Messi’s role within Barca’s setup has changed and I’m not a fan

Share This Article
Messi joey barton

My blog concerning Bayern and Barca’s Champions’ League visits to England a few weeks back, drew comparisons between the effectiveness of their simple passing setup. The Barca v City game has been playing on my mind ever since, in particularly the performance of the Catalan’s little Argentine-wizard, Messi.

Admirer of Messi

For me, (and probably every admirer of modern-day football), Messi is the best in the business. I place him in a higher regard than Cristiano Ronaldo because of his natural ability, and whilst this isn’t a criticism of Ronaldo’s play, Messi would’ve succeeded in any generation  – a test the world’s greatest must stand up against, in my opinion. So with all this predetermined hype surrounding Messi instilled prior to Barca’s visit, I left the Etihad feeling somewhat underwhelmed by his performance. And it wasn’t until this disappointment had settled that I began to contemplate, why?

Different player

The world-beater I was familiar with would drift in and around the final-third, wandering towards the wingers, he’d be hungry for the ball – I didn’t get a sense of this during the City game, nor have I done the past few times I’ve seen him play, albeit they’ve been TV appearances. Even Wednesday’s return leg at the Nou Camp revealed an intermittent Messi; popping up here and there, although to devastating affect with his goal – obviously, I’m not questioning Messi’s finishing capabilities. But watching the fuller picture, high up in the stands in the first leg, allowed me to contemplate a difference in character. I understand I wasn’t in a position to judge Messi’s positional play based purely on one European game against 10-men. So with this in mind, I spoke with friends over at Prozone to fuel myself with information on Messi’s performances, over the past few years, in a bid to understand whether or not his overall game had altered.

Joey barton - messi stats

Prozone told me:

  • Messi passes the ball less both in terms of total volume and as a proportion of Barcelona’s passes.
  • With it, the total number of times he receives the ball per game has also fallen.
  • He’s shown greater tendency to both dribble and play the ball into the final third, indicating he has more space in front of him and is therefore playing deeper and more direct than he was in 2010-11.
  • He has also devolved some attacking responsibility to other players, taking a smaller proportion of Barcelona’s attempts on goal when playing.
  • All this points to a less-involved Messi than four years ago; a player who is less likely to drift across the pitch to receive the ball.

Fascinating insights, particularly when you consider the trend in change, season on season – ‘…he has more space in front of him and is therefore playing deeper and more direct than he was in 2010-11’. The analysis highlights my initial thoughts on his positional play and allows me to better understand his gradual change within Martino’s squad.

But to understand this further, Prozone provided these heat maps, which highlights the concentration of Messi’s touches per position.

Messi heatmaps
  • The heat maps helps us to illustrate a less-involved Messi compared to four years ago; this season his touches are concentrated in central areas whereas four years ago he would happily go searching for the ball in wider zones.

A less-involved Messi?

As the heat maps and analysis suggests; Messi’s become less-involved than four years ago, but why? One notable difference seems to point towards Barca’s reliance on their full-backs joining attack – a point Dani Alves perfectly summed up by bagging half of Barca’s goals over the two legs vs City. With the fullbacks entering the attacks, the space Messi used to groom (as highlighted in 10/11 and 11/12 heat maps) is now fulfilled by Alba, and more notably, Alves. Messi is now forced retrieve the ball much deeper and as a result, becomes more isolated from those wider roles.

Guillem Balague and I discussed the current Messi debate in depth earlier this week, a debate that resulted in us both creating blogs. Guillem makes the point Barca are keeping the ball away from their star man, although unintentionally, but to a certain extent I’d have to agree. On the flipside, Martino’s fullbacks are experiencing such success on the flanks, it’s no longer essential to seek Messi each attack; Alves and Alba create an average of one shot opportunity per game. Fullbacks on average create 0.75.

So far, we’ve established that Messi’s positional play has shifted from the flanks to a more central role, but how has this affected his overall play and goal tally? Messi’s goals per 90-minutes improved season on season until the current season (combined – La Liga & Champs’ League):

  • Season 08/09 – 0.84
  • Season 09/10 – 0.99
  • Season 10/11 – 0.99
  • Season 11/12 – 1.35
  • Season 12/13 – 1.41
  • Season 13/14 – 1.11

An improved goal-tally

The heat maps, which suggest Messi’s touch per position gradually moves more central each season, marries with his improved season-on-season goal analysis, as above. So, whilst he’s experiencing a difficult season due to injury, the previous two seasons suggest the further in-field he plays, the better his goals per 90-minutes. In short, Messi’s become a more prolific goal-scorer as a result. However, the signing of Neymar and as mentioned, injury, dilutes Barca’s reliance on Messi this time around and could well be a factor of their current league position, although being just four points off the lead isn’t catastrophic at this stage.

