It’s odd that Messi was injured right around the same time last season, in late September. Then as now, the injury to the best player in the game forced Luis Enrique to make tactical changes, the first of which were rolled out against Sporting Gijon.
Last year a different squad necessitated a different solution as Luis Enrique unleashed Neymar the Trickster. The team accelerated play to give Neymar the space to do what he does best, which is unsettle defenses at speed. He found a willing accomplice in Luis Suarez, and the pair thrived.
Last year’s squad was also hamstrung by a lack of depth, which was fixed in the summer transfer window. While it’s difficult to be able to suss anything definite from the Sporting outing, the first Messiless outing has a few tactical indicators worth looking at.
Some speculate that teams play differently when Messi is in the lineup, but it’s more than that alone. If you think about dropping rocks into a pond and the subsequent ripples as the stone cleaves the water’s surface, size matters. A pebble makes small circles, a stone larger ones, a rock larger ones still.
Messi is an asteroid.
The ripples that he makes when you drop him into the pond are massive. Ray Hudson, during the match, spoke of Messi elevating his teammates with his excellence. That’s the massive ripple. What happened in the absence of the asteroid is that all of the little stones developed interlocking ripple patterns, rather than the big wave washing over them.
Because Messi is a reference, he touches the ball during almost every Barça attack. The ball goes from keeper to defender to midfieler to Messi, who is left to his own devices. He surveys, sometimes does a give/go other times makes a run, surveys, passes or makes another run. The ball is with the reference point a lot of the time, as it should be.
Without Messi as that reference point, the ball moves around more because more players have an opportunity not only to touch it, but to do something with it. Gomes took a couple of ill-advised plunks from distance that, with Messi in the XI he never has a chance at. He has a different sphere of influence. Neymar was, at least against Sporting, more conservative than he was last year during Messi’s absence because of higher-quality personnel surrounding him.
On the second goal Neymar is central, running Barça a lot like he runs Brazil. The pace is slowed down from the pell-mell assault of the Messi injury period from last season, however, because of the ball as space gobbler system that Luis Enrique has installed. Neymar doesn’t get to make the pass to Sergi Roberto if Messi is in there. Does Messi make that pass, or does he make a run at the defense? It isn’t a knock on Messi to say that he considers himself, even as he morphs into the best 10 to ever play the game, always the best option. Every great player does, and they’re usually correct.
Neymar slid the ball to Sergi Roberto, who laid a flawless cross onto the head of Rafinha, the player deputized to occupy that Messi space, but in a different way. As Messi, he was designated to bring the ball up, to function as the shuttle between midfield and attack, but in a very direct way. Rafinha doesn’t make a dribble or run at the defense, because that isn’t his game. His smaller sphere of influence overlaps with his teammates in a very different way, one that makes Barça unstable in a different way to a defense. Rakitic plays in a manner similar to Rafinha, and it’s easy to imagine him in that exact role. He even scored a similar headed goal, against Atleti.
The other thing to notice is that Luis Enrique pushed both Digne and Sergi Roberto far wide, hugging the touch line. This meant, because of how Barça uses the fullbacks also as wingers, Sporting had more space to play. This tactical decision allowed Neymar and Digne to interact in a way that almost led to a goal. It allowed Gomes the space he needed to be creative, while also letting Arda Turan relax and have time on the ball. When there is no one big danger, Barça can use space and a lot of smaller dangers to still be effective.
If the defense decides to play tight in the middle it facilitates Sergi Roberto, who had two assists and really should have had a third. If a defense spaces wide to attack the ball, there is space for the creative players in the middle to do their damage. The absence of Messi tightens the Barça talent sine wave to something more Bayernesque, a confederacy of near-equals. Anyone can kill you.
Last season Suarez had more to play with because Neymar was mostly still maintaining his sphere of influence on the left, so he and Suarez were playmates in the box. This season, with Arda Turan present on the left, there was a very different proposition for Suarez. Turan isn’t the same kind of player as Neymar, so the space-creating runs aren’t coming from the left any longer even as intelligent possession and passes are.
If anything, Barça is, in Messi’s absence, forced to become more archetypical Barça — ball movement, coupled with intelligent ball and player movement. The magic of Messi is such that the team is at times more chaotic because Messi sees things that other players don’t. A mazy, crazy run or an absurd rainbow over distance is routine for him, a play that not only breaks the defense but the Barça structure. Thunderbolts tend to mess stuff up, for the better in this context.
Neymar doesn’t see those same kinds of passes, so the Messiless attack can be more orderly this season because depth allows it. There’s no compensating for shortomings of Sandro or Munir. Suarez comes out and Alcacer comes in. Without Iniesta and Rakitic, Luis Enrique can play Rafinha and Gomes, allowing Busquets to slide further up the pitch because of another thing that happens when Messi is absent: Barça attack AND defend with eleven.
Messi’s defending is part of a tradeoff that his coach and Barça supporters gladly accept because of what he does when he’s on the ball. Don’t use your Ferrrari to plow a field. Messi will defend on those fire nights, against a big rival or in an important match. But note how much Rafinha was in the Barça defensive box against Sporting along with Gomes, or how far forward Busquets could play because he didn’t have to worry as much about protecting the space behind Messi, who takes more risks with the ball. That’s part of his magic. When it works, it’s real danger. When it doesn’t, it’s sometimes a counterattack that the defense has to deal with. Busquets needs to be there to deal with those.
Without Messi, Busquets would slide forward as Turan dropped into the hole. Note that his assist for Suarez came from this zone.
When Messi is on, Neymar is sticking to his left-sided channel and Suarez isn’t as isolated as a lone man up front that defenses could collapse on. Neither Neymar nor Rafinha can do what Messi does but as a tandem, they can somewhat replicate his duties as Rafinha brings the ball up and Neymar dribbles or makes passes. More players touch the ball in positions of danger.
Messi running at defenders has to be legitimately terrifying, because he is thinking of things that aren’t a part of the lexicon of mere mortals. He can not only think of them — he can execute them. Without Messi, nobody can do that stuff, so everyone pitches in more as spheres of influence expand. A bunch of smaller rocks make a different set of ripples that in aggregate, cause a different kind of erosion.
Wednesday’s Champions League match should be the gala XI minus Messi. If that group plays the same way as the rotation side, it will be potentially devastating as Rakitic/Iniesta/Busquets is better than Turan/Gomes/Busquets. Think of it as the same symphony, but with virtuosos. The only question will be what happens up front. The Suarez/Neymar/Alcacer front line is still intriguing, but unlikely.
When Phil Schoen, during the Sporting match, raised the idea of Barça being better without Messi, it was a conversation starter, something not true that nonetheless serves as a mental goad. Last year, Barça solved the Messi absence one way, a path that still relied on genius. This year, the team seems to be solving the Messi absence by empowering a coterie of higher-quality players. Genius doesn’t always work, but indomitable quality in layers is often a sure thing.