About Messi’s new central position
Leo Messi is rarely wrong. Let’s just say that, on the pitch, he never is, because when we think he is, it’s more probable that it’s an error in our appreciation than an error in his football. In that sense, the Argentinian is surely the player who makes the analysis simpler, because it’s more prudent not to take into consideration the variable of him making a mistake. During these last weeks, in the last four games to be more exact, the ones against Villarreal, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad, there is an issue related to his positioning that coincided with three negative results and a victory with mixed feelings and is raising some questions: He played in the center and very far from the opposition box. Keeping in mind the premise that Leo has had his reasons for doing this, the starting point makes the direction clear, but also makes the challenge bigger: Why is Leo Messi right?
Barça’s last four games, the four in which Messi has occupied such a withdrawn position, can be viewed as a whole, but they can also be divided into two groups. On one side there are those that are played against two teams that are in the race for the Champions League trophy. So the Clásico and the first leg of the Atlético tie weren’t just any tests and by their transcendence they involved a special level of exigency. These are the types of games against opponents who can beat you even when you’re doing well. We have to keep that in mind. To give a concrete example, the fact that Barça don’t directly defend the opponent’s left back is never a problem. The space he can leave behind him is always compensated by the damage he can do when he joins the attack. But if that left back is Marcelo or Filipe Luis, due to the fact that his individuality will intervene in a decisive way in his team’s attack and because the organization of his team will alleviate the imbalance that his forays into attack might cause for its defense, there should be a special vigilance for him, different than with regular left backs, which is what Barça do, whether it’s Rakitic or Luis Suárez altering their normal behavior when this situation arises. In general, when the blaugrana side face the best teams they take precautions by wanting more control. They did it in all the Clásicos since Luis Enrique took over and they did it last season in the decisive stages of the Champions League, using the ball as a protective shield more than in regular circumstances.
Playing centrally and so far from the box, Messi has a contribution of great magnitude when it comes to this control. He hides the ball better than almost everyone else, he activates passing lines so that the ball carrier isn’t suffocated and he directly contributes to the ability of the culés to decelerate the rhythm of the game by being more conservative with the ball. Leaving aside the questions of whether this strategy is more or less necessary or if this new Iniesta could, on his own, do it without needing Leo to come down, the proposal has a clear reasoning and Barça didn’t find problems when they were following it. In fact, in the game against Real Madrid, when they followed this plan, the blaugrana game experienced its more qualitative moments, in which Barça not only controlled the game, but also never gave up on having certain dangerous chances on Keylor Navas’ goal. The truth is that both against the blancos and against Atlético in the first game of the quarterfinals, Barça suffered when this game idea that corresponds with a more central positioning from Messi wasn’t accompanied by a coherently developed discourse. In a Barça meant to control the game, what hurt it was the fact that its players were precipitated with the ball at their feet, because this was not what the team was set up to do, the structure couldn’t withstand the disharmonious acting from the players. Messi didn’t fail, the idea made sense, but Barça didn’t respect it.
The second group of games is made of the ones against Villarreal and Real Sociedad, two duels that had something more in common besides the fact that the Catalans were the away team: Andrés Iniesta wasn’t in the starting lineup. Without the man from Fuentealbilla, who has been the new guarantee of culé control, the work in this department fell on Messi without any of the interiors who were on the pitch contributing to liberating the Argentinian from this task.
Actually, in San Sebastian Neymar also came down to the midfield line, thus making the team have its two star players far away from goal that lasted until Iniesta came on the pitch. They were the saviors, with more or less success, of a positional attack that looked like it was going to run aground and needed to be more fluent than it was able to be without Andrés, in order to be able to overcome two good defensive systems that were sitting relatively behind without gifting or allowing any spaces.
This isn’t the first time in Luis Enrique’s tenure that Barcelona have had to deal with this clogging in their positional attack. In exchange for advantages in other aspects of the team, the Asturian’s reign on the blaugrana bench has been characterized by a certain positional laxity that allowed the more free expression of his three prodigious forwards. This allowed us to see a detailed understanding between them in exchange for certain difficulties, like for example, in the build up from the back phase or when faced with rivals who defended in a deep block. When faced with this last season, besides the overflowing talent and unbalancing contribution of its trident, the team found a series of “simple” solutions based on the open position of its wingers who would dribble without a break and were connected between them through Messi’s exact diagonal pass. This wide starting position of the Argentinian made an accommodation for Dani Alves that was in perfect correlation with the physical reality of the right back, putting more emphasis with his relationship with the ball in inside positions than asking him to go up and down the wing which made his position more exposed and converted him into an easy prey for his pair, which is what happened in his duel with Oyarzabal in the first stages of the game against La Real.
Just like Dani, basically all the blaugrana pieces found their place based on Messi’s position. It’s not for nothing that Leo is the key piece. But from the start of this season a piece of good news changed the way and the positions. Iniesta was better – much better – and with him so was the team. The left side of the pitch now had a focus point that it lacked before and things started happening around him. For example, Busquets hypertrophied his performance and contribution and Neymar and Alba, close to the heat emanated by Iniesta, grew with the ball in exchange for their previous runner status. So there were four talents which were boosted in this new scenario, and who individually, without exception, took a step forward in some moment of the season. But the heat of the left side of the pitch, the lack of receivers for his diagonal pass (is the left side still the weak side?) and the change in the roles of some of his teammates have made Messi come more centrally than he had in the last part of the previous season.
So Messi responded to the new scenery that has been forming on the left side since the start of the season, by coming in a more central position than last year in order to form an alternative connection. And this is how the best moments of blaugrana football were born when Leo, Andrés, Ney, and Luis Suárez met on the pitch. But if previously the rivals were trying to cause problems for the former champion by pressing their buildup from the back, recently it’s become more usual that the opponents propose – at least during a good part of the game – a low block that asks Barça to come up with solutions in positional attack in order to make the ball get to its forwards who additionally – and this is very important – enjoy less space than in the moments when they had the most fun. Without Iniesta on the pitch it’s clear that until now this is difficult for Barça to accomplish, and if Leo goes to the center it’s because he has detected that that is the area that allows him to better activate this new system, as between the enemy lines is where less space is granted, he will find a place to receive the ball, but not all his teammates will find a way of making him receive it.
This is why, without the environmental reasons involved in the games against Madrid and Atlético, it was significant to see how against Real Sociedad the Argentinian could play higher up the pitch as soon as Iniesta came on, because the 10 now wasn’t the only player that could connect the midfield with the attack. The Spaniard, indirectly responsible for the fact that the ecosystem of the diagonal pass was altered, is also the key, both from his individual ability and from his collective influence, for the new formula being able to find the central Messi regularly without needing Leo to come down too much if the game plan doesn’t specifically require it.
Everyone knows that the higher Messi receives the ball, the closer he is to the goal, but Leo doesn’t miss the fact that even if he is the biggest certainty, it will always be more valuable for him to give the ball to a teammate by coming lower than for no one to be able to give the ball to him if he stays higher.
Barça have put aside their previous “simple” solution because it has changed, and maybe when the light goes off again and pure talent alone won’t find a way, Luis Enrique will need to find a new connection. A new skeleton like the one that gave shape to the tri-champion, a “simple” solution adapted to the new reality. One that doesn’t take advantage of the best things this Iniesta has to give shouldn’t be good enough anymore.
Translator: Diana Uzum
– Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images