FC Barcelona has lost two games in a row and finds itself in the biggest identity crisis in the last 5 years. It is no surprise, however, that this crisis arrives at the same time as Lionel Messi has been off the field due to his continued injuries.
Everything is easier with Messi on the pitch, but for the style that FC Barcelona perfected under Pep Guardiola the Argentine is not only necessary, he is key.
Tata Martino has made some slight variations to Barça’s tactical game. He has introduced factors that just 18 months ago were seen as completely unthinkable at the Camp Nou.
Sending long balls to overcome the rival’s pressure lines in the middle, giving more responsibility to the wingers to take on defenders one-on-one instead of connecting in the middle, and making attacking plays more direct looking for Neymar or Lionel Messi to quickly beat their opponents, have become everyday things at Barcelona, while with Guardiola and even with Vilanova, most of these solutions would have been discarded.
FC Barcelona’s squad is so great and full of talent that the players have adapted to the new strategy beautifully, but then again, as Xavi has started to slow down, as Pique has missed crucial tackles, and as the team has had to play without life-saving Victor Valdes during the last three weeks, the tough times were bound to happen.
If you add to all of this the fact that Lionel Messi has been missing in action most of the season, and out injured for the last month, you’ll get the perfect mix to explain why Barcelona has hit this slump in November, when they usually went through it (and only losing two games in a row once in the last 5 years) in February.
Lionel Messi is the key
Messi was the key in the entire structure built by Guardiola. A player who could be both a forward and the first midfielder, who pressured defenders and scored more goals than anybody.
As presumptuous as it may sound, to play with Lionel in that position was as if they were playing with an extra player.
Xavi and Iniesta have been cataloged as the most important pieces that made Pep’s machine run. Alongside Busquets, the two Spanish World Cup champs were without a doubt the two key cogs in the wheels that made the gears turn at Barcelona, but without Lionel Messi there was no spark.
The difference between Barcelona and the Spanish National Team was just that: Lionel Messi. Although Spain won the World Cup, they won all their crucial matches only by one goal, while Barcelona has systematically crushed all their top rivals in the last few years.
Basically, the entire Blaugrana squad knew that, when all else failed, Messi was there to fix things. Last year, when Barça was not able to develop a style as efficient as in years prior during the first round of La Liga, they still managed to win all matches but one, and it was mostly because Messi would always show up when needed to give the team the three points.
If the Cules played well, Lionel Messi was there to join the party, but if they didn’t, he was there to actually save the party.
While Martino has focused on finding ways the team can win without always utilizing the same old convictions, and he has given Neymar and Alexis Sanchez a lot more responsibility in case Messi would be missing at some point, this hasn’t been enough for the team to get over the fact the Argentine is not around.
Defeats as the ones they suffered against Ajax and Athletic Bilbao are just proof that while Barcelona maintains anything resembling the style that was sanctified under Pep Guardiola, they will always need Lionel Messi in tip-top shape.