If Barca had a fully fit Messi, would they be better off? It’s worth considering, especially as he contributed 40% and 44% of Barca’s goals over the past two seasons vs just 20% for 2013/14. Again, it could be argued that due to injury, the introduction of a striker – Neymar, and Alexis Sanchez’s 16-goals this season, Barca have had no option but to share Messi’s goal-scoring duties.

Whilst the data leans towards a less-involved and perhaps less-entertaining Messi, his goal-scoring statistics favour this shift into a deeper role in search of the ball, again, his current scoring-form has been marred by injury. A likely cause for his less-involved change is the ever-available wingbacks, they’ve become more suited to the positions Messi used to obtain when retrieving the ball from the wingers, and as a result, Messi’s positioning himself deeper and collecting the ball from the centre-backs.

Which Messi is better?

Messi’s less-involved than four years ago; his touches are concentrated in central areas and he’s less likely to drift across the pitch to receive the ball. Up until the current season though, this shift has indicated an improvement in his goal-scoring statistics. So what Messi do you prefer? An eloquently, free-scoring Messi that plays deeper and makes more passes into the final third or a Messi that scores fewer, covers more distance but is fundamentally part of Barcelona’s typical tika-taka style?

I’d have a 31 goals, free-flowing Messi, as opposed to a 46 goal, deeper and less-involved Messi any day. But they’re just my thoughts as a spectator and admirer of a more-involved Messi.

Which Messi do you prefer?

Thanks to everyone over at Prozone for providing this week’s data.

Share This Article
18 comments
scottbradelly
scottbradelly

Messi is a outstanding player and he has natural abilities. He always try to perform well. Ronaldo is also a good player but i like Messi. http://www.iafrica.tv/ 

joshbaker11
joshbaker11

Hello joey do you think that never having a price tag to live up to has helped messi perform better without that added pressure that ronaldo , bale ect have had ?

Smith121
Smith121

Hi Joey, really enjoyed what you had to say re Messi and the change in his game, I felt it's been quite notiacble and you've really hit the nail on the head in your analysis. Moreover I just wanted to say I've been a United fan since a kid, and when you were leaving Newcastle I and a few of my united friends were hoping we'd try to sign you. Would have been a perfect fit for us and exactly what we needed and our best and since Keano in my opinion. Just wanted to let you know that.  Best of luck for the remaining year with QPR

smith8857
smith8857

I've thought and continue to think about the same issue all the time, I've watched Barca for years Joey and with regards to Messi, I'm with you, less goals more involved we see the best of Messi.


For me, the single most important factor between the 31 goals (2010/2011) and now, is a striker or more specifically David Villa, alongside Villa, Messi could play the false 9 perfect, where Messi was the false 9, Villa became the 'real' 9 (the best example of this was the 5-0 Clasico, Villa 2 goals from the centre forward position, both assisted by Messi), it's no coincidence that Messi's rise in goals coincides with the broken leg Villa got in the World Club Cup (Dec 2011 - Messi went on in 2012 to the highest scoring season ever), it also signified a change in Barca (with Pep), at the time of Villa's injury, Barca were top of the league in Dec andin the second half of the season they lost the league to Real and couldn't break down that solid Chelsea defence, they also put in some strange performances, where Messi seemed to struggle to get involved, similar to what we've been seeing recently - even though at this stage, Messi was at the beginning of his record breaking year!


Barca and Messi - with and without what we call a no.9 are two different prospects - last season, Barca had the option of Villa, although he never played week in, week out, coming off the bench, many times he provided the different dynamic both Messi and Barca required at the time, running off the last man, direct, itching to get into the box for a tap in! - qualities that Barca are lacking at the moment, qualities that Messi feeds off.


Take the contrast in performances of Milan in the CL last season. 

First leg - Milan 2-0 Barcelona - Cesc Messi Pedro

Second leg - Barcelona 4-0 Milan - Pedro Villa Messi


In the first leg, we saw Messi struggle to get involved, Barca struggle.


In the second leg we saw Messi at his diminutive best, scoring, creating, running, everything - it's the change in dynamic that brings the best out of him, having a forward in there with the instincts of a no.9 gives him the license to build from deep but the team still retaining a threat in the box.


