While still arguably the best footballer in the world, Lionel Messi, like everyone else, has his limits. Proof of that was the game against Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis side when he scored his first goal from open play this season, and the first time in ten games.
This dip in form could perhaps be attributed to his sorrow at being forcefully tied down to a club he was not happy at anymore or, as is the case for a majority of footballers with his level of experience, the cruel mistress of age is on a witch-hunt for the six-time Ballon D’Or winner.
Age is not something one can reverse, only embrace. As such, the onus is on Messi, and of course, Ronald Koeman, to find a way to get the best out of him in his final years as a footballer.
One option would be to grant the 33-year-old all the time in the world to play, but considering his aspirations to represent the Argentine National Team in the Qatar World Cup in 2022, imposing such a hefty burden on his ageing legs does not seem like the best idea.
The other, and possibly the more reasonable, would be to reduce his game time in a fashion that could mirror Zinedine Zidane’s strategy for Messi’s arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo a couple of years ago.
From 2016 through to 2018, the world cup winner used Ronaldo in the most conservative way possible, and it is a lesson the Blaugrana’s Dutch manager could learn to implement over the short term.
Zidane’s strategic revolution
Cristiano Ronaldo is a man who needs no introduction when it comes to people familiar with the footballing world. Or those unfamiliar, to be fair. He’s scored well over 700 career goals and is edging ever closer to breaking Brazilian legend Pélé’s long-standing record as the footballer with the most official goals in the history of the game.
Ronaldo and Messi have gone head-to-head to form one of the greatest rivalries of all time. (Photo via Getty)
Bar that, he made quite a name for himself thanks to performances in the biggest of occasions, particularly in the UEFA Champions League; a competition in which he’s led the scoring charts in all but two of the last eight editions.
To maintain such a level even at 32 years of age, several drastic changes had to be made. From his training habits to his playing style, the Portuguese saw an unprecedented evolution in his game, and these tactical adjustments have served only to lengthen a career that for most footballers would already have come to a close.
Perhaps the most drastic change of them all in his last two years at Real Madrid was the fact that Zinedine Zidane decided to him sit out against the so-called minnows of La Liga and preserve him for the bigger games, and of course, the Champions League matches later in the season.
This decision was well thought out, as there was clearly no logical reason in playing him for the full 90 minutes in a midweek clash against a relegation-threatened team, especially not with a match against a top-six side right around the corner.
For instance, he clocked in no more than 29 appearances in the 2016/17 La Liga season, which reduced further to 27 in 2017/18. Less Ronaldo in the Spanish league meant more Ronaldo in the Champions League.
Not only was his game time cut by around a quarter, but he also saw a shift in both his position and role in the team. Till then, Ronaldo had been used primarily as a winger down the left flank, one whose main role would be to cut inside into the half-spaces and generate chances for himself to score. Well, not anymore.
Courtesy of a few ingenious tactical advancements by Zidane, the Portuguese captain, would now play much more centrally, with a limited range of motion and a far greater emphasis on scoring. Given his prolific ability in front of goal, his near unmatchable positional awareness in the final third as well as his aerial dominance, this change was nothing short of magical to Madridistas worldwide.
While Ronaldo remained their highest-scoring player, the responsibilities were distributed in such a way that everyone, in one way or another, felt involved in the team.
The result? Well, in the 29 league games he played in 16/17, he shipped 26 goals, providing 5 assists as he led Los Blancos to — only — their second league title of the decade. In the Champions League, the five-time Ballon D’or winner saw his goal tally go from a measly two in the group stages, to 12 come season’s end. This remarkable run of form included consecutive hat-tricks against Bayern Munich and Atlético de Madrid as well as a brace against Juventus in the final in Cardiff.
Far from a pleasant sight; but one that Messi and Barcelona should take inspiration from. Now more than ever. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Given his advanced age, getting the Portuguese into a more limited area while still granting him maximal influence in the team as the focal point of Real Madrid’s attack was Zidane’s recipe for success. It’s one he replicated just a year later as they completed the first-ever three-peat of titles in the Champions League era.
