A brief history of Messi’s position:
2006-2009: Messi is a long-haired ball of fury playing on the right wing.
2009-2012: Guardiola moves Messi to false 9, he wreaks utter havoc while walking around a lot as Barcelona conquer the world. In the process, he has the greatest individual season and calendar year in the history of the game.
2012-2014: Messi continues to play false 9, but due to a combined loss of firepower on the wings and the deteriorating positional play of Barça’s midfield, it is no longer effective. Barcelona need a number 9, badly.
October 2014-January 2015: Barcelona get a 9! And play him at right wing, with Messi remaining at false 9! It doesn’t work that well!
January 2015-June 2015: Luis Suárez moves to the middle, Messi makes a return to the right wing, and Barcelona conquers the world again in maybe the best half season I have ever seen from a team. This system heavily relies on wing play from both Messi and Neymar, and I wrote in-depth about the triangle formed by Messi, Dani Alves, and Ivan Rakitić which became pretty much unbeatable. This system was fairly rigid, almost basketball-like in the way players made the same rotations and set plays, and Messi showed remarkable positional discipline in his new role. He plays arguably the most complete football of his life.
Sometime in 2015 – present: Lucho relaxed a bit, granting MSN leeway to be a bit more fluid. Messi and Neymar begin to leave the sidelines more frequently, meeting up in the middle to combine. It is sometimes breathtaking, sometimes immensely frustrating.
In particular, Messi has largely abandoned his position on the right wing, and it’s been difficult for me to understand why, given the enormous success that switch brought. Crucially, Luis Suárez rarely covers for him out wide, as he did in October 2014 – instead, Barça are largely playing without a right winger. The following is an attempt to show why that is immensely damaging. I’m going to focus on the first half of the clásico, before the goal (and Iniesta) changed the game.
In the below clip, Sergi Roberto receives the ball out wide, and sees a giant pocket of space. Messi should check into that pocket to receive the ball, as any forward would there – if he does, he would complete the triangle and have an easy pass to Busquets, or time on the ball in a dangerous area. But he doesn’t move. Realizing this, Busquets makes the run to try to compensate – but this means that when Busi receives the ball there are no passing options, and he goes back to Roberto and it resets back to the defense.
When people say Barça has no midfield, this sort of play is what they mean. But in this case, Messi is the one playing midfield. Roberto is the right wing, Rakitić is covering him, and the missing link is Leo. If Messi makes that 10 yard run to show for the ball, suddenly you can connect triangles all over the pitch. He doesn’t, and the result is a disjointed line easily defended.
Part of what Luis Enrique did so well is that he removed the taboo on counterattacks. When they retrieve the ball deep, Barcelona look to get the ball wide and release one of their forwards, stretching the defense. In the below play, Marcelo is stranded high up the field, Roberto has the ball in time and space, and the situation is begging for a winger to make a run down the line. But Messi and Suárez are both in the center, both closely guarded and practically on top of each other. Sergi Roberto has no good options, and Barça lose the ball.
Think back to that first 3-1 victory over Atlético in January 2015 – this exact sort of play is how Barça eviscerated their toughest opponents.
Playing without a RW makes it very difficult to build out of the back. Here, Piqué, Roberto, and Rakitić do everything right – but there’s nobody for Sergi to pass to once they complete the one-two. Again, Busquets makes the run to make up for Messi’s absence, but a) it’s too late and b) in doing so he abandons his position as Roberto’s other passing option. Again, Barça lose the ball.
But fine, Barcelona don’t have to play down the wings. If Messi is in the middle, they can play through the middle and possess the ball instead. In the gif, Rakitić does well to lose his marker and picks up the ball with lots of space in midfield. He looks up, and has no passing options in the center. Messi doesn’t check to the ball, so Ivan is forced to play a low-percentage pass to Neymar, which is picked off.
Notice also the chasm of acres of space behind Marcelo. Had one of Messi or Suárez been out wide on the right, Rakitić would have had an option down Madrid’s weak side. Instead, he has to look left. What is Messi’s position in this scenario? What is he accomplishing here?
