FC Barcelona is Messi’s team, aka “The littlest giant takes full control”

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team.

For years, such things have been intimated, really since Pep Guardiola decided to unleash Messi as a false 9, but they have always felt premature. Scoring the most goals and influencing matches with brilliance doesn’t mean that it’s your team, nor does being the most talented among the captains.

This season is the very first season in which it can be truly and fully said that this is Messi’s team, as the boy genius who has seemed perpetually young even in his mid-20s, became a man. It isn’t just the hardness around his face, that chiseled edge that speaks as much to maturity as fitness. From this chair, four things happened that made the adulthood of Lionel Messi as clear as can be, and truly stamped his authority on Barça:

The right wing

When Messi exploded into vibrant, fantasy football life, it was from the right. This was of necessity as much as anything else, because Barça had Eto’o and Henry running around. But from false 9 days on, Messi became a beast of the center of the pitch, able to make his runs and score his goals from a space that gave him full access to both angles. Coaches tried to play Messi on the right before, once the false 9 goal blizzards began, and it didn’t go well. This season, there he was on the right, and he gave everything. No pouting, no sulking, match after match. Media types and supporters called Enrique a fool for doing this, for taking his best player away from where he could do the most damage, and neither he nor Messi cared, because they understood what was going on.

When it first started, some called it a launch pad rather than a prison, but Messi playing on the right and happily doing so was more than that. It was an important step in the full and complete maturation of a footballer. It was important that Messi play on the right because that was what the team needed. It shifted the attack, opened up the pitch for the likes of Neymar, Sandro, Munir and eventually Suarez, it created a positional fluidity that found all three attackers popping up anywhere. People considered Messi position on the right and suggested that he would be able to score more goals from the right, having only a fullback to beat, etc, etc. But it wasn’t about goals – it was about influencing the match in a decisive way.

It has always been considered that scoring goals is the most effective way that Messi can help Barca. His dynamic, match-changing play from the right wing put the lie to that notion. Messi embraced the right because he knew. He wasn’t ready to embrace it when Martino tried it, but he also knew that the team didn’t have the pieces for him to thrive on the right. Enrique did. But even more than that, it was the first sign that Barça’s best player was interested in being a full and complete team player.

Giving Neymar some

Barça was playing Sevilla, and won a free kick. It was automatic, the presumption that Messi was going to take the ensuing free kick because aside from the occasional moment of deference to Xavi. Messi takes all of the Barça free kicks and penalties. He and Neymar chatted briefly, then Messi stepped back. Neymar hoofed it, and golazo. Logically as a left-footed player, it made sense for Messi to let a right-footer take that shot. It opened up the option for the curler into the near corner, thus enhancing the possibility of a Barça goal. But Barca has gotten free kicks in similar positions before, and Neymar has never been allowed to take one, until now. Messi understands that if a group of attackers is going to truly and fully equal, small gestures are important. Neymar knows that he isn’t as good a free kick taker as Messi. So does Messi. But a leader does this.

Then in May, during a shellacking of Cordoba in which Neymar was having one of those “ass over teakettle” matches, in which he just couldn’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn. And then, PENALTY! Everybody knew, once again, that Messi was going to take it. But again, Messi and Neymar chatted briefly, and Neymar stepped to the spot. Goal! Neymar got a goal, got a very positive feeling from what could have been a psychological mess of a match for him, and quite possibly got the mental boost that made him the player who helped put Bayern to the sword.

The free kick and the penalty kick being handed over by Messi were huge. Only the Sevilla free kick mattered for the final scoreline, and whether you want to call it deference or benevolence, the effect was massive.

Those Atleti goals

Atletico rolled into the Camp Nou, the team that Barça had not, in try after try the previous season, been able to beat. They attacked with a flooded midfield, and the answer was really a simple one even as it was one that ran counter to everything that culers had come to believe in: bypass the midfield. It made perfect sense, because if an opponent creates a danger zone, why not just go around or over it? But years of institutional arrogance, for lack of a better descriptive, demanded that Barça work its magic, set up triangles of sprites and work its way toward a logical, lovely goal. But when Messi charged at Atleti, they didn’t know what hit them. He was in the box so quickly, faked that defender out of his boots so adroitly that panic set in. In past years, Messi would have taken that shot. Atleti was playing him to take the shot. So when he slid that ball across the box to Suarez that eventually became a tap-in for Neymar, Atleti was stunned and on the back heels.

