Barcelona increasingly gaining Messi independence (and it's a good thing)
Barcelona reached their seventh Champions League semifinal in just eight seasons after beating Paris Saint-Germain with a convincing 5-1 aggregate score. Interestingly, none of the goals in the quarterfinals tie were scored by quadruple Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi -- which, although it may sound slightly shocking at first, is actually fantastic news for the Catalans.
Under Luis Enrique, the Camp Nou giants have become a more dynamic team which doesn't necessarily need to have endless control of the ball to overcome their rivals. Direct transitions into attack and an unashamed preference for vertical passes into space if given the slightest chance have enabled them to evolve into a different version of Barca's traditional model.
During the last couple of years, Barcelona supporters have realised that those who fail to adapt to the ever-changing nature of the sport simply can't prolong their success. The season under Gerardo Martino was, despite the club challenging for the Liga title until the last game, one of the Catalans' most disappointing in recent times.
While there will always be nostalgic Cules who look back at the very successful era under Pep Guardiola with envy, the truth is, modern football has moved on, key players at that time have aged and, perhaps more importantly, rivals had pretty much worked out the way to contain their efforts: Concentrate on deactivating Messi's influence as a false nine by surrounding him with plenty of aggressive, disciplined defenders, then reduce spaces within the back line behind him and wait for a chance to hurt them in the counter or via set-pieces.
Back in 2013, Messi kept struggling with ongoing muscular pain, but despite fears for his long-time health, the Argentinean No. 10 kept finding his way back into the team earlier than anticipated, sometimes as a combination on pressures from the coaching staff, and usually due to his desire to return to action and help a team which was practically lifeless without him.
Gerard Pique explained ahead of their Champions League quarterfinal clash against Paris Saint Germain: "When things are not going well you have to use Messi. Even if he is half lame, his presence on the pitch is enough to lift us and our play in general."
It's Messidependence at its best -- or worst, when you think about it. When the success of a collective is that dependent on the performances of just the one team member, it is obvious the entire system is more than likely to crumble if that individual's performance is affected.
Although their relationship has not always been as fluid as one would hope for, nobody can deny that Luis Enrique has taken a huge weight of responsibility off Messi's shoulders. Sure, the Asturian's attitude towards his star player could have been more tactful at times, but the many changes introduced since he took charge at the Camp Nou in the summer have enabled the No. 10 to shine once again.
Fortunately, the times when Cules only had Messi's individual success to celebrate are changing, slowly but surely. Although having a blaugrana player scoring 91 goals in a calendar year is a historical feat that none of us mere mortals may ever have the privilege to witness again, the fact that the Messi (46), Neymar (30), Luis Suarez (19) trident have already netted a combined 95 times this season is far more preferable from a collective perspective.
Neymar has grown enormously in his second year at the Camp Nou, doubling his goalscoring return with at least 10 more matches to go before the summer break. Constantly running at defenders, his ability to drive Barca's attack forward has transformed the entire ethos of this team. Unquestionably, La Pulga's more decisive effort to get his teammates involved upfront has boosted the young Brazilian's presence in the team -- and created yet another dangerous threat for rivals to defend against in the process.
Although the immense €81 million Barcelona invested in signing Luis Suarez did raise a few eyebrows at first, the way in which the Uruguayan has adapted to his new environment and improved the team's attack has been spectacular. The current Golden Boot winner provides a strong, relentless attacking focus upfront which generates spaces for others to take advantage of in a way no Blaugrana striker has been able to since the departure of club legend Samuel Eto'o. His composure and quality in front of goal, especially when facing major opponents, aren't too bad either.
Luis Enrique opted to use Suarez as the team's striker from the very moment he was eligible to play -- a decision which inevitably resulted in Messi being moved to the right wing. While it admittedly took Messi several weeks to fully embrace the possibilities his new/old position may produce, being placed further away from rival centre-backs unexpectedly enabled him more freedom to connect with teammates, get more regularly involved, and ultimately become a much more unpredictable attacking threat with more time to explore spaces to exploit.
Clearly, the Barcelona board have invested heavily in the last couple of seasons to reinforce the club's attack. However, it is clear that both Neymar and Suarez understand their job is to complement Messi's game, not replace him. Despite their status within football's elite, the three South American stars have always prioritised their collective success to individual interests -- an intelligent mindset cleverly orchestrated under Luis Enrique's watchful eye.
Messi is still the team's spiritual leader. But now, fortunately, he has a number of teammates who are prepared to step up and take responsibility in crucial moments. Could last season's Barcelona have reached the UCL semifinals despite Messi not scoring a single goal in his last four matches, all in the knockout stages? Probably not.
May the current positive momentum continue!