Messi, peers, and how the absence of a system fails all

What makes international break for Barça supporters a torment are the inevitable questions and overreactions as players leave the blaugrana and sparkle, and we sit and wonder why.

Coutinho danced and shimmied for Brazil. Griezmann had a goal and an assist for France. In a recent interview the Frenchman said that he just needs time to adapt, even as many ask how much time he should be given before he is sold, yet another high-profile attacking transfer failure. Add him to the pile with Coutinho and Dembele, and we sit and wonder why.

The biggest problem for Griezmann is the same problem for Coutinho, Dembele, De Jong and anyone else who is going to transfer to Barça: Messi and the absence of a system, of structure. Let’s dig into this a bit.

Michael Jordan would test teammates to figure out if they had the physical and mental capacity to play with him. He taunted them, flicked hard passes at them, demanded the ball when they were open. Give him the ball and he would ask, “Why didn’t you take the open shot?” Fail and he was done with you. Succeed and you got to frolic with greatness.

Phil Jackson knew that Jordan needed people to push back at him, strong personalities in players of high quality who were capable of playing with Jordan, rather than for him. But the Bulls also needed a system to empower those players. The Triangle offense. In the deciding game of the first Bulls championship, Jackson resolved matters with a simple question, asking Jordan who was open. “Pax,” Jordan replied. The next sequences, Jordan fed an open John Paxson the ball, and he drained the jumper. And again. And again. And the Bulls achieved the maximum.

Pep Guardiola understood the same, but he had an additional advantage of working with people who knew Messi back when, who knew him as the shy kid from Rosario. They were Masia classmates and players steeped in the system. They weren’t interested in deferring to Messi, but instead wanted to win with him. It was, as Arsene Wenger recently put it, a great team that also had Messi.

What happened?

Guardiola dealt with the brilliance dilemma by having great players, and having a system. “This is what the ball does. More than what you do, this is what the ball does.” The Bulls had the Triangle offense. “This is what the ball does.” There really hasn’t been a system since Luis Enrique took over. He was, essentially, “Get the ball to the studs.” Valverde is, “Dribble with the ball and make something happen.” All that does is lead to the player who can make the most happen always being counted upon to do that, while the rest of us ask, “Why can’t Antoine play?” Dembele didn’t forget how to football. He can’t as the Barça system, such as it is, is structured. The training videos now show individual runs, golazos. What did we see in the Guardiola era? Rondos, games of Piggy in the Middle. A team working on a system.

Luis Enrique didn’t have a discernible system yet Neymar thrived, Suarez thrived. Both are Alpha+ personalities, made in the rigor of high-profile teams. Neymar was forged in a particularly harsh crucible that allowed him to function as a peer to Messi. His talk of being a fan was P.R. He considered himself a peer and most crucially, Messi treated him like one. On the ball, Neymar isn’t deferential for the same reason Kobe Bryant wouldn’t be deferential to Jordan. And in the absence of a defined system, you don’t just need Alphas, like Griezmann and Dembele. You need Alpha+. Bringing in Alphas to play as Betas isn’t sound transfer policy, particularly absent a system.

Imagine Thierry Henry in a system-less Barça, playing with Xavi and Iniesta. As one of the best forwards the game has ever seen, how much work would he have been willing to do? “Give me the ball.” Guardiola’s “Run, you bastards, run,” established that everyone was there to work for the team, within the system.

But a system also enhances the Alpha because they have a role to play. The system is the Alpha, and everyone else is a Beta. Systems don’t let people defer as much because everybody is empowered. The smallest cog is as crucial as the biggest one. In a discussion with Isaiah, he noted that Valverde “explicitly trusts Messi to make the difference in close matches, so his whole purpose is to make close matches and rely on Messi. It’s a messed up approach, but it’s the ‘safe’ one if you’re trying to build your brand and not lose.”

Griezmann isn’t doing well for the same reason Coutinho didn’t for the same reason Dembele doesn’t and De Jong is hamstrung: Messi is so dominant, so above and beyond everyone on the pitch that nobody knows how to play with him but more crucially, nor is there a structure that allows them to. “Holy shit, it’s Messi,” and they defer. It isn’t his fault. He wants peers. Neymar was a peer not skills-wise but in terms of how he viewed himself in the game. Neymar was a superstar when he arrived in Barcelona. He was also leader of the Seleçao. He was used to the pressure, used to being the man. Same with Suarez. This meant that for different reasons than Xavi, Iniesta and the Masia bunch but to the same end, Neymar and Suarez could play with Messi, could demand the ball and be confident that he would get it to them.

Messi wants to win, and doesn’t care how it happens. But if he doesn’t believe that you can give his team the chance to win, you can see his reluctance to pass to certain players in certain positions. Compare that with how willingly he gave the ball to Neymar, gives it to Suarez. We howl and moan because the Uruguayan always starts. But why wouldn’t he, in that context?

Dortmund Dembele functioned more like Neymar. He had the ball at his feet, ran the offense, drove play with fellow gazelles. At Barça, Messi has the ball, and Dembele has to find space to play. When there is space and Dembele can run out, nobody is with him, so he has to hold and pass it back to midfield. What he is best at, the best player in history is already doing.

Griezmann played for France with the ball at his feet, and dazzled doing it. He controlled, distributed, took the set piece kick for the first France goal, slid neatly into the box to slot home for the second. He was everywhere on offense, playing 1-2s, making sharp, smart runs and occupying spaces that are traditionally occupied by … Messi. Why isn’t he adapting? Because he can’t play his game, and it will take time for him to figure out the game that he can play. He has to do that because his manager isn’t making that possible for him, structurally.

De Jong was amazing for Holland, at the center of everything, driving the ball up the pitch, holding and distributing, taking shots, controlling the offense that revolved around him. He hasn’t been close to his best at Barcelona because he can’t have that role. He will succeed, and already has. It’s fair to blame the fact that we aren’t seeing Netherlands De Jong on Valverde. The system has fallen apart to such a degree that it isn’t giving the best player in history what he wants, which is to win everything that he can, with teammates.

Everyone else is a supplicant, and we’re seeing the results. Until a manager successfully finds a solution, the mess will continue. The series of individual actions that passes for a system means Messi. Messi is the cheat code, the terminus of all of those individual actions. Make a run, slide it to Messi. Make a run, hope for the pass from Messi. Get in the box, look for Messi.

The Messi fans love his exploits, the goals, the runs, while also complaining that he has become the sole answer for Barça. It’s a safe bet that Messi has the same complaint. The greatness of Messi has created its own set of problems for the team, because it doesn’t have a manager capable of sorting them, or a technical staff that understands the necessity of adding players who can work with, rather than for, Messi, then providing them with an effective structure. Lots of players were skilled enough to play for the Bulls, but Jordan killed them mentally, and that was that. The Triangle meant Luc Longley could play as a teammate with Jordan. Bobby Hansen could run to a spot, and expect the ball to arrive. Then he knew his job, just as Adriano knew his, Pedro knew his, Keita knew his. But now, Messi’s outsized presence in a vacuum is making players shrink from their ultimate capabilities. Look at the key goals scored by Guardiola’s Treble team, and who scored them. Messi scored many. Lots. So did Eto’o, and Henry, and a host of other players. Empowered players step up, or you phase them out. But it’s hard to step up in a broken team.

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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.