How can this be mirrored with Messi?
Just like Ronaldo at the aforementioned stage, Lionel Messi is now 33 years old and is nearing the end of his illustrious career. In these final years, as he said himself, his goal is to win, and his hunger to do so hasn’t changed, but given Barcelona’s current state of affairs, it’ll take plenty of tactical innovations to get Barça back where they belong. One of those greatly depends in how well Messi will be managed in the coming months.
As we saw in the match against Real Betis just before the international break, Barcelona is more than capable of creating goalscoring opportunities even in his absence. Him not being on the pitch provides Antoine Griezmann more chances to play in his favoured central attacking position and should he be able to hold down the fort while Messi is on the bench or out injured, Barcelona could turn what seems like a precarious situation into quite a profitable one over the next six and a half months.
Barcelona managers past and present have all said that Messi isn’t the kind of player who likes being benched, and even Ronald Koeman said he feels more fatigued when he doesn’t play.
There is no denying that Barcelona as a whole is a better, more threatening team with Messi in it, as after he came on against Betis, the team instantaneously became much sharper in its attacks, but there has to be a limit as to how much he can do.
Messi’s belief in his abilities has not dwindled in the slightest, as even at 33, he is still running at defenders as he did in his early 20s. Over the long term, such a playing style is by no means sustainable, and his unrealistic expectations in himself might lead to the early downfall of a player loved and adored the world over.
As of right now, the team has more than enough creative players in its ranks to take the load of Messi’s back — if he allows them to. No longer does he need to do so much, so often.
Messi needs to share the creative and finishing mantle with Griezmann, for the betterment of the team. (Photo via Imago)
Perhaps following the game against Los Verdiblancos, Messi will see that even with limited time and action on the pitch, he can still pull off some jaw-dropping displays, and be as effective in the final 30 or 45 minutes of the match when the stakes are at their highest, as he would have been had he played from the start.
While it might go against his personal interests, Messi can not continue to play as he does now. As captain, he has the overbearing feeling that he needs to do anything and everything as much and as often as he can. That said, if he wants to play to or beyond 35, then certain changes have to be made to ensure that this happens. For his sake, the club’s sake, and most importantly for the sake of the fans who tune in week after week to enjoy Lionel Messi.
Koeman at Barcelona: Overcriticised and underappreciated
Credit and criticism should each be given where both are due. With Ronald Koeman, however, there has been a considerably larger share of one than there has the other, and to such a point, it seems unjustifiable.
To call the Dutch manager out for late substitutions or perhaps incomprehensible tactics is perfectly fair. The line is drawn when one decides to pretend as though all he had done was turn gold to dust. He has had to undergo a panoply of trials and tribulations, many of which are unheard of among Europe’s elite.
In this article, Barca Universal explores the revitalisation of Barça’s mentality, Koeman’s underrated improvements to Barcelona, his adaptability to diverse situations and why he should be given more time to implement his ideas.
A mentality reborn
Barcelona’s feeble mentality on big occasions has often been a subject of great torment to their supporters. Once at the helm of Europe’s elite, the element of nostalgia is a tough one for their avid supporters to rid themselves of. They long a return to the greatness they once held onto so tightly, though perhaps irrationally.
The Garnet and Blue are stacked with dextrous individuals full to the brim with the zeal and zest that comes with youth. While optimal for future successes, these individuals are years away from achieving the rank of world-class. Nevertheless, Ronald Koeman has had to instil, both in them and the veterans that have run the big stage so long, his ferocious attitude and never-go-die mentality.
As Warren Buffet once said that “No matter how great the talent or efforts, good things take time.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it would be completely unrealistic to expect that the Catalans’ wounded spirits be completely healed just a few months following several consecutive European annihilations.
