choreographed to the same extent as Ballroom Dancing or NFL plays, the parts of the machine were wholly interdependent and it was written in stone who should occupy which space, when and why. That idea of football, that holy philosophy, has been diminishing and then disappearing month by month since Guardiola left.
That's not a crime, obviously. It's not even necessarily sad. Football ideologies have their 15 minutes of fame in the sun and then it's important for them to go fallow for someone to pick up and harvest a rich crop again in five or 10 years. However there has been a progression further and further away from it at Barcelona for understandable reasons, which first yielded a sturdy return but have since eroded other, vital, parts of Barça's general playing idea.
For example, Barça still plays 4-3-3 in principle. That can alter greatly to 3-4-3, or 3-3-4, even 2-3-5 and, given certain circumstances: we've seen all those happen. But, basically, Barcelona still begin in a 4-3-3 formation.
Under Luis Enrique, who so far wins trophies for fun, their idea has been simple: "We keep the club's basic principles but feed the ball more vertically, more quickly, with less elaboration to the front three because they are scoring beasts."
I've heard that idea espoused by the coach and by several of his senior players. "If you have Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar up front, then feed them the ball as often as possible and as directly as is feasible because if you put them one vs. one or even 2 vs. 3 up front, they'll likely score."
Again, fine. However, what's happening more and more (and was certainly the case again at the Mestalla) is that Messi wants to run the midfield show and be part of the culmination of Barcelona's moves as he arrives in or around the penalty box.
His vision of play, his extraordinary passing ability, his give-and-go skills, his innate knowledge of when to arrive at the edge of the box... all of these tricks give him license to toy with his pitch position. But when he bases himself in midfield, it's not as if there's no impact on the rest of the team.
Often it's the case that Barcelona don't have three strikers. Neymar and Suarez are working out where they should be. The pair up front are supported by, perhaps, Ivan Rakitic or Rafinha arriving from deep or wide along with Messi when he sees the opportunity to score.
Yes, before you point it out, even in the Guardiola days Messi might start from deep and what I'd consider his best ever goal, away to Madrid in the Champions League semifinal of 2011, came from a run that began just inside his own half. But that was when he was the deep-lying central striker. In those seasons he had Pedro and David Villa playing wide and it was Messi's job, as "false 9," to drop away from the central defenders and then rampage when he saw fit. The wingers kept the full-backs wide, space appeared in the middle and Messi became utterly prolific.
"He's our best player and he'll score more if he's closer to the opposition goal," is the best exposition Guardiola ever gave of why he moved Messi from winger to a "withdrawn" striker role. There was a plan, there was structure and other players both occupied and stuck to their positional tasks.
When Luis Suarez arrived, it took Luis Enrique and his players three months to figure out that duplicating the previous decision made for David Villa, namely taking a centre-forward and making him a winger, would be an error. In fact, it was Messi and Suarez who sorted it between them. In an act of remarkable prescience and generosity, Messi changed positions with the Uruguayan in Jan. 2015. The coach, talented and in charge though he is, merely rubber-stamped it. The front three were electrified, Barça played with as much brio as they have in their entire history and they won the treble.
Messi nominally started wide on the right but played from outside to in and linked superbly with the other two Musketeers. Opponents were stretched, Barcelona's midfield had passing options, Messi was closer to the opposition goal than he is now and the team had a clearer structure. They looked unstoppable.
Cut to today. Messi's self-reinvention means that there are two up front -- two strikers at least -- and that they will be supported by the overlaps of Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, Rafinha and the driving runs of Messi to support his own heat-seeking passes from midfield. So far, so good. But automatically it means that teams who do their scouting see opportunities. The opposing left-back will likely have a free channel to run down, particularly if Messi is playing the quarter-back in midfield and, say, Barça's right midfielder is the guy who has run up field to become the third forward with Suarez and Neymar.
Alternately, if either of Barça's two remaining strikers moves into the space in which Messi should be, up front, it will likely leave an opposition centre-half or a left-back with room to play from the back or even push forward to add superiority of numbers in midfield. Or if a Barcelona attack has a midfielder and a full-back helping out but it breaks down then Messi, when he plays deep, is not the guy who will press and tackle back to ensure his team's midfield or back four aren't suddenly out-numbered.
Most importantly of all, while Messi spraying Peyton Manning-esque passes around the pitch is spectacular to watch, it reduces the power and unique nature of Barcelona's playing system into an oversimplified question. "Is Messi playing brilliantly?" If so, then fine.
But if the answers are "No, Messi is off form," "no, the opposition are stifling him brilliantly when he drops into midfield,' or "Messi's out injured and the team's forgotten how to play to a system that isn't about giving the ball to Leo and seeing what he produces," then Barcelona are a weaker team than when Messi plays up front, near the goal and in a manner to ensure that opponents are facing three outright strikers.
A system, at least a good one, is put in place to make decent players very good, very good players great and great players unstoppable. If the system is abandoned and the idea revolves around seeing what the genius can produce today, then Barcelona will remain vulnerable to sudden surges of confidence, tactical acuity and "power plays" from their opponents.
That doesn't just mean when Messi is in the lineup and allowed to indulge himself in midfield, but also when he's absent and their team no longer has a system worth speaking of.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.