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.