Seers are often scoffed at when they first deliver news that nobody wants to hear, a phenomenon that is always fascinating.
But at the start of the Champions League semi-final against Liverpool, Michael Caley, a top-notch analytic football writer, wrote a piece for Five Thirty Eight about how Messi for Barcelona was more dominant than ever, in effect becoming a one-man team.
For Barça supporters Messi is a weird thing, because he is the anomaly that all arguments fail against. “Individual brilliance” is scoffed at unless it is a Messi goal. Not making the final pass is scoffed at unless it is a Messi shot. Making a dribbling run instead of pass and move is scoffed at unless it’s Messi. Coaches are shamed for Messidependencia, but if Messi takes it all on himself, that is laudable. The man is, for supporters, a quandary wrapped around a contradiction.
The reason the Caley piece has returned is because of a discussion that Levon, Isaiah and I were having on Twitter, where Isaiah brought up the Caley piece that I won”t unpack here, but that is an essential read. It’s almost a blueprint to explain why Barcelona isn’t in Madrid right now.
One of the excellent tactical tweaks that Valverde brought this season was to make Messi decisive. Movement on and off the ball contributed to a situation, time and again, that found Messi in open space. And it worked. The team was rolling, amd the Argentine was having another stellar season. And then something happened, about three-quarters of the way into the season, when Messi went from being decisive to the only game in town.
It’s seductive to have a genius around. And you get so used to him being a genius that it can make you sloppy. The Chicago Bulls used to just pass the ball to Jordan, then go out for snacks. It wasn’t until they built an effective team around him that the championships began.
In looking back at matches from early days, particularly the first two Guardiola seasons, Barça was really Xavi’s team. He dictated the tempo, drove how it was going to play. Messi was part of that team. His goalscoring numbers were gaudy, but it came about as a consequence of team play. One of my favorite Barcelona teams was the first treble winner. It could outrun, outpass, outtechnical, outphysical opponents. It wasn’t as refined as successive editions, but man, was it fun.
In that team, Messi was a cog. It’s weird to watch those matches now, and see Messi moving, passing and moving, looking like a Masia wunderkind, meshing within an overall structure. It would be interesting to talk with Messi about where playing for those teams ranked for him. It’s easy to speculate that he had a great time, because truly great players want to frolic with peers.
The second treble team was a similar setup in a different way. Neymar and Suarez allowed Messi to participate in a peer structure, three players all working toward the same goal. As an aside, Suarez was also happier, benefitting from the largesse of Neymar.
When Neymar left, everything changed for Messi and Suarez. And Valverde. Instead of having an attack driver on a flank, creating options that Messi and Suarez could move into, a different tactic had to be employed. Thus came Paulinho and his moving wall passes with Messi, to keep him from having to dribble into defenses set in the opponent box. It also set Paulihno up for goals.
Opponents didn’t figure out what wrinkle as much as Valverde stopped using it, to the detriment of his team, particularly in Rome.
The decisive Messi option needs for a lot to happen, from precision of passes and runs to dynamic movement by wingers. Part of why Valverde had players moving instead of the ball was to create tactical imbalances, but also to use the ball as a lever to move defenses so that Messi could have space. The trick was to always get Messi the ball where he had to do less with it.
As the season progressed and that intricacy was lost, Messi started having to come deeper and deeper to get the ball, then carry it forward. He went from being decisive to a situation where it was impossible for him to be decisive because he always had the ball. That was when the problem for Barcelona began, and when the team became more predictable and easy to defend. Even a month before that fateful day in Anfield, the team would have advanced against Liverpool, as it was still playing correctly. Messi was decisive instead of a donkey.
There is a video floating around of Messi in the first half against Liverpool. What is striking is how little he touches the ball. Liverpool set up to deny Messi the ball, deny him the opportunity to harm them. Because of how Barcelona was playing, this task was pretty easy, even as moments of individual brilliance still allowed Messi to create chances for teammates. At Anfield, Barcelona was a shadow of the team that thrived by setting up its best player
The problem wasn’t even the deterioration of overall team play, but rather that the advantages created by a fit Dembele evaporated. Valverde playing the Frenchman on the left as usual, meant that Jordi Alba could do more solid defensive work, which meant Lenglet had less exposure. When Dembele broke, Alba got more forward, which created problems. The other problem was that Malcom was never fully developed by Valverde as a viable option, even when Dembele’s fragility became clear.
Barcelona needs a fit Dembele as a key part of the attack. He dribbles, can score goals, make smart passes and unbalance a defense. The danger that he creates also makes space for Messi. Without that, Barcelona’s attack is a lot more predictable. Control the Alba overlap by fronting Messi, and that was that.
Whoever next season’s coach is will have some work to do. Driving the ball forward will be key, as well as making the ball do more of the work. But the biggest task will be making Messi part of a team again, rather than being the entire team.