I've got doubt, that the less goals, more involved Messi we're talking about here, will appear in the World Cup, to devastating effect, Robert94 points out Messi playing CAM for Argentina, this was true in 2010, but under Sabella he's changed, Argentina play a flexible front 3 with Aguero and Higuain often playing as inside forwards allowing Messi to be a "false 9".


At the World Cup, we'll see the Messi we've been missing.

Robert94
Robert94

Like TB said most teams have figured out Messi role with in the team. The Barca midfield isnt as dominant in the middle as the board have replaced a 34 year old Xavi and they cant trust Song to replace Sergio so in turn this forces Messi to come deeper to get more touches more so when teams press higher up. Barca need him at the base to start the transition from middle to forward like against City (2nd leg. The Barca board are mainly to blame they haven't replaced the midfield (you cant expect Xavi 34 to play 2/3 games a week), if you notice i all the big games this season Barca have went with 4 mids (Xavi Sergio Cesc and Iniesta) to look for control which has done well so far. Spanish journalist wrote interesting article about Messi few months back, basically he was saying that Barca have told Messi to do less of his bursting runs to minimise risk of injury  and to be more careful in the small games that probaly why we seen Messi go for it in 2nd leg vs City. The main point that we can all see is Messi is planning for the WC (his last WC at his peak?) and his role with Argentina is different to the one at Barca he plays as CAM with Argentina with 9 infront of him so with him dropping deep with Barca he probaly planning ahead. Need to take into account his injury affecting him this year he said it will take him 10-12 games to recover his touch.  Martino cant be blamed for this he after all didnt get the chance to sit down and discuss transfers with the board past summer he doing what he can with this small squad, when things are going wrong he only has one player on the bench to change that (most of the time Pedro)  compared to other clubs like Bayern ,City or Real, I would say he doing quite well in his first season in EUROPE.

shabbarutter
shabbarutter

if messi scores 46 goals and assists another 15  which is 61 goals through him then if he scores 31 and assists 30 goals is that not 61 goals as I don't know what his assist rate is over the 4 seasons Mr barton has focused on who am I to say anything but watchin messi on the ball is just so exciting and I would rather see him on it than off it that is for sure but some times 1 moment of magic by a special player is worth the admission money alone so what do I know 

TacticsBoard
TacticsBoard

Hi Joey,

I would say over the years, teams have figured out how key Messi is for Barcelona. They probably mark him more tightly to stop the supply to him. Everytime Barcelona play all eyes are on them. Every tactical alteration they have is observed, and over the years their predictabilty to pass to messi in certain areas. As all rounded Barcelona are as a team Messi is the key player, he is the player that Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets probably look for the most. To become more unpredictable as a team and evolve, they probably have to be even more effiecent with their passing towards him. As soon as Barcelona are in the final third he invaribly gets the ball, teams probably have realised this and mark him even tighter, and pay extra attention, knowing the danger he can posess. Barcelona pride themselves with tiki taka like passing, and a key part of that is unpredicable passing, moving the ball to messi is starting to become predictable, so they have to make it unpredictable by passing him to him less, to make him more effective. This results in him probably recieving the ball less in dangerous areas. There is a constant need to adapt the teams style to keep up with modern play, as effective as messi was under Guardiola, i don't believe that it would be still as effective today. Before Messi scored a very high percentage of the Barcelona goals, he still does but the fact that the other attacking players are chipping in and more goals from midfield creates a more dangerous team, which i'm sure is what barcelona would prefer instead of an individual.

kevcarf
kevcarf

Seeing Messi tracking back and winning the ball off Aguero in the 18 yard box, then playing a pass upfield is not what I want to see from Messi. I admire his different style, the way he now drops into central midfield and sprays diagonal passes to the fullbacks for them to create chances, but it's not what got us excited about Messi. I want to see Messi in the final third, using his genius to unlock defences and cause mayhem. Barca have other players capable of dropping central and playing those kinds of passes. Maybe he's dropping deeper as he gains experience and gets older to try and influence the game from the middle of the park. I preferred Messi when he was the focal point of the Barcelona attack.

AlesCule
AlesCule

It would be interesting to see heat maps and stats of full backs under Guardiola, Vilanova and Martino to better understand the difference in reliance as you suggested. 

I prefer free-scoring Messi. Why change something that worked so good? Is there anyone else who can score more goals than fully fit Messi?

Chris James
Chris James

Alright jo..Lionel messi will always be world class,football is a team game,in my opinion the whole team where better when under guardiola,the team has become more of a possession side,they don't possess an out and out striker anymore ,messi is seing less of the ball I agree with that,the guys a genius do you think he could succeed in any top premier league team?

swifto78
swifto78

hi Joey,

Enjoyed the blog. The tactal shift creates more space for the wingers but messi more central must be easier to mark as it is more congested.

