Managers often have many conundrums to solve during a season. Usually, the problems arise when a rising star is performing or when an established player is out due to injury. At Barcelona, one player is so important that he often has to play every minute of every game.
Lionel Messi, the Argentine legend, has been the main man at Camp Nou for more than a decade. The Barcelona captain has seen friends leave the sinking ship while he steadied it time and again, with repeated impressive displays every campaign.
Oftentimes, Messi’s importance has led to his teammates believing in La Pulga and nobody else. Some players would only look for Leo, even if ten players marked him. This dependence over Messi has not does not come as a problem for Messi, but more so for Barça.
Some players have been complacent for too many seasons, turning up only when Messi wants too. Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was the epitome of this over-reliance, with the #10 saving them from dropping points on multiple occasions.
The Basque manager’s side strolled towards two league titles. Messi was the top scorer and top assister of the side. Granted, the La Masia graduate had two bizarre seasons under Valverde. His stats in every aspect of the game were astronomical. He finished the 2019 year by winning a league title. However, when Messi switched off, the whole team switched off.
Against Roma in the Champions League, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner was not at his best, but so were his teammates. The reliance on Messi became so toxic to the Barcelona players that benching him became impossible for every manager. After the lockdown, Quique Setién played Leo in every game possible, for example.
Then came Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman was a legend in his playing days. He had to deal with an unhappy Messi for the first few weeks of his tenure, on the back of the Messi transfer saga.
The 33-year-old may have been unhappy off the pitch, but Koeman did not bench him. In fact, before the Betis game, the 57-year-old left Messi on the pitch for the whole 90 minutes of every game. Having travelled to Bolivia with his national team and not had a rest this season, Messi contracted a minor knock on Wednesday after his eleventh competitive match since the 27th of September.
Many Culés wanted to see their side without Leo, mainly because the side possesses a lot of attacking talent. From Ansu Fati to Ousmane Dembélé; Antoine Griezmann or Pedri, Koeman can pick from a really talented bunch to replace his captain.
Is it finally Dembele time? (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)
The Dutch manager came through with a completely new front line. Fati, Pedri, Griezmann and Dembélé all started next to each other for the first time, as Barcelona got ready to host Real Betis.
On paper, that team should demolish many defences and especially Betis’ rather susceptible backline. However, the first half did not go exactly to plan. Many recurring problems were apparent in this half, including the problem to finish. The Catalan giants did not look as dominant as they did in the second.
After a missile from Dembélé, Barça had to make Betis pay for their frail backline, and they nearly did. Fati was fouled in the penalty box, only for Griezmann to miss the resulting penalty kick. Worse news came after, as the youngster, this fixture would be his last in 2020 as the foul caused a ruptured meniscus.
Before this reign of dominance from the Catalans, they had already created enough danger to be four or five goals in front. Griezmann missed many more chances; including the sublime pass from Pedri, for example. Ansu Fati also had his chances as the young forward often came close with his shots from distance and was unlucky not to be rewarded for his brilliant display.
The Barcelona captain has featured in every other game for his boyhood club. Still, Barça have struggled with finishing, and not chance creation. In Europe, the Catalan giants have created 59 opportunities on goal and only scored nine goals. La Pulga has started every encounter in the Champions League and his finishing has not been much better than his teammates’.
Against Betis, chance creation wasn’t a problem. Dembélé created many chances with his runs with and without the ball. On the other side, Pedri was not as creative, but Griezmann compensated for it as shown in the first goal. The fact that Barcelona’s opener came from a spark of genius; a recurring theme under Ronald Koeman.
Against Juventus a week and a half ago, the french winger still had to score from afar to open the scoring. Similarly, Griezmann’s equaliser against Alavés last week also was a moment of genius. Messi started both games and the poor finishing was still apparent.
Under Koeman, there is some reliance over Messi, but it is in no way, shape or form as big as it was under the last few coaches. The lack of finishing in the first half just made the Catalans more eager to score against Mauricio Pellegrini’s side, and that coincided with the number 10’s entrance.
Besides, Barcelona still created many chances, so they did not ‘need’ Messi on the pitch; not as much as some people are trying to say, anyway. What the 33-year-old did was instil confidence in his side with his genius. Griezmann returned his invisible assist with a genius pass on the play that led to the second penalty.
The Catalan frontline was just too good on Saturday, and they only needed an offensive leader to score those wasted chances. Ideally, Culés would want Griezmann to be that leader. At 29, the Frenchman has been struggling in front of goal but was by far the most experienced attacker on the pitch.
Griezmann showed against Betis that he needs some time and trust, the goals will come. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)
Messi came to the pitch and showed the way to teenager Pedri, out-of-form Griezmann and opportunistic Dembélé. This is not over-dependence; this is just what a 33-year-old captain does. Had Leo had missed his penalty or not scored the second, his leadership and form would still be a source of interrogation for Culés, but he did not and endorsed the role of saviour perfectly.
Depending on a player is undeniably the wrong way to go. But it is natural when the player in question is a six-time Ballon d’Or winner. Rather than being criticised for their first-half performance, the forwards must be praised for their ability to link up with their captain. This is why Lionel Messi is a role model for many players. He leads by example and is the most important part of Koeman’s system.
The first half against Betis was excellent form the offensive side of the game, scrutinising the team, or more so the attackers is unfair. Instead, Culés should be grateful they have this kind of frontline to let Messi breathe a little. Nonetheless, Koeman cannot turn a blind on the defensive aspect of the game, which was way more problematic on Saturday.