Water and spheres of influence, a Messi-less Barça

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.

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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.

21 Comments

  1. dl
    September 27, 2016

    Very nice post. It’s an interesting way to frame the topic by saying without Messi, Barca is more the ‘classic’ Barca we are used to. As I noted in the earlier post, the team is phenomenally talented, and deep, and even without Messi is more than a match for any other team on the planet. Such fun to watch a team with so many possibilities.

  2. georgjorge
    September 27, 2016

    The “ripples from an asteroid” metaphor is a great one. Very good article for making me understanding Barca buildup better.

    I still think that opposing teams fearing Messi even more than all the other players contributes to having more space in their half, but Messi not “hogging” the ball during buildup definitely also contributes to a change of play.

    • Davour
      September 27, 2016

      Yes, use the fear even more – perhaps use Messi just slightly less, making use of that space. But then he must be – again – slightly less more defensive-minded, as a “10”, and… well.

      Speaking of space… watching Dor-RM. Really highlights how hard it is to play the high-press-possession-game. Acres of space for RM to exploit, and just sloppiness prevents further goals (and just then Dor scores from Navas’ mistake). We’ll see, but you get the feeling that DOR is the cocky, young lion, trying to better the skilled, experienced silver back (but in the end, to no avail; walks away, bruised…).

    • Davour
      September 27, 2016

      Have to hand it to ol’ CR – one goal, creating another with a fine cross. While having an awful display otherwise! Obviously, Suarez is a better comparison than Messi…

    • georgjorge
      September 27, 2016

      True, though he profits a lot from other players seeking him out.

      You were almost right about the silverback and the lion – but RM are not Atleti, they are not that good at defending that they can leave the midfield to Dortmund for most of the game and not suffer for it. They played a clever game, but then Dortmund showed some shocking defending on the second goal. I still can’t guess if Zidane only needs time to teach them his wisdom, or if they are still benefitting from what they trained under Ancelotti and it will slowly go downwards for them.

    • Davour
      September 28, 2016

      Sure, he profits from that all the time, being a sniper more than anything now. Some nice moves but does influence play very little (is even left unmarked at times). RM/silverback never got going, I think – gave up initiative after 2-1, instead of finishing the job (a sin many big teams commit). They have very good players, but there is something amiss at this point, it seems. And I would think CR is part of that, with a weird attitude as he is slowly fading (again, his frustrated gestures, kicking a DOR-player) – it is beginning to look lika a charade of sorts.

      Hoping for a fine display this evening – best case we give a master class in the same game DOR attempted.

  3. Tata2
    September 27, 2016

    Anyone has an idea of what Turan and Rakitic were talking about after Turan scored?

    • September 28, 2016

      No, but we figured on Twitter that it was some kind of bet or something, because Rakitic was positively giddy when Turan scored.

  4. Godwin
    September 28, 2016

    Enter Your Comment…The depth of the squad is really amazing in a very unnoticeable way quality off quality in so is not felt visca barca

  5. September 28, 2016

    I got my XI wish: Ter Stegen; S.Roberto, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Neymar, Alcácer, Suárez.

    • Davour
      September 28, 2016

      Careful what you wish for…

  6. TITO
    September 28, 2016

    Busi will never learn, will he?

    • georgjorge
      September 28, 2016

      I agree. It’s one thing to use these tricks to get out of a tight situation, but he repeatedly uses them to get INTO tight situations, and then can’t get out. Just make the simple pass please…

      To be fair, first half pretty much everyone was off. Sergi Roberto, Alba, Neymar, Suarez etc….nobody could create anything, and there was so little movement. I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind taking such a game easy. Of course the players can’t be 100% in every game so you would have to choose which games you want them to play with full effort. And training cycles and everything. But I regularly see the team giving everything in the 80th minute up 4-0 in La Liga and then not at 0-0 in the Champions League?

  7. Davour
    September 28, 2016

    Well, that was awful, but a sweet victory. Suarez has been off for some games now, but a bit worried watching Neymar unable to make a simple pass, making Iniesta suffer on several occasions. A bit better in second, and cred for nice passes before goals, but otherwise nothing – nothing! – worked. You don’t have to make a number every time, mate. Just pass and go – Andrés is not a bad player.

    Team looked sluggish overall, and Paco & Luis was a massive failure. Maybe when Suarez has better confidence he can drift out wide. Paco, I think, must stay in and around the box. Boy needs a goal.

    Busi? Get out of here. Ter Stegen and Sergi ok – Arda looked confident, and Rafinha brought a few tricks and some speed and movement. Good subs!

    Can’t say the team added support to the “better-without-Messi”-crowd!

    • raj
      September 29, 2016

      Exactly my thoughts on Neymar. But we are spoiled by Messi, expecting everyone to stand so high! His chip for Arda goal was brilliant. And he should have had another brilliant assist – no thanks to Saurez.

      Having said that, haven’t seen Iniesta much with his trademark runs here.

      Really happy with Sergi Roberto, the guy will only get better, sell Vidal already!

      Busi was really amateur in that goal. But other than that, even in games where the team is sluggish against quality opponents, they manage to neutralize the opposition in midfield. I bet any other top team like RM or Bayern would have lost this match easily.

      LE is one of the top coaches in the game now, you must admit. He somehow mixed Barca Art, with the Athletico Machine – an alchemist is what he is!

    • Davour
      September 29, 2016

      True, Iniesta did not have a great game, but I feel he was not involved enough – partly thanks to slow passing, and, to me, that Neymar held on to the ball too much when he should have released it, often to Iniesta who came running for a return pass. Instead, Andrés had to stop and run back to cover Ney’s mistake… I know Ney is not on Messi’s level (and will never be, as good as he is), but it was rather how he failed than that he failed that bothered me. Perhaps he has overstated his role in Messi’s absence, thinking it is all on him now. It isn’t.

    • September 29, 2016

      Played poor, but earned the 3 valuable points. So
      I repeat, Neymar could take some evening lessons at La Masia or LE should whisper every day in his ears the Crujff quote – football is a simple game, but it is difficult to play simple.
      Just like we are ok with errors from TS, we should bear SB errors too. He is one of our pillars and he has earned it.
      Once again, what a finish from Arda, from a difficult angle. I didnt expect him to score at all from there. Neymar picked him well.
      I feel sorry for Alcacer. He should be patient and should not lose heart.

  8. dl
    September 28, 2016

    I only saw the first half, and they looked like they were wading through a pond! Really crummy movement. Glad to hear they pulled it out, though. And on another note, very happy to hear that AM stuck it to Bayern. Ha!

  9. September 29, 2016

    Barca without Messi looked a bit Messy.

  10. TITO
    September 29, 2016

    I watched the game on my cell phone, so not the best medium to help you analyze the game.
    But that Busi mistake led to them scoring the goal.
    This kind of Busi-like mistake happened several times last night, not just from him, but Neymar, Iniesta… I just don’t like it, at all. When you have a chance to pass the ball to your nearest teammate, do it, don’t try to dribble. You will eventually lose the ball, and if that happens in the middle of the pitch, then you are most likely screwed.
    How many times before this has happened, and i know that it will continue in the future, but i would like LE to talk with some of our players to try to minimize these needles efforts from them. In most of the cases they are pointless.

  11. September 29, 2016

    Match thoughts are up, where much is (I hope) explained.

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