Atleti 1, Barça 2, aka “The end of Messidependencia”

Much has been made of the effect that Messi had on Saturday’s match, a Liga classic that featured unfettered brilliance. Sportswriters issued a heartfelt “Whew!” as Messi saving the day makes that matchday story a bit easier to write. But the most fascinating part of the match from my seat was the time before Messi came onto the pitch, because it was that period that showed what an extraordinary team Luis Enrique has built.

Despite the ways in which people assert that he isn’t the coach Guardiola was, the parallels keep rearing their heads, from a first-season treble to the way each manager uses the best player in the game. Under Guardiola as well as Enrique, the best Barça will almost certainly turn out to be the one that is least Messi-dependent.

Prima facie that’s a crazy thing to say, but the extraordinary first half of football against Atleti lends a little bit of backbone to the madness.

As the match started, Atleti spent a brief time on the front foot, moments comfortably parried away by Barça, who then found their way into the match via a number of unlikely sources. Atleti once again made the midfield the battleground, in a fascinating display of controlled aggression. This was countered by Enrique in a number of ways, most notably use of the flanks, switching the field and unleashing Iniesta.

It’s probably no coincidence that Iniesta’s best match in a very long time in the colors had something to do with his being unleashed to take on attackers and get into the Atleti box, as he used to when occupying his role as Xavi’s rambunctious shadow. It was a perfect tactical move because Atleti was set up to stop Barça playing football rather than trying to harness a ghost, and the Iniesta runs almost led to paydirt on two occasions, most notably a run in which I still believe he dematerialized for a moment, before placing a perfect ball for Rakitic to run onto.

The other beautiful thing about unleashing Iniesta is one of those philosophical moments that makes me woozy, as Enrique countered destruction with creativity. Atleti was clearly under orders to let nothing happen, by hook or by crook. If you can’t stop the play, foul. But as Iniesta flitted around the pitch as if on a hoverboard, it was his delectable creativity that brought beauty to what could have been a nasty, fraught affair.

And while it was Iniesta’s show to run, Neymar assumed the mantel as the Player Most Likely To. He, too, was unleashed by Enrique and his dynamic play, coupled with touch and trickery, hasn’t been so in evidence since the Messi injury break during the Tata Martino season, when Neymar and Sanchez proceeded to lay waste to opposing defenses. The Atleti supporters even backed off whistling Neymar, as even they came to realize that the sleight of foot that he uses is because he doesn’t have other options. He, like Ronaldinho, has a different set of choices than most players, and he isn’t afraid to use them.

neymar

The consequence of Neymar and Iniesta being unfettered as Suarez stalked around, was a Barça that had Atleti flummoxed. Along with more than 70 percent possession against a team that many (including me) picked to win La Liga, was an attendant sense of desperation as they held off Barça. This wasn’t Atleti calmly stonewalling Sevilla before putting the knife in.

Rafinha was another who had one of his best matches in the colors, a physical, dynamic force that was part of the Barça display of aggressive, one-touch football that relied on skill sets forged in hours of rondos, with roots in Masia training. Pass and move, create with movement of the player and the ball. Pass then move to the open space in case your teammate needs you.

Atleti didn’t know where the ball was coming from as every Barça player became a possible key to prise open their defensive lock and by all rights, the first half should have ended 0-2, possibly 0-3. Suarez hit the post, and Neymar, on a break, got into the Atleti box and, 90 percent of the time a goal is the result.

There was structure, there was a system, there was elegance along with grit as Barça went tooth and nail with Atleti, no longer the supplicant as sprites were getting kicked, but giving as good as they got, keeping the ball moving too quickly for them to get kicked and, on the rare occasions that Atleti was able to get forward, Mascherano and Vermaelen kept things under control.

Atleti had a spectacular transfer window, but what that first half showed is that Barça might not be as deep, but it has higher quality at almost every position on the pitch. As Simeone said, “Barça was better,” and he was correct. But not just better in the ultimate talent worldview. Barça was also better from a systemic viewpoint, as the ball movement made Atleti move, which created opportunities. This was the theoretical Barça, that tactical ideal that the naysayers craved, but in a different way than the short, incisive passing team of yore.