Ever since the turn of the year, the Catalans have shown a palpable increase in their self-belief, and such is illustrated by their four comeback victories this season. The most remarkable of the quad was that against Granada in the Copa Del Rey. Down by two goals and in desperate need of a dramatic comeback, the Azulgranas broke loose from the jaws of defeat, recording one of their most enthralling victories of the season.
There are, of course, times when Barça have stumbled, and one need not look any further than a fortnight ago, where Barcelona had their wounds from yesteryear brutally reopened by a rampant PSG side. No one ever said that the path to recovery would be an easy one, but it is clear that Ronald Koeman’s mentality is rubbing off onto his players and is steadily developing a profound resonance with them.
Following arguably their best performance in what seems like aeons against Sevilla two nights ago, Gerard Piqué had this to say:
“We can fight for the league, for sure. Today we dominated Sevilla, they didn’t create us chances, we played in their half…I trust this team a lot, let’s hope we can achieve something big. If we manage to turn the tie around on Wednesday, the season completely changes.”Gerard Pique | Post-match interview v Sevilla
The competitive attitude is building up gradually, rising to a crescendo that simply can’t be matched and sooner or later, it’ll culminate in a trophy of some sort.
Ameliorated, but underrated form
As has been said before, to brush off all that Ronald Koeman has done to improve the team and solely focus on the negatives would be nothing short of peddling a narrative. The ex-Valencia boss has seen an unprecedented change to his fortunes, and it would only be just to acknowledge them.
In his book ‘Pep Confidential‘, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola said that “Titles are won in the last 8 games but are lost in the first 8.”
Drawing parallels to Barcelona this season, their opening eight matches were horrendous, to say the least. As former champions, one would surely expect form better than just three victories in that period, but such was Barça’s tactical ineptitude that they did just that, losing to all three of their rivals from Madrid.
What many refuse, or rather fail to recognize, is the level of improvement that has taken place since. From the 21st of November, when they succumbed to defeat against Atlético de Madrid, the Catalans have gone on to win 42 points from 17 matches played, thirteen of which were won while they dropped points through three draws as well as the damning defeat to Cádiz.
In those seventeen matches, they have the highest points tally of any La Liga side, with Sevilla coming closest at 35 points from 51. They also bulged their opponents’ nets a whopping 40 times, twelve more than nearest rivals Los Colchoneros.
They incurred the least defeats and conceded the third least number of goals, all numbers which, when compounded with the statistics from the first eight games, dissipate and present a much worse image of Barcelona right now compared to how their current form would suggest.
It is also worth mentioning that all this has been accomplished with a team lacking both in quality and personnel in certain departments of the pitch. Both Clément Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti have been victims of their own abhorrent and detestable form. In contrast, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araújo have each succumbed to injuries at crucial points of the campaign. In the forward line, the ex-Oranje manager had often had to deal with the reprehensible inconsistency in both form and finishing of his star players, including Lionel Messi being far from his best in front of the goal.
Much of Koeman’s work has been blatantly overlooked, much of this without taking into account the context behind his failures and turning a blind eye to each of his successes. The situation, in general, is far from ideal, but he has skillfully manoeuvred his way through the worst of scenarios without an inkling of gratitude. Seems rather harsh, does it not?
Adaptability to diverse situations
In this department, Koeman has possibly had as many plaudits as he does critics. His detractors will shed light on the multifarious managerial and tactical errors that he has made, and with great reason. At certain points, over the course of the campaign, he showed a crude level of incompetence, particularly in matches against tougher opposition, where he has recorded just but two victories against last season’s top 6 teams.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the epitome of insanity, and when offered the opportunity to atone for his errors, he has objectively been laudable.
One could point towards his quickfire matches against Athletic Club in January, where following a damning defeat in the Spanish Super Cup final, he immediately made up for the result, restricting the Basque side to just 0.21xG in a 2-1 victory.