The next two clips are important. This is one of Barcelona’s longest spells of possession in the 30-45 minute range, about a full minute. First, notice the position. Rakitić where a fullback would be. Sergi Roberto high up on the wing. Messi in midfield.
Pause when Rakitić gets the ball. The natural pass here would be to Sergi Roberto – but Roberto would have no options. Just as in that first clip, there is a giant hole of space in between Madrid’s two lines, but nobody is there to take advantage. Recognizing this, Rakitić resets to Mascherano.
Now, the reason I harp on this is that this exact triangle is what worked to devastating effect in the spring of 2015. Put Roberto (or Alves), where Rakitić is, as a slightly more tucked-in fullback – able to defend but also pass the ball very well. Put Messi where Roberto is, and suddenly you have a triple threat, able to dribble, cross, or pass it short superbly. Finally, put Rakitić in that empty pocket of space, because that’s what he’s amazing at, seeing the game tactically and being the third man.
So, what is the tradeoff here. What do we gain by placing Messi in the midfield? Here, 15 seconds later, the ball comes to him. Messi attempts to dribble three players, and although he somehow manages to regain the ball, no advantage occurs from it – he releases it back to Rakitić then to Roberto, and we’re at the familiar problem again: Sergi Roberto, a player who cannot dribble a man 1-on-1, receiving the ball out wide. The play resets, again.
Now, I do not want to be all negative here, or to bash Messi. Messi is an extraordinary player, and he drops into midfield he can make things happen singlehandedly. In the below clip, he does so. This starts after he played a few one-twos to slow things down – then he speeds up, fighting off Isco and shepherding the ball from the center circle to the left flank, playing an excellent one-two and ultimately winning what could have been a penalty. It’s a very good play. But is it worth it?
Many argue that Messi is obliged to drop deep because Barça’s midfield is weak, and that he provides control. But on rewatching this game closely, it’s not at all clear to me that he does – and that the argument might in fact be backward. By effectively playing without a position and rarely moving off the ball, Messi makes the sort of positional play Barça fans crave very difficult. The natural triangles and passing options simply aren’t there, because Barça are playing short a man on the right side.
Marcelo is Madrid’s weakest link, and Barça should have been targeting him repeatedly. Instead, Messi and Suárez were occupying very similar place, nearly stumbling over each other. Even when Messi dropped deeper, the two were still at odds in a way. Time and again, Messi would be waiting for the ball in midfield, ostensibly to slow the game down, and Mascherano would play the ball long to Suárez.
Barça are caught between two worlds – the 2015 system in which Messi plays right wing, or a more patient play where Messi is in the middle. It serves nobody well to play vertically with Messi walking around in a free role. Somehow, Lucho has come full circle and is back to the dilemma of his first season, how to get the most out of Messi and Suárez together. For this match, subbing Suárez for a midfielder would have been a smart move. Longer-term, solutions may be more complicated.
- Luis Enrique made bold choices which will be scrutinized to death. He is often criticized for not using all three substitutions, and perhaps now will be criticized for using too many. Subbing on Arda Turan was a mistake – the Turk is always likely to do something stupid defensively – but Lucho had a plan and showed faith in his player. It wasn’t repaid.
- If Turan can’t be trusted in big games, he’ll probably be out the door this summer. He is too much chaos, not enough precision or discipline, and Barça can only afford one of those with Suárez. Especially if Turan is keeping Rafinha out of the squad.
- Busquets was extraordinary, after an extremely poor start to the season by his standards.
- Jordi Alba was a defensive standout, and his development in that regard under Lucho has been truly extraordinary. One in the eye for those who worship a 21-year-old in Benfica.
- Gerard Piqué was a wall, and Javier Mascherano was also excellent – even if he seemed a touch sloppy and should have been called for a penalty in the third minute. Many will argue that Umtiti should have started, and they may be right. But Mascherano should never have been guarding Ramos on that final set piece to begin with.
- Iniesta, Iniesta, Iniesta. Barça need to figure out how they’ll survive without him, and fast.