They say you don’t miss the water until it’s gone. In the case of Barcelona, there is no water in the world capable of replacing Lionel Messi. The problem is, they have hardly had to answer that question, for one simple reason: he has rarely been out of action. Messi’s importance in the Barcelona team have only increased in recent years. His appearance stats from 2009 to 2012 read as follows: 51, 53, 55, 60 appearances. 38, 47, 53, 73 goals scored. As much as stats don’t tell the full story, appearance statistics can hardly lie; Messi continues to appear in more and more games for Barcelona as the years go by. Any game in which Messi does not appear for Barcelona is an outlier, a statistical, even a footballing anomaly; it is unimaginable. Unconventional. Out of the norm. When Barca plays, Messi must play.
One can be forgiven to think that the extent to which Messi seems synonymous with Barca would simultaneously mean Messi = Barcelona, and while this is unjust to the extreme to a team which makes up 3/4 of the European and World Champions, anyone with a passing familiarity with Barcelona knows one thing. It is a natural feeling, an expectation that flows effortlessly. You know it in your bones, even if you can’t put it into words.
That Barcelona without Messi is…not the same. It’s a cheeseburger with no cheese. Messi is the X-Factor, he is Chemical X. If Barcelona were the Avengers, Messi would be the Hulk. The one who puts the odds on your side. But how did a team such as Barcelona, the club side which produced the core of the most dominant international team in recent history, come to rely so much on one player?
THE EVOLUTION OF BARCA
Tiki-taka came into focus in recent years due to Barcelona (and Spain’s) successful employment of the style. But it is worth noting that when Messi started playing for the first team, Barca weren’t playing tiki-taka. They were playing total football.
It is easy to mistake the two as one, and one can understand why. The two styles share similarities: both emphasize the importance of creating angles for short passing, both require players of a certain tactical calibre for perfect execution, and both preach the understanding that space is relative and thus, each player is responsible for the creation of space for his teammate. The crucial difference, however is that tiki-taka is primarily defensive and static, whereas total football advocates regular changing of players’ positions and carries an attacking undertone. Barcelona circa 2013 plays tiki-taka, not total football.
BARCELONA 2008-2009 (total football)
Barca 08-09 played an extremely fluid 4-3-3, with predefined roles for each player, but also players were given a lot of freedom to interchange their positions. A picture below details their formation fluidity:
It was also Guardiola’s first season in charge, and he oversaw the first major tactical shift of the new decade: the popularization of the “false 9” role. Guardiola decided that it was wasteful for a player of Messi’s talents to be confined to the wing, and promptly gave him more creative freedom to dictate from the middle, where his dribbling ability would draw defenders to him, while at the same time freeing space for his teammates to run onto his passes. This was the first step towards Messidependencia: Messi became the prime creator, the funnel through which Barcelona attacks.
Guardiola also brought high-intensity pressing to the football world’s attention, and the world was unprepared for it. Teams had not yet figured out how to defend against Barcelona, and often left gaping holes behind for overlapping midfielders to charge into. Very often, they came up to face Barca instead of dropping deep. Again, the same picture illustrates perfectly the unpreparedness in facing one-touch passing combined with overlapping midfielders who interchanged positions.
The success of Guardiola’s first European Cup-winning team was down to the attacking variety at their disposal. Individual flair was scattered all across the pitch. Henry, Eto’o, Messi, Iniesta, and even Yaya Toure were all accomplished players with the ball at their feet besides being able passers, and Barcelona were not shy of taking long shots at goal. Simply put, this was the most all-rounder side of Guardiola’s era.
BARCELONA 2010-2011 (the shift towards tiki-taka)
By now, the tactical trend had shifted imperceptibly. Ibrahimovic had come and gone, failing to blend in with Messi in the center of Barcelona’s attack. In his place, the graduation of Pedro from Barca B and the arrival of Villa suggested that Barcelona were moving towards a new tactical era and thus required forwards who were schooled in La Masia philosophy: that is, possession is king.