Another more recent example is his iconic victory over Sevilla this past weekend. Having tasted defeat against Los Nervionenses just three weeks back, he restructured his side in accordance to his opponents, switched up his tactics to suit his own, and drastically shifted gears in terms of his team’s pressing. The result was the deliverance of a tactical masterclass against one of the division’s best tacticians, and this too away from home.
When it came to injuries, which are quite possibly a manager’s worst nightmare, he has on plenty of occasions illustrated his flexibility. On the back of Gerard Piqué’s four-month layoff subsequent to his injury in the Wanda Metropolitano, Koeman successfully integrated his namesake Ronald Araújo into the side and with tender care, like a potter with the softest of clay, moulded him into one of La Liga’s best centre-backs.
He did the same with Oscar Mingueza, who, up until his arrival into the first team, was even struggling for minutes in the B team. He is now not only a reliable figure in central defence, but he has also seen an unprecedented evolution into the right-back role. There be offers a starkly contrasting dynamic to the role that Sergiño Dest plays, and so much so that it coincided in him gaining far more relevance to the first team than he would have ever dreamed of.
In terms of the team’s shape, given his now complete understanding of the team, he has been proven capable of altering it from time to time and to great success. The 4-2-3-1 is proprietarily his formation, though rather than place such a hefty burden on the players with a setup they were completely novel too, he tweaked the shape to mimic Barca’s famed 4-3-3, and this perhaps was the key to him winning as many points as he did from November.
In perhaps the riskiest tactical switch one could fathom, his shift to a metamorphic 3-5-2 formation won him the game against Sevilla in the Pizjuan, a victory which to Barcelona’s demanding supporters was long overdue.
Could Frank Rijkaard’s past be his future?
When talking about Ronald Koeman, it is almost a taboo topic amongst Culés to speak of any future that does not involve him being sacked in the summer. Him remaining depends not only on how well he does for the rest of the season but also on the outcome of the presidential elections in a week’s time.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between Koeman’s Barça and that of Frank Rijkaard back in 2003. Both managers came into the campaign on the back of an immensely disappointing season, in an election year, and with teams that were more-less in the making rather than they were finished products.
The starts to both managers’ seasons were almost identical too. The pair had periods in the campaign where they seemed more like relegation candidates than they did title favourites. For the former, such was the state of the club that at one point during the campaign, they were a whopping eighteen points behind Real Madrid.
Around the halfway point of the campaign, much like with Koeman, his fortunes changed for the better, with his football flowing ever so freely. Come season’s end, Rijkaard’s side finished as runners up to Valencia, and more remarkably two points ahead of Real Madrid in third.
Unlike Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién, Koeman’s ideal version of Barça has been witnessed on plenty of occasions. There are obvious limitations to what he, unlike Rijkaard with his big signings, was able to do. The Blaugranas‘ financial situation prevented him from acquiring around 80% of his intended transfer targets.
Given how well he’s done with limited resources and historic precedence from his Dutch counterpart showing the potential to go from strength to strength, how much more could he do with added reinforcements to one of the most talented young squads in Europe?
In Rijkaard’s second and third years at the club, he both reclaimed the long lost league title and defended whilst winning only the club’s second Champions League title to mark an era of his own at the club. The current Barça might not be able to win either this year, but under Koeman, they can take advantage of the sheer uniqueness of this season to lay the groundwork for the next. The youth the Garnet and Blue possess, both in the first and in Garcia Pimienta’s B team, is more than enough to assure them competitiveness both domestically and in Europe.
In 2003, Joan Laporta had Koeman in his three-man shortlist for the Barça managerial role, and — assuming he wins — the Dutchman’s presence now makes this seem all the more like a match made in heaven. Should he be granted the chance to form his own squad from scratch, under an entirely new regime, he could be admired as a Barça legend not only in his playing days but also in his managerial career.
Barça’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will certainly take time to be achieved. Provided the necessary tools to succeed, Koeman could, in fact, do this, but it will depend entirely on whether or not he is given the opportunity to.