Barça have started the season in style, with a 4 to nothing win over Villarreal. But it was a win interpreted in many different ways by football experts and fans due to its sudden change of pace from first to second half. And while Ansu Fati took the stage, one doubt has arisen over every other ones: has Leo Messi’s role been the best fit for the Argentinian?
There has been an underpredicted, unexpected start of the season at Barcelona. Some are still wondering whether the Catalan team was actually that good or if simply the Villarreal side was just that atrocious. But those are the typical preseason doubts, uncertainties that the beginning of a sporting year brings upon the judgment of a club’s preparation, both in the pitch and outside of it.
But as the result was still a net 4 to nothing in favor of Barcelona, it is fair to ask ourselves whether Ronald Koeman is already on the right path of solving this Blaugrana jigsaw, an enigma that Barça currently represents. Players going in, players going out, management in disarray and emotional imbalance. Lots of doubts, but even more ones on the pitching front, as Koeman decided to reverse the historical 4-3-3 era for a more extroverted one: the 4-2-3-1.
As many have already analyzed thoughtfully, this change implies lots of different situations and circumstances. But while there are players who will eventually adapt and others who will struggle, the main focus of Barcelona is yet again on his captain, the best in the world: Lionel Messi.
After the preseason friendlies, Koeman seemed to have found the perfect place for the Argentinian. In the three-men offensive line behind the striker, he was actually the number ten not only on his shirt, but also on the pitch: Messi was acting as the central attacking midfielder or, if you may, as the supporting forward to the main striker (Antoine Griezmann), even as a false 9 you could say. And things have been pretty convincing.
We have all seen a different Leo Messi in the last season. Fewer goals (but still a lot) and numerous assists on his belly. Yes, that was the only difference, as he led the race in every other aspect you could imagine: take-ons, chances created, key passes, dribbles succeeded, etc. And while the decrease in goals volume has been partly due to his injury issue back at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season, his creativity was heavily been overshadowing his finishing touches. While some of the fan bases may have been gutted, seeing Leo Messi creating football, magic is the best entertainment you can have in watching a football match. It doesn’t matter if he scores or not.
With all that being said, the position that Koeman found for Leo has been the one that proved the Dutch manager right during the preseason. But then La Liga came and consequently the Villarreal game. While Griezmann has always been used as a striker during the preseason, Koeman decided to move him to the right-winger position (despite promising him not to) to make space for both Coutinho and Ansu Fati. The only options for Messi have been those of playing as a classic striker or to switch positions with the Frenchman. Well, the first one was also the final one. And Messi is everything but a striker.
Many could be shadowed by the term “false 9”, but that wasn’t his role against Villarreal. The Argentinian has been the most forward player on the pitch for the entire first half. But while Messi rarely makes a back run, he often finds himself on the right-wing as to have more space and time to create something. Not on a central, too high position as a classic 9.
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This position limited Messi for the whole first half, as in the second forty-five minutes Koeman tried to correct himself by moving Leo to the right side (and he actually created more). He touched fewer balls than usual and he was involved in Barcelona’s chances creation for low to no times. Ansu Fati’s second goal has been a clear depiction of it. On a counterattack, with the number ten attacking from the right side and the young Spanish wonderkid from the left one, Coutinho chose the latter. And we rarely (never) see Barça players choose an option that is not Lionel Messi, when the circumstance occurs.
As he has always been used to come deep into the field to get the ball and have more vision on the overall offensive movements, this time his role limited him deeply in doing so. Playing the Argentinian as a classic striker means that he will have less influence on the game and his chances to impact the game will relatively be lower. As much as Barça seems to have more attacking options and less reliability on his captain this season, Messi is still the brightest light the Catalan team. And, if that’s not enough, we have always been proven wrong when starting to doubt the greatest that the sport have ever seen. Both in a culés and neutral point of view.
His performance and his weight on the game actually improved in the second half, where he made Asenjo, Villarreal’s goalkeeper, really fight for it to stay 4-0. As Koeman moved Messi onto the right position, especially during the defensive phase, the Argentinian got to have more suitability with chance creation and finishing, even though he has not scored from open play in the end. And while the right-wing position is a role that has been slowly getting out of sustainability for Messi, because of the physical impact it could have on the long run on an, unfortunately, aging player, it showed how putting him in circumstances that he finds more suitable to his qualities, actually increases his impact on the game.
Leo Messi’s body language hasn’t been great in the first official match of the season, and that’s something outside any tactical system and choice that cannot be interpreted in any way technically. The penalty that he took depicted just that: frustration, shallowness, and a little bit of carelessness. And performances are often a mental struggle, before a technical and physical one. But the Argentinian has to be put in the best conditions to play his football. Because in the end, we all know the game. When Leo Messi actually plays his football, there is not a damn thing you can do about it.