I have also just read zlatan book and it seems that the more central position is at messi request.

There must also be a number of other reasons that need to be considered.

Injuries might be catching up on him and is his hunger and desire there week in week out?

Finally we must also consider the quality of player around him. Xavi and iniesta are great players but are getting on, there are no longer the etto, Henry, zlatan forwards there so defenders will focus totally on messi.

 All this said the standards messi have set must mean a blipwould happen at some point. 

 Cheers

JohnnyMarrIsABoss
JohnnyMarrIsABoss

There's no way in hell he's better than Ronaldo, has an incredible team with Argentina, yet hasn't taken them to a major trophy. He's only proven in La Liga, Ronaldo has also bossed the Prem, Sums it up when Messi has only ever scored one goal on a prem ground and it was a penalty that wasn't even inside the box, Ronaldo is the complete player, better than the brainwasher Messi. Best ever? Gotta be having a laugh, no way could he can make it in any generation! He couldn't make it in the prem. End of

AndyD1990
AndyD1990

I also went to the Etihad purposely just to see Barca & Messi. Like you, I was left a little underwhelmed with his performance. Obviously he played a part in the Demichelis sending off, but apart from that and a weak shot in the last minute, it wasn't vintage Messi in my opinion. At the Nou Camp however, I felt Messi was back to somewhere near his best. I hadn't seen a performance like that since the AC Milan second leg in the Champs League last season. Even though he has been scoring quite frequently since his return, I haven't enjoyed watching him as much as I have in the past. He seems reluctant to get the ball, more ineffective than in previous seasons. Like you've indicated, this could be due to Tata Martino's tactics (which I don't think have worked) or the players around him. Xavi is still quality but in my opinion is having less effect than in previous seasons whilst Iniesta has only completed a fraction of games than he has in previous seasons. The Neymar relationship will take time to gel, but I think they will strike up an excellent partnership soon enough. Earlier in the season, Neymar was looking for Messi everytime he got the ball but in recent weeks since Messi has returned he has become more selfish which you can't blame him for, he came with a hefty price tag and will feel he needs to justify it. In conclusion, I haven't found Messi as exciting and as dynamic to watch this season, I would much prefer him to get more goals than get involved with the build up play, Barca have got other players who are able to do this job, but how many could get the volume of Messi's goals? If he went back to his free-scoring ways, his already phenomenal records could become untouchable.

Michael McLean
Michael McLean

I have noticed this also, he walks around the edge of the box and his team mates don't even look to pass to him but as soon as he breaks in to a trot he gets it and comes to life.

I prefer the Messi under Pep

JM1993
JM1993

Hey Joey,


I agree I prefer the old free flowing 31 goal Messi more, he was more intuitive and arguably creative than purely clinical. However, I think his development comes from a number of things and wonder how big a factor you think they are. 

Firstly, he has evolved to what you describe to be more efficient, less running means, less strain, less injuries (in theory). 

Then more importantly I believe he's evolved so because of the players around him. In the 08/09 he had Eto'o and Henry as strike partners, who both scored 30+, Barca haven't had a second, never mind 3rd striker who can contribute that goal tally from finishing since. 

After those 2 departed came Ibrahimovic, of great quality but under rift with Guardiola would not work as hard. Forcing Messi to pick up the goal tally and win games single handedly. And with the wing forwards in and out since, Pedro, Alexis, Neymar, Tello etc. They appear just as, if not more, selfish than Eto'o and Henry, but not as clinical. Meaning less chances for Messi and his own belief at times he must be clinical rather than free flowing. 


MakungulaKampengele
MakungulaKampengele

messi due to his recent injury string, might be pacing himself, lets not forget he wouldn't want to miss the world cup in a few months

ellinho
ellinho

I agree with what you're saying, as a spectator. But in a managerial point of view, it's the goals that matters, and hey, it works!

Thank you.

KarthikThiagarajan
KarthikThiagarajan

Hi Joey,

Nice take on the change in Messi's involvement and here's what I'd like to say. The build up play of Barcelona is anything if not high tempo. They slowly settle down in the enemy half and begin to pressure them into mistakes. They have only improved over the years doing it. Now as you pointed out, the fullbacks are a bigger threat. This sort of movement allows the striker to be withdrawn and allow his teammates to overlap him. This would actually enable more chances and the opposition would find it hard to predict who would even burst forward. The current Messi is superior I feel as he adds more to the team. Cheers.