But it was the second goal that was all the more stunning, because it had been some time since any of us had seen Messi with the kind of determination and pace that seemed almost violent. He chested the ball down on the dead run so that it landed in front of him, in stride. What you see in Messi’s wake is four Atleti players all running in from the midfield that had been abandoned by Barça, a futile chase in an effort to stop what was inevitable. Messi ran at the defense and cut toward the center, his usual stomping ground. The defense played Messi for the shot, because what else would you do. It’s Messi, in the box. But without even breaking stride Messi slotted a lovely diagonal for Suarez, who bashed home.

Both of those goals were essentially created by Messi. In the past, those might have been “Oooooh!” runs that sparked the “So close” posts in social media as Messi tried some shot from a crazy angle that was parried by the keeper. But by making that extra pass, chances became sure things. Messi was more interested in putting the knife in. More importantly, he had the trust and confidence to know that Neymar wasn’t going to miss.

Messi the protector

Late in the championship-cliinching match, Atleti, and in particular Diego Godin, had gotten just about enough of Neymar, who had been winding them up as usual in the match, gamesmanship for him but personal for them. Godin snapped, and wanted to have at Neymar. Who was it that got in Godin’s face and pushed him away from Neymar? Messi. In the past during rows such as this, Messi was always standing off in midfield somewhere, looking at the fools who want to do stuff other than score goals and make magic. Even when Messi was fouled as the catalyst for such a scrum, he was always at a dignified reserve. Not today, not this year, not against his team. He took Godin away, then took Neymar aside to keep him from doing something that could potentially create an opportunity for Atleti. And subsequently, he stood, face-to-face with another Atleti player, jawing and not even considering backing down.

Badass Messi has always been the player on the pitch, on the attack, who does magical things to beat a team. Badass Messi has never before been the player who sticks his chest in to defend his team, in their house. At the end of a season that cemented this Barca as Messi’s team, those actions from the smallest player on the pitch made clear what so many had been saying for years: this is Messi’s team.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

26 Comments

  1. Manish
    May 18, 2015

    Having watched Messi through the ages..i was really surprised to see him standing up to Godin.. Just like Pete Seger’s song.. “A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;”..

    Finally Messi has turned..

  2. May 18, 2015

    Just few this and that to add.

    Hunter article mentions that a senior Barca player mentioned to his friend, early in the season, that this time Barca is going to win something, as Messi is up for it. Am really wondering, who that senior player is. Even for such a player to feel comforted by the desire of this little man, shows how much the team believe in him.

    Suarez have mentioned that Leo asked him to stay in the centre of the pitch, during one match and that got fixed.

    Sport is reporting about some messages that players circulated between themselves – we wont win anything if we play like this, and we cant have one more year trophy less – which seems to have pumped their determination.

    Whatever, there was also a huge improvement in our defense. Since Nov/Dec, I have not felt scared whenever ball came into our half. And especially on set pieces, am quite relaxed. If Unzue is the man, a big thanks to him. And LE have clearly changed too, which is not easy for someone at his age.. So the whole team tried.

    Finally, am a bit worried about Juve. They will defend like hell. And Pogba, Vidal and Marchisio will be bloody physical on our players..

    • May 18, 2015

      Since Hunter said the senior player knew Messi “since they were kids,” it can only be Piqué, right?

    • May 18, 2015

      Oh yes, Thanks Lev. I was thinking, may be Puyol/Xavi or even Cesc.
      I hope you caught some of those celebrations in Barcelona….

    • G6O
      May 18, 2015

      Pique is indeed the prime suspect, but it could be Xavi or Iniesta, if they had some interaction with the kids in the cantera. Messi was seen as special from very early on so it’s not inconceivable.

      I haven’t seen that Suarez quote, but it looks like a very important piece of information – it would mean that Messi moved to the wing himself

  3. Davour
    May 18, 2015

    Great analysis! It’s like seeing a superstar realizing the full implications of his powers – in this case, influence and control: “becoming” a monster synthesis of himself, Iniesta (unbalance defenses) and Xavi (control and rhythm). This shy little wonder boy has become a extensively tattooed alfa male, ripped and commanding, dominating on more levels and becoming a leader of men. Speaking of Piqué – he apparently stated in an interview that Messi no longer was that quiet or shy anymore. Messi is dead, long live Messi…

    • May 18, 2015

      I didn’t even want to get into him wielding his considerable political power.

    • Davour
      May 18, 2015

      Watch him blink with his left or right eye, perhaps indicate a movement with his nose… it will decide the upcoming elections!

    • G6O
      May 18, 2015

      When you put it like this, the tattoos make more sense. I’ve been asking myself why he had to do it for a few weeks now..

