Lionel Messi has had, by his standards, a lukewarm 2014. After a subpar season with Barcelona, which ended with no trophies and a lot of questions about whether or not he was the best player in the world anymore, Lio traveled to Brazil with the hopes of an entire nation resting on him: Argentina, which boasted the creative talents of Lionel, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and a stout defense.
After struggling through a relatively easy group (losing Sergio Aguero to injury in the process) – Messi basically dragged this team into the knockout rounds – Argentina faced Switzerland, where again, they would need Lionel Messi’s heroics to bail them out. Argentina beat Belgium next, where they also lost Di Maria, and Alejandro Sabella’s team went against Louis van Gaal’s surprising Holland team, beating them in the semifinals in a penalty shoot out.
Messi’s fairytale ending was denied by Mario Gotze and Germany in the final at the Maracana. While he scored all his goals in the group stages, Messi became more of a facilitator during the knockout rounds.
As the tournament went on, he also grew more fatigued, with expectations and carrying most of the offensive burden clearly weighing on him. Still, he was voted the best player at the World Cup, to the dismay of many – yet, none more dismayed than he was.
The arrival of Luis Suarez at Barcelona meant that Messi’s game would probably have to change, and some wondered whether Lio would be able to make the change. For the first time in a while, Messi would be operating with a legitimate number 9 ahead of him. How would he react to that? If the last month was any indication, quite well, thank you very much.
Gerardo Martino never quite fit in at Barcelona, getting the job through mitigating circumstances and never quite establishing his authority at the club. While Tata never had problems with Messi individually – and his recent appointment as manager of Argentina’s national team seems to indicate that they got along quite well – he did have a bone to pick with many senior members at Barcelona (*cough* Xavi *cough*).
Martino’s tactics also left a lot to be desired. Tata sacrificed Barcelona’s natural width in order to fit his Gala XI, a midfield of Busquets, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta flanked by Messi and Neymar as forwards. On paper, that is a hell of a lineup, but of the six players, only one – Busquets – regularly tracked back and Cesc Fabregas generally got in everyone’s way (as I’ve discussed on numerous occasions).
This is sad on two fronts. For one, Tata Martino’s best work came in his development and deployment of Alexis Sanchez, who while Messi was injured helped carry the offensive burden with Cesc and Neymar. This team was quite clearly heading towards becoming a solid, if not spectacular, counter attacking team. There was only one problem: Xavi doesn’t do counter attacks. And therein lies the second problem: Xavi asserted himself and openly challenged his manager, and his manager caved. He was as good as gone after that.
Another thing that Martino failed to realize is that Messi needs to be constantly involved for him to be a factor. Playing him on the wing, something Tata did against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, is not a good way to get Lio going. For Messi to be Messi, he needs the ball. A lot.
Tata never understood that. Luckily, Luis Enrique does.
Luis Enrique was brought in this season to herald a change in the Barcelona philosophy. Under the departed Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino, the Barcelona squad hasd gotten complacent. Luis Enrique, a former Barca player and manager of Barcelona’s B team, was brought in to shake things up a bit.
Out went Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez to Chelsea and Arsenal, respectively. Alex Song was shipped out to West Ham. In their place, Barcelona brought in Luis Suarez, Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, and (finally!) central defenders: Jeremy Mathieu came in from Valencia while Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen was bought for £10 million. Rafinha was also brought back from his loan to Celta Vigo.
While Vermaelen and Suarez have yet to play a game, Rakitic and Mathieu have felt right at home. Jeremy has so far displaced Gerard Pique in the starting lineup, while Rakitic has taken Xavi’s spot in the starting lineup and made it his.
I wasn’t too happy with the decision to get rid of Cesc at first, and was pretty neutral on Ivan in the beginning, but now? I love it. While Rakitic is nowhere near the offensive force Cesc is, he’s a much better defensive presence than the prodigal son turned nightmare signing.
Forming a partnership with Sergio Busquets, both players have been in tune with one another, dropping back when one attacks and disrupting dangers before they reach the defense. Rakitic has also been given license to shoot from deep, and it is a threat that Barcelona have lacked for a while.
But the real change in Barcelona this season has been Messi. No longer is he the false 9; he is now firmly a ten. Messi is involved in the buildup of every attack for Barcelona, and last night against Granada, Messi put on a master class, scoring two and assisting three more.
If you would have told me Messi was going to have more assists than goals on this team without Luis Suarez, I would have thought you were crazy. But that is exactly what’s happening. Messi is the top assist man in all of Europe with eight assists so far, and he is also the best chance creator in the continent. While his goal total of five is small in comparison to Cristiano Ronaldo’s, who really is scoring goals for fun at this point, his impact on the game is arguably greater than the Portuguese’s. In fact, his impact so far is perhaps greater than it has ever been for Barcelona.
Luis Enrique’s impact on this cannot be overstated. His system is allowing his forwards to become more central, with Neymar basically reprising the role he played for Brazil. And what a role it is.
Despite Johan Cruyff’s reservations, Messi and Neymar have flourished playing together, with Messi assisting on four of Neymar’s five goals so far this season. Neymar has benefited from defenses clamping down trying to stop Messi by making runs and isolating himself in front of goal. More often than not, Messi finds him and, more often than not, Neymar buries the shot.
This project is far from complete. Time will tell whether the inclusion of Suarez into this dynamic will disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm or enhance it. I have hope in the latter, as Luis Enrique has designed this system with Suarez in mind. The runs Munir, Pedro and Sandro are making now are the same ones Suarez would make. What’s more, Luis Suarez, much like Neymar and Messi, is not a typical forward.
Ultimately, though, this team – as always – goes as far as Lionel Messi is willing to take it. If this stretch of games is any indication, Barcelona will pass many of its toughest tests.
Just don’t be surprised if it’s a Messi pass that gets them through it.