‘The mental state of a side can be measured by the distribution of goals. When it is always the same person scoring, that fragile state of equilibrium that is a football team begins to show cracks.’ Who else could it be about? Without prompting, with no mental gymnastics. The part that makes you scratch your head is that the quote is seven years old. Guillem Balague wrote that poignant analysis in his biography of Lionel Messi when the Argentine was twenty-five. Now he is thirty-two and it is no less accurate. No less problematic either.
In a way, the Messi-dependence debate feels distant, like it hasn’t appeared on the cover of Sport for a while. Is it just less fashionable – have fans and content writers agreed in unison that the argument is tired and expelled it from the news? Maybe it has been settled. Few argue against its veracity. Though if Balague’s comment remains so current, that would be proof that the issue still looms large.
There is no doubt it exists – the dependence. During the season Messi runs around all week, like an exhausted mother, putting out family fires and smoothing matches over to hold everything together. Depending on him is an entirely natural development, unavoidable even. Several leading journalists often point out that ‘give the ball to Messi’ is quite a good strategy. Ninety percent of the time, it works well.
Nobody is as prolific as Messi; not necessarily in goals or assists, although that too, but nobody resolves matches as often as Messi. The regularity with which he is the decisive factor credits the belief he resides on a higher plane than the rest. The gigantic little man has been directly involved in 49.2% of Barcelona’s league goals this season (despite missing more than a fifth of the minutes played). Even beyond the numbers, nobody else creates as much desequilibrio, unbalancing the match, at such an extraordinary frequency.
The opening quote warns of the malignant weakness however. In simplistic terms, it makes Barcelona overly one-dimensional. Not in the Burnley sense of the word, but it is one route to goal. Shut Messi down and generally you do the same to Barça. This distillation of the key to the match significantly eases the challenge for opposition players and managers.
If anything, it is a testament to his supernatural ability that he still finds a way to be quite that decisive. Last November saw another of those glorious moments where Messi picks up the ball and breaks the opposition single-handedly. Atlético the victims, for the 30th time. So routine for Messi, the remarkable aspect of it was not the miracle itself, but Simeone’s reaction.
Watching the reverse angle, even before the ball reaches Messi near half-way, Simeone is bouncing and screaming on the touchline, demanding someone close Messi down. Nearly on the pitch himself, Simeone had seen this episode before. As Messi slaloms towards the box, Simeone’s gesticulations slow to a standstill – the Wanda Metropolitano holds its breath. The ball nestles in the corner of the net course; Simeone turns, applauds, and throws his hands and head skyward. Helpless against it, you may as well appreciate it.
There were times when the pressure was not focused solely on Messi. It is no coincidence the side won trebles on both of these occasions. During Guardiola’s spell, the supporting cast around him was supreme. Coupled with a rigid system, tailored to fit Messi perfectly, he reigned over football.
The weight was distributed more evenly during the second treble as well. Accompanied by Suárez and Neymar in the final third, leaving any one of the three room was suicidal. The demands they put on defenses ensured that space itself was more evenly distributed. Each of them benefited from the other’s presence and the subsequent obligations imposed on the opposition.
And they had egos too. Always referred to in the negative, noticeably few good forwards come without one. Both the Brazilian and the Uruguayan submitted the throne to the Argentine, but also demanded the ball and responsibility. They would pass and assist, but never shirk their own chances. By expanding the threats across the pitch, Messi scored less against the smaller teams, yet was more decisive in the big games.
Now with Suárez’s pace waning, Neymar 831 kilometres north, those strong characters are lacking. ‘Only those who challenge the establishment grow’ remarked Balague several pages later. Far from detracting from Messi, it is about enhancing his involvements, improving the situation he receives the ball in. Philippe Coutinho’s struggles have been as much mental as they have been stylistic or positional, as evidenced by his ‘I can’t hear the critics’ celebration against Manchester United last season.
In theory, Antoine Griezmann should have that ego, or character if you will. He may become the leader he was in Madrid at Barcelona too, but up until now he finds himself marginalized on the left or crowded in the middle. The burden on Messi is still cumbersome. Fourteen goals is not a small number at this stage, but nobody would claim he has been at his best.
Curiously enough, one player who appears to suffer less in Messi’s long shadow is Griezmann’s compatriot. Ousmane Dembélé endures Messi’s berating more than others, but his confidence to do something different, to not just look for Messi, is healthy. Nobody, Ousmane included probably, knows what he will do next, making attacks less formulaic. Defenders are forced to defend the alternative as well as the Messi pass. Unpredictability is simultaneously Dembélé’s greatest strength and weakness; unreliability is the consequence.
Capable of the amazing and the awful, this presented itself in a microcosm at the end of the first leg against Liverpool. Symbolic of how deeply affected the Blaugrana psyche was by that tie, some actually blame Dembélé’s miss for the whole debacle. That second leg did expose all of Barcelona’s imperfections at once though – they did not like what they saw in the mirror.
Their largest problem was maybe that Messi, for once, failed. By failing to be in two places at the same time, he was unable to both create the chances he did and be on the end of the pass. A parade of Alba, Coutinho and Suárez all spurned clear openings, like Dembélé previously.
All of these players possess quality, the problem is none of them showed the mental fortitude to take on the responsibility. Neither demonstrating the confidence to finish the chances nor creating one for Messi himself. Barcelona were as much undone by their own players as they were Liverpool.
Fragile was the word used by Balague and in the aftermath became a tabloid favorite. Part of this fragility breeds from the one-dimensional nature of the side, as Balague observed so long ago. It is all very well having the sharpest sword in the land, but if the armor is nothing but cardboard, you’ll probably die before you kill them.
Where Setién must impose his will, to bring home that Cup which is so beautiful and so desired, is in reforming the things around Messi. A strict structure, something Setién has shown a penchant for, would control where the ball goes and when Messi receives it. Whether it be Griezmann, Fati or even Lautaro Martínez on the end of his passes, a large part of Setién’s task is to simply remind the others how good they are. By reintroducing the shot or the dribble as a weapon, when the pass is given to Messi he has an extra half-second, an extra half-yard to work with.
Immediate success at Barcelona will depend more on the players around Messi than it will on him. Finding that equilibrium, that sacred sweet spot which extracts the maximum out of Messi while lessening his load will be the key to unlocking the trophy cabinet.
This was a guest post by Ruairidh Barlow, is one of those football fans that describes himself as ‘avid’. Read more of his articles on Postage Stamp Football, a bi-weekly blog focusing on matches, analysis and culture in Spain and sometimes beyond.