Instead there were diagonals, cross-pitch passes that swiftly changed the angle of attack, overlaps and runs in behind the defense, forcing an opponent back via dynamism rather than scalpel-like precision. That first half team was amazing, part of a scintillating half of football, but it also showed how much this team has grown up.

Messi didn’t start, for obvious reasons: trans-Atlantic flight after some Argentina friendlies and the birth of his second son. And while some corners of the culerverse freaked out, most saw the logic in Enrique’s decision, as did the player. What I don’t think many anticipated was how well the team played, an aggressive, independent group that spent exactly zero seconds just passing the ball around and looking to the bench for its salvation.

In the second half Atleti changed tactics, deciding to come out and play Barça more as equals, a decision that would lead to their undoing even as it initially resulted in something good when a risky Mathieu pass was converted into a springboard attack that led to a Torres goal. And the thing about the tally that many noticed is that Ter Stegen, starting in place of the pranged Claudio Bravo, was more passive than he usually is. In his usual role, that pass probably doesn’t even reach Torres as Ter Stegen is hovering somewhere around the top of his box, and he would have easily raced out to either play the ball into touch, or control it and feed a teammate to start the attack.

Instead he was cowering near his goal line. Whether this was a decision rooted in the idea that his forward position made him vulnerable (something that so many culers are misguided about), or him just having a tentative moment is uncertain, but it was nice to see him gradually easing forward as the match progressed. Barça already has a Bravo. It needs a Ter Stegen.

As an aside on keepers, have a look at the 44th minute when Ter Stegen catches an Atleti effort and immediately rolls the ball to an attacker, kick starting a dangerous Barça break. Now recall when Bravo catches a ball, how he cradles it, then looks around, sometimes gesticulating and yelling at people to assume positions that will ease his comfort. Then he rolls the ball out to a defender, and the moment is lost. In the Barça system, the keeper is as much an attack starter as any midfielder. And with the attacking talent that Barça has along with the pace of players like Alba and Neymar, it often behooves a keeper to get the ball into play as quickly as possible, before an opponent’s defense has the chance to set.

A truly spectacular Neymar free kick equalized, a free kick whose wonder got lost in Messi netting the winning goal, but it really was a wonderful strike from a distance that makes it quite difficult to beat a keeper. Barça had not only held their own, but fought back, all without Messi, shrugging off the error and Torres goal as this team almost always does, like a temporary glitch in the matrix.

Messi entering the match in the second half was almost like Dad coming home from work. The kids are squealing and running around the backyard less, and are calmer and more deferential. Barça became less dynamic and more predictable when Messi came onto the pitch as an overall force, even as Messi doing those Messi things made him more unpredictable, unbalancing Atleti in a different way, but one they could control by, as with Neymar on that first-half break of his, having one player too many facing him.

Most interesting was that the Barça goal came during one of the times when Barça was playing like Messi was just another player, right until the end. The ball pinged around between Barça players, an attempted Atleti clearance quickly controlled by Alba who slid it to Suarez, who played in Messi for a delightful finish. And it was really a goal of two Barças, the independent one and the deferential one. Does Suarez make that pass to anyone except Messi? Does anyone else except Messi have the quickness and intelligence of movement to not only know what Suarez is going to do but be able to capitalize on it?

This is a Barça where for the first time in a long time, having the Best Player Ever is a luxury rather than a necessity. Before watching that first-half display against Atleti, many would have argued. Many more would argue that it was a fluke, that the team is still better off with Messi always in the XI. But for some time my contention has been that Messi can be rested against the Levantes and Granadas, that the XI should still be more than good enough to defeat those mid and lower-table opponents, allowing Messi the rest that he needs to be at his best.

