Barcelona have a rich history of playing fluid attacking football, are the reigning Spanish champions and boast a wealth of technically gifted players.
Yet, the La Liga giants have been rather hit and miss this season with the extent of their underwhelming performances only mitigated by the similar struggles of rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Early in the season for instance, they could only muster half the efforts at goal as newly-promoted Osasuna when they paid them a visit. The Catalans came away with a 2-2 draw, taking their points tally to five from a possible 12 at the time.
The caveat remains that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele were all missing through injury for that encounter. But while some suggested Ernesto Valverde could hide behind their absence, the truth is that the shortcomings of his approach were never more exposed.
Good systems and styles of play transcend personnel. Yes, a drop in performance is inevitable if key players are absent but the functionality should largely remain consistent.
After deploying a compact 4-4-2 formation in his first season – that made Barca purists wince – Valverde had found the necessary balance to compensate for defensive shortcomings. However, the same vulnerabilities began to reappear last term.
Meanwhile, with fans, and quite possibly the club hierarchy, urging Valverde to play a more attacking brand of football, he’s succumbed this season and opted for an on-brand 4-3-3 system.
Yet, that is neither here nor there. It’s a compromise which serves no one.
Results have improved in recent weeks but none have been entirely convincing. A 4-0 win at home to Sevilla was the outlier but even that result was slightly flattering.
Valverde has fumbled around for the right formula while seemingly married to a 4-3-3 set up. There may, though, be another system which is more suited to this Barcelona side and extracts the most out of their players.
Here, we make a case for the 4-2-3-1 formation.
THE DOUBLE PIVOT
Frenkie de Jong is one of the most gifted midfielders in the game but his start at Barcelona has been underwhelming, though through no fault of his own. He’s shown glimpses of brilliance but in certain games he’s been asked to play more advanced to accommodate Sergio Busquets as the anchorman.
De Jong’s ability to drop alongside the centre-backs and either pass or carry the ball out from defence is wasted if he’s not in a position to do so. A double pivot in midfield would see both Busquets and De Jong benefit from deeper roles.
The veteran would bring experience and stability at the core while De Jong’s mobility ensures gaps are plugged and space is exploited in possession.
For Valverde, the system provides the defensive assurance he craves without the limitations of a 4-4-2 formation. From a spectator’s perspective it does allow for more freedom further up the pitch.
There are also options to tweak the approach with personnel changes. Valverde has Ivan Rakitic, Arthur and Arturo Vidal to choose from, each offering a different skill set.
Sergi Roberto divides opinion, not only in terms of his ability but also his position. A central midfielder by trade, he’s always looked like a square peg in a round hole when deployed at right-back.
However, his ability to retain possession and his positional sense makes him a steady option in that role, even if the attacking aspects of it are often lost on him.
The good news is, Roberto needn’t concern himself with actions in the final third within this system. That can be left to the expertise of the front four and the marauding Jordi Alba.
Instead, Roberto would be tasked with maintaining shape and equilibrium while the attacking players run riot.
When the Catalans attempt to play the ball out from the back, the 27-year-old would likely hug the touchline to provide an out-ball, much like Alba would on the opposite flank.
However, during a prolonged period of possession, he would tuck into central midfield, making it a 2-3-1-4 formation in that phase. That helps the Catalans keep the ball and maintain pressure on the opposition.
Crossing may not be Roberto’s greatest strength but he can play a diagonal ball and switching play from right to left, most likely finding Alba, would be a useful ploy.
Finally, when the ball is lost, Roberto is in a position to drop and form a back three in the transition, guarding the Blaugrana against a counter-attack. Essentially, his role lends Barca control in possession and stability in the transition.
FEARSOME FRONT FOUR
For Barcelona to capitalise on the wealth of attacking talent at their disposal, all four of their star forwards need to be on the pitch. This could be the system within which Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Dembele not only co-exist but thrive.
First, and most crucially, it maintains Messi as the central figure in attacking midfield from where he can continue to orchestrate proceedings masterfully in the final third while posing a significant goal threat.
