Lionel Messi is a gift of many sorts. Yet, do we rely too much on him? In this edition of We’ve got mail, a long-time culé shares with us his view on the advantages and disadvantages of what could happen if we rely too much on our #10, once again.
Who Will Score For Barcelona This Season?
The question above may sound odd or irrelevant. After all, Barcelona is a team that scored 110 league goals and 34 UEFA Champions League goals last season, beating its own recent scoring records in both competitions. Barcelona also boasts of Messi, the player who could not stop scoring last season, breaking virtually every goal scoring record at club level. Surely there should be no questions asked of Barcelona’s scoring prowess.
Messi both a strength and a weakness
A careful analysis of last season shows that Barcelona should indeed be worried about its attack. In the league, Messi scored 50 out of Barcelona’s 110 goals. In UCL, Messi scored 14 out of Barcelona’s 34 goals. These are phenomenal figures for a single player; however for the squad the numbers are worrisome. A team cannot consistently rely on one player to score over 40% of its goals. While Messi’s 50 goals accounted for 45% of Barcelona’s league goals last season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s 46 goals only accounted for 38% of Real Madrid’s 121 goals. Barcelona is more reliant on Messi than Real Madrid is on Ronaldo.
A look at Barcelona’s fantastic 2008-09 season shows that the goal distribution among the forwards was much better, with Messi scoring 30 league goals, Eto’o 23 and Henry 19. Last season, Sanchez (12 goals) and Xavi (10 goals) were the top scorers after Messi, with most of the attackers misfiring when they were not injured. It is interesting to note that in the 2011/12 season, Barcelona only won competitions where Messi scored far less than 40% of the goals (i.e. the scoring load was better distributed).
Messi is Barcelona’s strongest point but over-reliance on Messi makes the team weak. There were periods last season when Messi could not perform at his best due to fatigue; yet he had to play 90 minutes in virtually every match. It is easy to see the team struggling if Messi happens to miss more than a couple of matches due to injury. Messi played more minutes than any Barcelona player including Valdes. Teams will learn from the Chelsea playbook and realize that if they manage to stop Messi, the chances of Barcelona scoring are reduced by nearly 50%! The other attackers do not shoot or score enough to worry opposing defenders. Often, it is apparent that the other Barcelona attackers are looking to pass to Messi to score – they are too conservative to take a risk by going for goal themselves. Even David Villa, who was a prolific scorer for Valencia, has been surprisingly guilty of this.
Lack of Cutting Edge
A review of the distribution of Barcelona’s league goals last season shows that the team still struggled against defensive-minded teams. While teams like Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano were blown away with high score lines, Barcelona actually failed to score in more matches than in any other season under Guardiola.
Tactical teams such as Chelsea and recently Real Madrid have figured out a way to frustrate the 4-3-3 and the risky 3-4-3, by neutralizing the False 9. With Messi playing in the centre forward role, it is easy for these teams to mark him effectively without compromising their defensive formation. The solution for Barcelona would be for Messi to play a free role against these teams, much as he was deployed in 2008/09 when Eto’o or Henry could also slot into the CF position. Currently, only Messi plays as CF. It will be interesting to see how defences react if Messi moves to the right wing and a few defenders need to move from the centre of defence to try to neutralize him. However, someone else will need to step up to score when Messi creates. Who will this be?
Neither Sanchez nor Pedro has ever scored up to 15 goals in a league season; therefore it is difficult to see any of them scoring the 20+ goals that a second striker needs to score to shift some of the burden off Messi. Many people would argue that with Villa back in the squad, he will provide the alternate scoring route to Messi. However, this is a very optimistic position: Villa did not play a competitive football match in over 6 months and he is now on the wrong side of 30 – it is not realistic to expect him to light up La Liga and UCL this season. In addition, Villa was not exactly having a stellar season before he broke his leg last December. In the 15 league matches he played last season, Villa scored only 5 goals – if he went on to play 30 matches at that rate, he would have managed only as many goals as Xavi.
Making Changes Upfront
Barcelona needs to invest in a proven striker who can score 20 or more goals a season (and also head the ball, a skill all too lacking in current Barcelona forwards), but also willing to accept that he will not start every match. It would have been interesting to see how Soriano (who scored 33 goals with Barca B in 2010-11) would fare with the senior team – unfortunately, the club sold him in the January transfer window, even though Villa broke his leg in December and Pedro was having fitness issues. Most potential strikers in Europe are either too expensive (Hulk, Falcao, Llorente, Cavani) or unlikely to fit into the Barcelona system. There are still some good options that would not break the bank though:
- Klass Jan Huntelaar: He has really matured in his time with Schalke and is currently one of the most prolific strikers in Europe – he was top scorer in the Bundesliga last season, marginally beating “Super Mario” was on good form. With his contract set to expire next summer, he can be bought for less than €20m. However, he is an ex-Madrid player and Barcelona may not want a player “stained” with the white of Madrid.
- Papiss Demba Cisse: The top scorer in the Bundesliga in 2010-11, Barcelona could have got him from Freiburg for about €12m last summer. However, he has moved to Newcastle and has been a wonderful revelation in the English Premier League in his first season. Any attempt to buy him now will cost about €20m. However, he can be lured with the prospect of playing UCL football.
- Robert Lewandowski: He currently plays in Dortmund, a team which plays an exciting, fast-paced version of tiki taka. He is tall, good in the air and good with both feet. Like Huntelaar, his contract expires next summer and he can be bought for under €20m. This is probably the best option for Barcelona as he can be useful for a Plan B, while also performing well in the current system as a back-up to David Villa.
- Fernando Llorente: The Spanish international seems determined to leave Bilbao this summer and he is almost the ideal Plan B, providing height upfront, but costing only a fraction of what Ibra cost and without the ego as well. He is very good in the air (not surprising considering his height), but he is also deft with his feet, as Manchester United discovered in the Europa League earlier this year. Athletic have valued him at €30 million; however, with his contract expiring next summer, it is likely that he can be purchased in the €20 million range, or even lower if the deal is concluded in the winter transfer window.
There are challenges though: Buying a new striker will means that someone of the general purpose attackers will have to be released. The club may consider selling Cuenca who is not an exceptional player – he provides width, but Afellay also provides width and is better at shooting and dribbling. Tello should be loaned to one of the smaller clubs in La Liga or to Ajax. His game is currently too one-dimensional; however, he is clearly a skillful player with a lot of potential and playing in a smaller club that can guarantee constant playing time, without the pressure of Barcelona, will certainly do him some good.
On the financial side, the club has already spent €33 million on Alba and Song in the transfer window. This leaves only €7 million of the 2012 transfer budget available and the club will either have to dip into next summer’s transfer budget or sell a couple of players to provide the funds to buy a new striker. Dipping into next season’s budget is unlikely: Barcelona will almost certainly buy Neymar, considering all the comments coming from Barcelona-aligned papers in Spain and the funds have to be available to make this a reality. Selling players is a limited option – only Cuenca and Fontas may be possible exits due to limited playing time. However, the club may not generate more than €6 million from these two players.
In the end, the hope for a successful campaign may have to come from within: Alexis and Pedro have to improve on their goal scoring statistics; Villa’s third season in Barcelona will hopefully be his best season so far. If these can happen, then the team can have a successful season without Messi being under pressure to repeat the unbelievable haul of 72 goals he scored in all competitions last season.