  4. Tata2
    May 18, 2015

    A player who now understands that team success is far above individual accolades and that to achieve team success, you have to become unselfish and make sacrifices that will promote unity. For me the moment he handed Neymar that penalty when the pichichi was on the line summed up everything for me. We now see a Messi who sometimes even me frown at for opting to pass rather than shoot. He realises that it doesn’t matter who scores as long as the team wins and that its better to celebrate with people than kiss the golden ball alone on stage. Presently, there’s no player playing at the level Messi is playing, a player capable of killing you with a pass or scoring a goal that makes all tactics irrelevant and it was this season that I actually came to terms with kxevin’s famous words than Messi is unstoppable when he decides to be unstoppable, forget double marking or triple marking. Am glad to be witnessing the era of this little leader. Anyone notices that he plays this days with a smile every now and then on his face?

  5. jsefutbol
    May 18, 2015

    And there I was thinking that the 2012 Messi was as good as it would ever get. Silly me. He’s so much more mature now, with a greater impact on the game as a whole.

    What’s crazy is that so many people (myself included) were praising him as the greatest player ever before he had even reached his personal peak. To think that someone who was SO good before is even better now feels kind of absurd, but that’s how it is.

  6. Inamess
    May 18, 2015

    Interesting analysis of Messi’s rebirth. A few things I would include:

    1) Failure at the World Cup: We don’t know exactly what was wrong with Messi last year but losing the World Cup certainly played a role in his rebirth. Last year Messi was knocked off his perch by Cristiano, Atleti, and the Germans. In Rocky style Messi lost 5 Kil, became a fitness guru and was determined to take his rightful place back on top. Interestingly three of the players who were most pissed about what happened at the World Cup are now part of the most dangerous trio in history.

    2) Thiago and the Tattoo: Fatherhood was an impediment to Messi’s performance last year but in interviews he states how much it made him grow up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around him.

    Messi’s Tattoo is the fashion surprise of the year but clearly has a lot of personal significance to him and as he sees it as a sign of some transformation and identity. Why would a notably shy person who doesn’t like individual attention make such a bold move against type? Any agent or publicist would have strongly recommended against the move but obviously it was important to him.

    3)Neymar and Luisito: Last season and the World Cup showed Messi that he can’t win by himself. I think that Messi lost his love for the game last year and it took Neymar’s playful enthusiasm and obvious talent on the pitch to rediscover his love of the game. Suarez’s also was a great complement as well because it relieved Messi of certain duties on the pitch and allowed him to focus more on his strengths as a distributor. Messi is by far the best #10 in the world and Neymar and Suarez allow him to play that role as well. Leo has always been a team player except before he was convinced that that best way to help the team is to take on the burden of scoring goals. Now for the first time since Eto’o and Henry he has striker partners whom he can trust and that allows him to become a much more compete player.

    4) Anoeta to Atleti: The week that rocked the club was also a crisis for Messi. After years of being spoiled and indulged, a dispute between a coach and a star player almost brought down our season. Both are very proud determined people used to getting their way and something had to give. Call it a tantrum or a rebellion, but Messi had to assume responsibility for putting the season back on course after being partly responsible for diverting it. The Atleti game saved our season as we would have been 7 points down in the table had it been lost. The crisis helped transform Leo as a player, Enrique as a coach and the team as a whole.

  7. agar2515
    May 18, 2015

    Privileged to have seen him live, blessed hes a blaugrana. Best in the world and it’s not even close, will retire the GOAT. D10S.

  8. Yaredinho
    May 18, 2015

    With all due respect, I really don’t agree with the title of the article Kxevin. (While the points you made are absolutely right) I don’t necessarily believe those points imply the team is Messi’s. I would rather say Messi become more of a leader, besides all his qualities we know, and managed the balance in leading the team (or say at least the attacking third) and delivering his usual magic. And I’m really thankful for his step up in leadership after Puyi’s departure and Xavi’s diminished role on the pitch, as I strongly believe we wouldn’t manage this with out his leadership.(does the last statement contradict with my argument…?!)

  9. TheFullMontoya
    May 18, 2015

    You’re half right, half wrong on your first point.

    Yes it was a revelation to see Messi playing on the right again and have Suarez in front of him opening up space. But you are incorrect when you insinuate that this move was Enrique’s idea.

    Suarez made it very clear in a recent interview that in one match Messi specifically told him to stay central and that Messi would play wide. He made it clear this was not an instruction from the bench – that this was not an instruction from the coaching staff. Messi himself saw that the team shape would be better and more efficient if he played on the right – and enforced the change in the middle of a match.