Everything will flow through him and the Argentine can operate freely with the security of the double pivot behind him, who not only offer defensive assurances, but can also feed him the ball between the lines.
That’s precisely where the 32-year-old will look to exploit space with the other three attackers working in tandem to pin the defence back and afford him more room.
Griezmann would operate coming in from the right and perhaps even swap with Messi on occasion while his presence in and around the box gives Suarez another quality option to link-up with, ensuring he’s not isolated.
Dembele brings an X-factor into the mix. If defenders focus too much on the movements of Messi and Griezmann, they may lose sight of the dangerous Frenchman who has all the necessary weaponry to punish them.
And just when the opposing right-back thinks he has him covered, Alba storms down the outside from where his trademark cut-backs can be swallowed up by Messi arriving late into the box.
The possibilities for that attack are endless when every member is fit and firing, but even when a couple are rested or sidelined by injury, there are some exciting young talents to step in like Ansu Fati, Carles Alena and Carles Perez.
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Even now, with his career still ongoing, the name carries a mystical, mythical air. This little man from a little town in central Argentina is one part human, two parts living legend and four parts supernatural being, transcending sport, even transcending life itself.
Few sportspeople reach such heights. Many strive with all their might, but only a select few are able to conquer our imaginations, enrapture our senses and propel themselves into history.
Muhammed Ali did it. So did Donald Bradman, Michael Jordan and Pele. In the 21st century, Usain Bolt attained immortality, Roger Federer is on his way to veneration and then, the king of modern-day sporting kings, there sits Messi, implacable and serene on his throne.
It feels petty and deeply unimaginative to reduce Messi’s achievements to plain statistics, but the numbers he has achieved are so stupendous they cannot be ignored.
For starters, 604 goals for Barcelona – a ludicrous 372 more than the second-highest scorer in the history of one of the world’s greatest sporting organisations. Thirty four club trophies, including four Champions League winning medals and no less than 10 league titles.
The numbers speak for themselves. But there is, of course, one very significant gap: senior international honours.
Somehow, Messi’s tragic failure to win anything with Argentina – despite reaching three consecutive finals between 2014 and 2016 – makes his story even more compelling.
Had he casually strolled his way to every possible trophy, his flawlessness would have risked veering towards tedium: there he goes, winning everything again. How boring.
The fact, therefore, that Messi has encountered regular doses of heartache, even drawing outbursts of venemous ire from some of his over-demanding countrymen, reminds us that he is, despite all appearances to the contrary, only human. One of us.
From our perspective as spectators, after becoming accustomed to watching Messi conjure marvels and miracles on a weekly basis, the danger is that we take him for granted.
Let us not. Let us take this milestone, 15 years after his debut for Barcelona, as an opportunity to stop, reflect, and cherish. To cast aside partisan club preferences and just celebrate his magnificence. To be grateful that we have been alive to witness his magic.
To be thankful for Lionel Messi.
On the 15th anniversary of his official Barcelona debut, that is exactly what we will do.
In the below links are five distinct chapters, all hallmarking the genius of Messi…
We’re celebrating 15 years since Lionel Messi made his official debut for Barcelona by chronicling his career so far through five chapters. Here’s is chapter five, all chapters can be read here:
‘La Liga de Messi’…a new catchphrase was born in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, which saw Lionel Messi lead Barcelona to consecutive title triumphs after dominating the competition in a manner few players have ever achieved.
Leading scorer; most assists; most chances created; most dribbles; most free-kick goals, most passes in the final third…think of any attacking statistical category you like, and Messi probably led it for two years in a row.
In a way, Messi had no choice but to be so dominant because the quality of his supporting cast had declined sharply from previous years. Whereas once there was Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, or Xavi and Andres Iniesta, or Neymar and Luis Suarez, now Messi was being asked to prop up a declining team containing a bunch of fading stars, temporary makeweights such as Aleix Vidal, Paco Alcacer and Paulinho and under-performing costly imports Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho.