Just look at how electric Messi was when he came on, running at a defense that had been parrying his teammates for more than 60 minutes, “And now we have to deal with THIS?!” They couldn’t. Messi was always going to get some running time in advance of the mid-week Champions League clash against Roma, but you wonder, had Neymar had a better first touch, Suarez not hit the woodwork or if Rakitic had done more with that Iniesta pass, how much running time Messi would have needed to get.

That we can ask that question speaks a lot about the job that Enrique has done in forging this team into one of the best in Europe, quite possibly the best in Europe. That team can take on a legit Liga title contender without its best player and still not only go toe to toe, but be vastly more dangerous. That’s pretty wonderful, and I imagine that as Messi sat there on the bench, smiling to himself, he thought the same thing.

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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.

37 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    September 14, 2015

    I agree with everything.The first half was so good by the team.Lucho is doing a great job.Messi make the team to play in another level but without him we can play in a very high level too.

  2. Nguyen Toan
    September 14, 2015

    Hi. I’m new here, Barca’s fan from Vietnam.
    It was really exciting to watch the team performed so good without Messi. Iniesta, Neymar, Rafinha all stepped up (Well, Rakitic is strill struggling to find his form and tbh Neymar is out of touch sometimes). We fought head to head, toe to toe with one of two title contenders but we could only tied with them as we still lacked a little bit of precision. That was where Messi came in and did the job.
    Btw, I’m really impressed by Rafinha’s performance and how much he has improved. Last year he seemed lack of balance and strength and went down very easily with any slightest touch. This season his balance has improved a lot, therefore his dribbling has been better too.

  3. Ttemple
    September 15, 2015

    Kevin:
    “Messi entering the match in the second half was almost like Dad coming home from work. The kids are squealing and running around the backyard less, and are calmer and more deferential. Barça became less dynamic and more predictable when Messi came onto the pitch as an overall force … ”

    I don’t know what you’re trying to parse by this, but I don’t buy it. He played in the centre more when he came in, and the play wasn’t any less dynamic or predictable than in the first half or before he was substituted-in.
    To add, the play became sharper and the final passes, more precise with his coming in.
    So I disagree totally that there was less dynamism and a differential play when he was introduced. Or that we became more predictable.

  4. September 15, 2015

    Barca was playing like a champion team without Messi. But with Messi, we entered a different level.
    I really dont understand – Barça became less dynamic and more predictable when Messi came onto – this part. On the contrary, we looked like having an extra gear, with all parts of engine taking a boost.
    Anyways, for me – I have played both as a right wing forward and a right back and Atleti defenders nearly looked like worried or taking a step back – it looked like chances got created one after one. It looked like any ball with the the maestro, playing like a true no.10, would soon reach Neymar or Suarez in the box. It was very clear that we were going to win the match,
    Even so many Atletic players have come out to say, how Messi influenced the match, it is clear its not his goal they are talking about. There was a kind of spark which was going only in one direction, to wards their goal. Even Sid, surprisingly dedicated his weekly column to the maestro, when I was expecting him to write about the Celta – Las Palmas match.

    Overall, this was a v.v.v.important match for us. A lot of confidence for the team and the coaching staff, and hopefully the maestro can get more rest in the future.

  5. Davour
    September 15, 2015

    Thanks for an engaging article! I didn’t understand Kxevin’s point as Barca becoming worse when Messi entered, but predictable in the sense that you knew who would orchestrate. The thing with Messi, as everyone knows, is that he will do the predictable but (most) always with a touch of the unpredictable – hence, you still can’t stop him, because timing, control and vision will prevail. On the other hand, it is another well known fact that the other players often become better when the star is absent, since they need to step up, and are given more freedom to do so. this team can manage without Messi, but perhaps the lack the decisiveness and penetration to do so fully. Who would take apart Bayern? Again, this is not what Kxevin proposed, to my mind, but that the team have grown aware of its strength as a group, a team, it its own right, and that Messi is not necessarily the hub of everything, but rather the extra sharpened edge, the knife that will find the way to strike when the sword is blocked (or something). I would be delighted if he agreed to be used as a sub at times, both because he needs the rest, and because it allows a more diverse set of tactics. Remember what Juanfran said: you don’t know if it’s better or worse for them that Messi didn’t start.