Too late for Barcelona to kickstart a title race in La Liga?
Ever since Lionel Messi came onto the scene, La Liga title races have been monotone. One team, usually Barcelona, dominates from start to finish and keep adding to their tally.
Whenever a team not named Barcelona wins, it looks, and feels, like an anomaly. However, this season, Barcelona winning the league would be the anomaly. The giants’ start to the season was lacklustre, and they are only finding form in January after losing several points due to errors and less-than-adequate lineups.
In their first 15 games of the season, Barcelona lost four times while drawing the same number of games. Players like Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, Clément Lenglet, and Lionel Messi were severely underperforming, while others continued to have their ups and downs. The Catalans made four errors leading to goals to end 2020, one each from Ronald Araujo, Lenglet, Neto, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen. All these errors were unprovoked, amateur mistakes and that should never happen with Barcelona.
In fact, Barcelona ended the year the same way they opened it by drawing. This time, Eibar, a team that usually gets a thumping loss at Camp Nou, won their first point away to Barça. Ronald Araujo was on the end of a rookie error, and the hosts had to be rescued by Ousmane Dembele who came on as a substitute.
However, in 2021, Barcelona look like a different team. A lot has changed since Messi’s interview with Jordi Évole.
First, the captain himself feels happier, as he claimed, and the team looks set to revolve around him again. Then, the team looks way more composed, as if leaving 2020 relieved them of a heavy burden.
For example, against Granada on Saturday, Frenkie de Jong made a mistake in the opening five minutes of the game. Marc-André Ter Stegen parried the shot that followed the Dutchman’s weak pass, and almost forgetting all about it, de Jong had a top-notch display.
All in all, 2021 has started well for Barça. Three away wins in a week, and the Catalans were two points off Madrid following their 4-0 victory at Estadio Los Carmenes. And after an unbeaten run of eight games in the league, and just one loss in 2021 so far, Culés might want to entertain the thought that they can disrupt both Atlético and Real Madrid and win the league, or at least come close.
However, as it stands, it all seems like a distant dream. The recent displays might have shown Culés that Barça can play well, but often require a reality check to get going in front of goal. The last three opponents the Blaugranas faced were rock-bottom Huesca, Athletic Club with Marcelino managing his first game and a decent Granada.
Playing against Granada and Bilbao away from home is far from a simple task. Last season, Barça lost to both sides without scoring. However, these are the games that define a season. If Ronald Koeman could not win against those sides, the fans would call for his head.
Not to mention Atlético are still first in La Liga, and seem to be running away with the title. Los Colchoneros were meant to play against Athletic Club before the Granada-Barcelona game, but a snowstorm got in the way and postponed it. After Atletico’s win over Sevilla and Eibar, though, they are ten points clear off Barcelona and four clear off Real Madrid, with two games in hand.
Assuming Atléti win those two games, they will have a 16-point lead on Barça. This margin looks too big for Barça, or any team, to leapfrog Diego Simeone’s men. Nonetheless, Luis Suarez’s teammates have never been in the La Liga driving seat. This means that the pressure could still get to their head and they might lose many points soon.
Atlético already lost against Cornella in the Cup, Real Madrid in December and Bayern Munich back in October. Barcelona could destabilise the current leaders by beating them at Camp Nou in May, especially if Koeman’s tactics persist.
The sudden change to a 4-3-3 by Koeman came after five months of stubbornly trying to fit four attackers in a 4-2-3-1. The 4-3-3 revitalised the side and propelled Messi’s teammates towards a comeback against Athletic Club and demolition of Diego Martinez’s Granada. Clearly, this lineup fits everyone better than the unbalanced 4-2-3-1.
Ousmane Dembélé, de Jong, Pedri, Messi, and Griezmann all found form in the 4-3-3, and they do not look like stopping anytime soon. Even when one or all of them have less-pleasing performances, the others come and help them get through their rough patch, because the 4-3-3 is much more balances, and allows every individual enough room to create and slaughter.
For example, Dembélé had a bad display against Granada but still registered an assist thanks to Griezmann’s brilliant off the ball run. Even against Cornella, Pedri was able to come into the lineup seamlessly and rescued the game giving two assists.
This is what champions do. When one player falls, others help him get back on his feet. This is how Atlético won their last two games in the league. With Suarez, everyone thought Atlético could win the league because they had a proven winner through their ranks. Well, Barcelona have Messi and a few other champions in their side.
Whenever champions fall, they only need a few games to get back up. Barcelona fell really hard against Bayern in August, and it took five months for them to get over the humiliation. This week might prove crucial to their chances of being in a title race. Until then, let’s hope Barcelona can keep their excellent form and end the campaign in better shape than the last one.