Watching FC Barcelona outclassed in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and now facing a must win scenario in El Clásico has finally shown how unbalanced the club has become. With a final in the Copa del Rey still looming, most clubs would feel fortunate to be in a position to win one title let alone the possibility of two at this point in the season, but Barcelona is more than a club. The problem most pressing to the club now is how to utilize the greatest player of all time to his fullest potential with however many remaining seasons he decides to play.
Many argued that Neymar, Luis Suárez, and Messi would never be able to play together on the same team, and those naysayers were resoundingly silenced after a treble winning campaign was followed by a domestic double. The difference between those squads and the current one is the unfortunate loss of two club legends, Xavi and Dani Alves. You can argue it was time for Xavi to hand over the armband, but Dani has shown he still has a lot left to give any club. Now Barcelona face a similar Xavi situation with the aging of Andrés Iniesta, but what does this all mean for the club and especially Lionel Messi?
Having MSN play for your team means a multitude of things, the obvious being brilliant football, but also with them comes high wage bills and the necessity of having a squad suited to cater to their unique talents. Football is a simple game but must be played with eleven players all on the same page. Barcelona is known for their classic 4-3-3 formation but with the players the club now possesses many other sides have figured out how to play against it. Don’t allow Sergio Busquets time on the ball, overload the right flank and clog the middle forcing Messi to drop deep into midfield, and counterattack the club’s high defensive line. Against most sides Barcelona still prevails against these tactics, but to defeat the truly great European sides and to be able to compete for all three Cups changes have to be made.
So, where should Messi play? What formation should the club utilize to break down stubborn defensives? There are four options the club should consider. Number one is to stick to the tried and true 4-3-3 with Messi in a right wing position. Luis Suárez is a pure number 9 and needs to lead the line and play in the center to be effective. Neymar on the other hand loves to hug the left touch line and drift inside to take on defenders to not only create but create space. This allows Jordi Alba to overlap to great effect. Messi on the opposite side continually moves inside to find time on the ball and to dribble at defenders and create passing lanes. The problem Barcelona face this season is that they don’t have Dani Alves to maraud up and down the right flank to occupy the space Messi leaves behind. Sergi Roberto is a good player but he doesn’t have the pace nor the telepathic understanding the Brazilian and Argentine had. For this formation to work next season hopefully Aleix Vidal will fully recover and the club needs to sign a right back in the same vein as Alves. Héctor Bellerín continues to be mentioned. Hopefully this season Denis Suárez will be used as a right sided midfielder to bring more balance and creativity than Ivan Rakitić does. The Croatian is a great player for the club but his talents lie in his work rate mirroring a lot of what Roberto brings to the right side.
Messi as he progresses through his career is becoming more of a classic number 10 than anything else. From that position he has the opportunity to either dribble past defenders, create for others, or score. Sticking with a 4-3-3 could still be an option for the club, but they would need a double pivot behind Messi to make this work. Having Javier Mascherano partner Sergio is an option but the former is reaching the twilight of his playing career with Barcelona. Sergi and Ivan are two other possibilities for the position but many would favor signing a new player. Former youth team members Sergi Samper and Oriol Romeu deserve a shout but most Culés would only settle for a player of Marco Verratti’s quality to be signed. Players like Thiago and Philippe Coutinho don’t necessarily have the defensive work rate for this kind of formation to work. Those two can be seen more as replacements for Iniesta and as left sided midfielders if Messi stays on the right wing. Also if Messi moves to a pure 10 role the club would need to sign a new right winger. Recalling Gerard Deulofeu is a a definite option but more likely the club would move to sign a world class player like Paulo Dybala or Antoine Griezmann.
Sticking with Messi as a number 10 may also work if the club decided to use three in the back. The problem with this formation is where does the width come from? Neymar brings it on the left but who would on the right? Do you play with Iniesta or his replacement on the left side of midfield with Messi on right and two midfielders behind them or more of a 3-3-1-3 formation? Barcelona typically has the lion share of position so this can be a moot point. Many times the club only has two men playing near the half way line as cover against a counter attack anyway. Although a three man defense negates a lot of the great work of Sergio and the width that comes from the full backs. Also the club may need to sign two new centerbacks unless Marlon is deemed ready, and most importantly where does Jordi Alba fit in this formation? The problem of who plays right wing and right midfield also remains.
The last and least favorable option would be to move one of the big three. Knowing our current board anything seems possible at this point. In an alternate universe the club could sell Luis and move Messi back to a false 9 position. This kind of move would only work if the right kind of winger was brought in along with overhauling the midfield. Sufficient to say the real last option would be to sell the greatest player of all time and use the great influx of funds to completely overhaul the squad. Never for a billion euros should the club do this but as stated before anything seems possible.
What formation should the club use, who should we sign, and where do you think Messi should play next season?