  6. timtim
    September 15, 2015

    nice one again Kev. Messi…. that man! you re totally right about enrique. he has done a really wonderful job with the team. the team he took over was messi dependent but d one we saw on saturday played very well without messi. i think this is due to the quality of our strike force. in 2013 wen d dependency was at its highest he had d likes of tello cuenca pedro with him. now he s balling with neymar and suarez two of the four best players in the world. We are so lucky to have 3 of the best 4 players in the world in our team.

    Our team has also improved. The Vermalean i was praying for when we signed him is the one i have been seeing this season. He should be Pique’s partner now if not for Mascherano’s silent importance.

    Busquets is also better than ever. Our octopus is smarter than ever. He is the catalyst for our machine.

    Lets just pray against injuries to Ini, Busi, MSN in fact everyone including Sergi Roberto who i have to say should forget about being a midfielder. He is at home as a RB.

    http://www.tunmisports.blogspot.com

  7. luisthebeast
    September 15, 2015

    Manchester City is a joke.When they play a top team they always fail.Despite the money they spend.Also it s strange that the Best team cant win a penalty in CL and two spanish teams won 5 in a night.Happy for Juve because they show again how good was the team we won in the final.

  8. luisthebeast
    September 16, 2015

    I saw a fantastic vid on You Tube!Over 20 minutes of the best skills of Ronaldo as taking penalties;-)

  9. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    Agree on everything except some on Messi.

    Messi is the difference maker. You’re right we can go toe to toe against Atletico but could not find the winner and guess who found it.

    I doubt we can go toe to toe against Madrid or Bayern without Messi. He is the key. Our team would be a 7 or 8 out of 10 but with Messi, we’re a 10/10. Messi is the difference maker.

    Can you please answer this one, it’s an honest question. Do you think we could have won the CL without Messi?

    I heard this line in my top 3 favourite songs; Immortal Technique
    “Appreciate them (Messi) to the fullest extent, and then beyond cause you never really know what you got, until it’s gone.”

  10. Tommy11
    September 16, 2015

    Ronaldo becomes more annoying by the day (let’s forget his professionalism and ability for a second). Scoring- and celebrating in more annoying fashion-8goals in 2 matches that includes 2 baseless penalties and a team as weak as our Catalan Neighbors doesn’t put him in d same breath as Mateo’s dad who by playing 30minutes against the team that beat EE 4-0 last season is still MOTM- I feel for Shaktar. Just like their coach said “Real doesn’t need any help”. I say “CR7 doesn’t need any help”.
    I hope we have a great game tonight at Stadio Olympics. VISCA BARCA!!

    • Tommy11
      September 16, 2015

      *Olimpico
      Forgot to add that the fact that CR7 shared the European Highest goal scorer award Luis Suarez who didn’t play a penalty for Liverpool in 2013/14 season- this gives much more credit to the quality of our number9

  11. georgjorge
    September 16, 2015

    It seemed like a long Champions League drought – very happy to see them compete against some of Europe’s best again!

  12. Davour
    September 16, 2015

    Poor Ter Stegen… you could see the first time he did the sweeper header, he rushed back like a mad man. And then this. Happenstance…

    • Dar_vincy
      September 16, 2015

      Nope, Davor.
      It’s called ‘Not learning your lesson’.

      • Davour
        September 16, 2015

        Well, he is encouraged to play that role. Hard to defend against that… on a different note: this match is dragged down into shit. Slow and anaemic…

  13. Davour
    September 16, 2015

    Not too thrilling a game, but no real worry. This was, on paper, the most difficult game of the group. Last year gave a slow start to the tournament, too; it’s how you end it that counts!