By that time, teams have learned their lesson and many opted to take a leaf out of Mourinho’s book: recognizing the futility of challenging Barca for possession, they resorted to denying them space. Teams then sit deep and invite Barcelona to unlock them. As space became a rarer commodity, Barca sought to impose even more control upon matches, resulting in higher possession numbers. This is reflected in Barcelona’s average possession per Champions League season: from 65.6% in 2008-2009 to a whopping 73.3% in 2010-2011. In 2 years, Barcelona have become even more adept at retaining possession; they have become, in the words of Michael Cox, a tighter unit.
A tighter unit does not come without cost: in order to minimize risk of losing possession, it meant that the old method (total football) had to go; players were now required to adhere to specific tactical instructions. From the wide forwards who were supposed to act as walls (wonderfully outlined by Thore Haugstad) for the ball to be kept in possession, to the discouragement of dribbling for anyone but Messi, tiki-taka was now a strict discipline. Any risk of losing the ball was frowned upon, possession is king.
An interesting side note: one key reflection of Barca’s increasing allergy to risk-taking was Xavi’s assist numbers. From 34 assists in 08-09, he has since recorded 19, 14, and 12 respectively. This suggests that as space congests, Xavi not only attempts less risky passes, but the success rate of final passes which lead to goals has also dropped.
The rise and rise of Messi
Guardiola’s decision had now come full circle: he had built his team to maximize Messi’s abilities, and so when teams sit deep, it fell onto Messi’s shoulders to create. Barcelona regularly started with an orthodox 4-3-1-2 on paper, but in reality their dominance was such that they were in effect playing 3-4-1-2. A rotating back three consisted of Abidal, Pique and Puyol, with Busquets dropping to form the occasional back three while one full back was given license to push high up to create a numerical superiority (usually Alves dominating the entire right flank). Barca regularly formed a diamond which played neat triangles between the wide forward, Alves, Xavi and Messi.
And when the space was created enough for Messi to run in between the midfield trio and the centre-backs, space opens up for the wide forwards to make runs in behind their fullbacks, resulting in one-on-ones which are usually finished with aplomb.
At this juncture, Barcelona weren’t exactly Messidependencia, but it was becoming increasingly evident that stopping Messi was the key to stopping Barcelona.
At the tail end of Guardiola’s reign, tiki-taka had regressed to the point of predictability. Until 2012, teams have tried to stop Barca in various ways (high press, sitting deep, pressing when the ball enters their half) but each time, Barca found a way to win. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the turning point occurred, but somewhere down the line, minimizing space between the lines and compacting the back seven became the way to go.
The congestion of space is now the rule rather than the exception. As the opponent look to stay compact and counter the moment the ball is won, Barca cannot commit too many men forward. Hence, the overlapping runs cease, and the once-great Barca carousel becomes simply a football pinball machine, endlessly pinging the ball off the walls of players’ feet with little or no penetration.
As teams pack men behind the ball, Messi finds himself facing a wall of three men who are separated by a mere few yards. With Alves is being pinned back by the opposing fullback, and the back line similarly moving up to push the inside forwards further from goal, Barca are being forced back by sheer numbers.
Often, Iniesta drops to the left flank to help create a numerical superiority, or look to run with the ball into the box to create a crossing opportunity for Pedro/Sanchez. When this happens, the midfield trio shuffle across to make up for the numerical imbalance. With the wide players instructed not to run with the ball or attempt (God forbid) a cross, Barcelona effectively play their football behind the red curved line, which is to say, in and around the box.
This leaves Messi with little choice. He can only turn and pass backwards, or drop deep to forage for the ball, or attempt to dribble past players. With his propensity for using only his left foot and minimal space, even Messi can only do so much.
In their attempt to maximize the potential of their best player (who wouldn’t?), and for a team whose understanding of space is so fundamental to their approach, Barca shot themselves in the foot by not allowing themselves a plan B.
Messidependencia, which has served them so well in the beginning of their success, now seems to be the biggest stumbling block for them moving forward. The problem every manager wishes to have is now the problem Tito Vilanova wishes he didn’t have. Can an individual grow bigger than the team? As Jonathan Wilson questioned a while back if Cristiano Ronaldo was a weakness to Real Madrid, perhaps it is now time to ask the same of Messi.