Of course, there has still been plenty of quality within the Barcelona ranks over the last couple of seasons, but the fact that – by common consensus – the team’s second-best player during their back-to-back titles was goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen shows just how much Messi had to do.
And he did it brilliantly. Helped by a pair of shocking seasons for Real Madrid, Barca were able to wrap up the title with room to spare in both 2018 and 2019, finishing 14 and 11 points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid despite their obvious shortcomings.
Those two seasons have also seen the latest evolution in Messi’s career, as he adopted a deeper position to become more of a playmaker than ever before.
The departures, one after the other, of Xavi, Dani Alves, Iniesta and Neymar essentially forced this reinvention, with Barca of the late 2010s possessing neither the control in midfield nor the cutting edge on the flanks they had in the past, while the arrival of conservative coach Ernesto Valverde served to further evolve a more stable and cautious team, relying on individual brilliance rather than consistent collective pressure for their attacking breakthroughs.
More often than not, of course, those sparks of individual brilliance came from Messi – often ably supported by his close friend Suarez, despite the Uruguayan’s gradual loss of consistency as he headed towards the end of his career.
Logically, Messi should also be slowing down as he passes through his early thirties, but so far there has been no real sign of any deterioration. His goal haul over the past two seasons – 45 in 2017/18 and 51 a year later – more or less matches anything he has achieved over the course of his career, barring the improbable and unrepeatable abnormality of the 2012-13 record-breaking goalscoring blitz.
His goals seem to be getting more spectacular, too. For one thing, his set-piece prowess has developed remarkably as shown by his astonishing eight free-kick goals in the 2018/19 campaign, including the unforgettable Champions League semi-final effort against Liverpool which was named UEFA’s goal of the season. A similar strike past Atletico’s Jan Oblak was the match-winner in an effective title decider the previous season.
Messi’s open play strikes have also frequently been breathtaking in their individual quality, including (to name just four highlights of many) a caressed chip at Real Betis which truly defied belief and a stunning hat-trick at Sevilla – left-footed volley, right-footed curler and cheeky dink over the keeper – in the spring of 2019.
It cannot be overlooked that he has done all this from a different position, playing deeper than ever to spark attacking moves from midfield and create chances with geometrically flawless through balls – notably with the recurrent delight of perfectly-timed raking right-to-left diagonal balls dropping behind the defence and neatly into the stride of onrushing left-back Jordi Alba.
From right wing to false nine to inside right, Messi is now evolving again to become more of a traditional ‘number ten’, creating play from an advanced midfield position, and it seems likely that he will spend the remainder of his career in that role being just as brilliant as ever, but in a slightly different way.
The nagging worry, though, is that Barca are often too reliant on Messi, allowing their overall levels of collective play to drop in the (often justified) belief that he will conjure something remarkable to rescue them.
This is a criticism he has faced regularly over the years, and it has never been more relevant than the last couple of seasons as the skipper inspired Barca to a pair of comfortable title triumphs despite the team rarely looking convincing.
In the end, those frailties prevented Messi from lifting the Champions League trophy as pressure situations at Roma and Liverpool proved too intense to endure, and the biggest challenge facing Ernesto Valverde is allowing Messi to remain the chief protagonist without forcing him to become the only protagonist.
In theory, the pieces should be in place for that to happen. The acquisitions of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, the emergence of Ousmane Dembele, Arthur and Ansu Fati, the brilliance of ter Stegen and the ability of old guard Suarez, Busquets, Pique and Alba clearly give Barca the tools to compete for any trophy.
And as Messi reaches his 15th anniversary, the good news is that his appetite for the game appears to be undimmed. Those Champions League failures in Rome and Liverpool hit hard, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that Messi is launching a personal crusade to restore his team to European ascendancy before he retires.
How much longer will he go on? We can speculate, but in truth nobody knows – not even Messi himself. Judging by the way, however, that he has constantly succeeded in reinventing himself and confronting new challenges over the last decade and a half, we can be confident that his story is by no means over.
The magic goes on.