    Relating to Kxevin’s article, I did note a bit of over-reliance on Messi today. Sometimes they seemed to be looking for him, rather than the best pass, and it stemmed fluidity and pace. Better to have him AND Iniesta and Neymar on a roll.

  14. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    Typical Barca match;

    Opposition
    1) scores a fluke goal
    2) very few chances but clinical
    3) GK plays the game of his life

    Or the whole of our team click which would nullify any combination or all of the above.

  15. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    Ter Stegen just can’t stop conceding. Sometimes it’s not his mistake but I guess he needs to work on his positioning.

  16. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    Ter Stegen just can’t stop conceding goals. Sometimes it’s not his mistake but I think he could do better if he positions himself better.

  17. Jim
    September 16, 2015

    Bit of a mixture for me.

    The good

    Not a bad point
    We have my preferred CB partnership – and boy did they look good 🙂 offside played perfectly, only tackled when they needed to, covered for each other. You name it . . . They stay together, I revise my doom laden prediction.

    Messi was outstanding , again. He’s working so hard but getting dragged deeper and deeper to create.

    The bad

    We were coasting this. You can’t give away cheap goals like that. And please spare me the Barca keeper’s role alibi. This was just bad positioning and not learning. The guy was cornered and he hoofed it towards the goal only because TS was awol. Yes, he was lucky to an extent in that there’s no judgement involved but hitting a target that size from halfway isn’t even a moderately difficult task. There were also two defenders marking their only attacker so there is absolutely no need for him to be that far out on this occasion.

    Neymar needs to step up. He’s been poor this season. As has Rakitic – but I expect more from Neymar. He needs to be creating.

    Rafinha’s injury. I was intrigued by his last display and looking forward to him coming on to see if he really has it. Looked like knee to me which isn’t good. Ini gestured right away. Anyone have Samper’s number ?

    The mystifying ?

    Iniesta in the first half played exactly the role he should have, with the freedom of the park. Loved our football. Second half ( until the last ten) he’s tethered to the left side, we lose the quick and clever ball movement and get the safe midfielder. Why ?

    No disaster though. We’ve come through the NT danger time, Pique is ( almost) back, Suarez looks as keen as ever and no sign of the walking Messi. He’s even been persuaded to take a rest !

  18. ciaran
    September 16, 2015

    I feel for ter Stegen, it’s something that just happens with sweeper keepers. Same thing exactly happened to Bravo but the shot flew over the bar.
    Sergi Roberto looked really solid but needs to be more daring in possession.
    Alba looked very shaky in the first quarter but once he realised Salah’s threat he sorted himself out.
    Suarez was terrible in the match, easily our worst player. It’s a pity really because it’s matches like that that you would want him to step up to bully defenders.
    Poor Rafinha, he should have been the right player to put in, with his ability to beat a player one on one. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.

  19. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    Such a pity that Rafinha by that thug. He was just picking up form while Rakitic is still in a slump. January can’t come soon enough.

  20. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    According to Lucho it’s the knee and it’s bad. Tough times ahead. We can’t afford anymore injuries in midfield and attack.

  21. barca96
    September 16, 2015

    Hmm twice now that my comment disappeared after pressing “Post comment. ” it’ll load but my comment is just gone.

    Anyways, it’s so unlucky for Rafinha. He was just picking up form while Rakitic is in a slump. January can’t come soon enough.

  22. Jim
    September 16, 2015

    Maybe a ray of hope ? Meant to say above it was a pretty bad tackle.

    From Barcastuff: Doctors think after first tests that Rafinha has no knee ligament tear, but more tests are needed tomorrow.

  23. luisthebeast
    September 16, 2015

    Just watched our game.I was in Olympiacos-Bayern and i must say that Thiago is a fantastic player.First time i watched him live.But if Bayern want to win CL they need Robben and Ribery.Olympiacos is a tough team to beat at home but they are also a team with a lot new players and if they had little luck they could had a draw.Pretty much a boring game.Now to us.I read in twitter that we played a horrible game and we were shit.Now after that i watched the game i believe that i saw a much better team than Bayern.Roma is not Olympiacos but we made them look like Astana in their home.And i hope the best for Rafhi.I am tired goodnight to all!