    Even more evidence that this season, this was Messi’s team.

  10. luisthebeast
    May 18, 2015

    Well i dont have any problem that this is a Leo team.He is the best player and will be for 6-7 years.He wants the team to win trophies and i am sure until retires more Ligas and CL will come!Also Neymar will be much and much better every season and Suarez have 3-4 years of top level in him.Until then Sandro and Munir i hope they will be ready for top level quality!With a new board that will be ready to make La Masia work again and transfers who can help the team in certain positions everything will be ok for next years!We must not forget that in the start of the season Sandro and Munir helped the team!

  11. Barcathegreatestever
    May 18, 2015

    Interesting thoughts by all. I would think all of the tax evasion crap last year could also weigh on the game of Messi, but I just don’t see it that way. In Peps first years everyone seemed to buy into the group defense, ie the 6second rule. It was a rule of diminishing returns, Iniesta and Alves would overlap the forwards and inevitably all hell would break loose. Possession as defense would break down against disciplined buses.Valdes became famous for defending one on one breakaways and the centerbacks got blasted for every goal let in. None of this had to do with Messi in fact it made his job harder. Messi did a monstrous job leading the team through packed in defenses and to so many come from behind last minute wins. Messidependancy overcoming a defensive structure with significant weaknesses. Blinded by the genius it was not often found out. The number 9 did little defensive work granted but very few do unless against set plays; noones gonna expect him to defend corners. His goal tally has remained exemplary throughout. The only let down I can truly believe I saw was the last few games before the world cup after we already were out of the CL in the quarterfinals.
    Why

  12. Kd
    May 18, 2015

    Messidependecia, now thats a term I heard after a long time!!
    I didn’t mind those days, Messi was everywhere. And it was a joy to watch. Althoguh this new Messi has taken it yp a few more notches. Earlier he had an understanding with Alves. Now he has added Alba to his repertoire. And those cross field diagonals…. They remind me of Ronnie giving these lovely cross fields to Giuly.
    As far as we winning everything this season (fingers crossed) and the motivation behind it its certainly true that we found a hungry frontline and Rakitic who wanted to prove himself. Well as things stand we have a fantastic spine of a team for the forseeable future and hopefully this will be the beginning of another golden era.Just one thing though which has been troubling me; the election which earlier couldn’t come sooner now seems to be coming at a hmmm lets say “not the perfect time.” A new board if it gets elected, dont undo this great work by trying to stamp their authority with a change in personnels or players. That would be a travesty.
    Anyways on a good note I love Marcotti’s musings and today he’s waxing lyrical bout Lucho so here’s the link:
    http://www.espnfcasia.com/blog/marcotti-musings/62/post/2455853/luis-enrique-barcelona-success-man-united-de-gea-conflict

  13. luisthebeast
    May 19, 2015

    There are some rumours that the FIFA will ban madrid only for 6 months and that the ban will start after the summer.If we win the treble i believe that our new board must start to not just let them use all their power against us without doing anything like this pathetic scumbags.I read on twitter today that yesterday there were rumours that after the game at Calderon our players not made the doping tests.Offcours the rumours are false but we all know from where they are and why.The dirtiest team in the history of football cant accept that the team from Catalonia dominate the spanish and european football this century.

  14. luisthebeast
    May 19, 2015

    Oh and what a surprise that in the final UEFA put one of the worst refs around….

  15. lala10
    May 19, 2015

    And while Messi adds on to his incredible repetoire those in Madrid must be quaking in their boots as the pri madonna gets worse. Read that Ramos had the guts to reprimand him during the Juve match.

    Life can’t get much better can it? Ooo the treble is still on. Onwards and upwards.

  16. luisthebeast
    May 19, 2015

    If someone here can post a link to a amazing article of Migel Delaney in bet.unibet.co.uk!!!

  17. phunky
    May 20, 2015

    Correct, Kxevin.

    Messi Has clearly matured into a player that many of us didn’t expect him to, to be honest. Tattoos, et al.

    Pique has matured into a leader that many of us expected him to.

    The point here is that certain players have taken up responsibility and are thriving. We could speculate all year long about what happened but the underlying factor has to be LE.

    His iron hand probably forced the players to come out of the shell of Barcelona. The shell of invincibility that was shattered the past two seasons for a variety of reasons. The players now have been forced to stand up- and stand up we did.

    Credit must go to Enrique, whether he stays or not beyond this season, in my humble opinion.

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