  24. Davour
    September 17, 2015

    As Lucho said: Ter Stegen was not at fault, we ask our keepers to play like that… To me, it’s a freak goal; too bad, since I had a good impression of the part before the curtains fell… But as the smoke has subsided, I believe we had a good game, all things considered. As Jim pointed out, first half was splendid, and Iniesta stuck on the left in the second half… well, I can only think of 1) they hoped to break down that side with him Alba and Ney, or 2) Messi took up all the space in the middle (though playing very well, if not his very best in terms of sharpness). Second half was dragged down by injuries and delayed plays by Roma (almost parodical, how they wasted time with their throw ins), and they also reduced space well (ironic how they, before the match, claimed they were going to play “their own game” – don’t think so).

    The big problem is really Rafinha: good game against AM, and then a good first action here, where he looked confident and on a mission. So, now we are left with no mids bar Mascherano to rotate with Raki and Ini, for approx. 6 weeks. Roberto can do it, of course, but to me CM is his worst position (better as DM, best as RB). Useless with two young attackers on the bench now… This is a real problem.

  25. September 17, 2015

    We lost two points because of a freak goal. Worried for Rafinha and the squad now. We have some distance to go before the end of registration ban and this happens.

    Against Atletico game, when that pass was made, if Ter Stegen had played his sweeper role, the goal would not have happened. He seemed to have thought about something of the past and didnt dare go forewards, which surprised me.
    But yday it looked like he seemed to have realised that he should continue his natural game and looked good in the match coming out couple of times, and then got caught with that freak kick. I am not even sure if that was aimed at the goal or for a cross. Ter Stegen will learn, just like a good attacking player will learn when to pass or dribble.

    Messi played like a full time mid fielder and created good moments. But Rakitic, Neymer, Suarez were really not good though. Agreed with Jim that Pique Mathieu was a good pair.

    I was so impressed by their right wing forward – Salah?, sorry if its spelt wrong.

    • barca96
      September 17, 2015

      Based from the replays it did look like it was intended for goal. Have a look at Mueller’s goal, that is a cross that strayed.

      You were really impressed by Salah? My TV channel’s pundit, an ex-Aussie international thought so too. He had 3 runs into space where he showed his pace. That’s all. He didn’t do much with it. That’s all.

  26. Davour
    September 17, 2015

    Rafi out for the season, it appears. Tragedy for the kid, unfortunate for the team. I know they are well-paid mega stars etc. but I still feel for him. There was a feel he was on the verge of becoming a solid first teamer, and now Barca must probably buy a replacement during the winter window, which will make things harder for Rafi when he returns (next season). What a shame.

    • September 17, 2015

      Its when these kind of tackles are made, when a player loses his half /whole season, FIFA should make retro punishments to the players.
      Seems its done only for alleged insults on Ref or for biting.

      • barca96
        September 17, 2015

        I’m an advocate for video replays. And last night is a clear example how beneficial it would’ve been to have replays.

        Or at least, review after the match. It won’t affect the outcome of the match itself but this is the last resort for me.

        There’s too much at stake.

  27. TITO
    September 17, 2015

    That MF should be banned for 6 months. I read that this was his second time in a year to commit such a horiffic tackle and ruining a player’s season.
    He should not go unpunished. That was by no means an accident.

  28. Gekko64
    September 17, 2015

    Nainggolan is not new to this kind of tackle either

    hopefully in the return leg Masche ends that (player’s) career for good

    • barca96
      September 17, 2015

      No Just no. I hope none of our players will resort to childish tit for tat revenge, especially not an injury. I believe they’re more class than that.

      • Gekko64
        September 17, 2015

        in fact they are. it’s a shame that the referee only gave him a yellow, because (he) now thinks he’s slick and got away with it. this time was rafinha, next time it could be messi or iniesta.

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