Barca's style leaves Messi exposed
By Oliver Wilson
Barcelona may be the greatest side that football has seen.
Brazil of 1970, Milan of the 1990s, and the Holland side of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Arie Haan have all, in some people’s eyes, been surpassed by a football team that could well be redefining the meaning of the phrase "the beautiful game".
Barcelona’s tiki-taka football has been lauded by pundits worldwide as the most aesthetically pleasing style the world has ever seen. The short, sharp passing, the vital injections of pace in the final third, and the cutting through balls of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, have been nothing but a joy to watch.
There is, though, a but to this Barcelona; a but that has been in the back of a few people’s heads for the past 12 months, hidden behind the plaudits and adulation for what Pep Guardiola created at the Camp Nou. It is a problem that is obscured by Lionel Messi’s 70-plus goals a season, Carlos Puyol’s command of the back four and Xavi’s pure mastery in the centre of the park.
Barcelona have slowed down. They have, honestly.
I would go as far as saying that Barcelona have contracted the footballing disease that is Arsenal-itus.
Before you real away in horror, or jump to the comments section to lambast this with cries of “have you ever watched football?” or “you, sir, have no clue about the game we love,” please take a moment and think. Think back to the 2008-09 season and remember how Barcelona played then. It was very similar to now. Iniesta and Xavi commanded the centre of the park, while a younger, more agile Puyol ruled the edge of the 18-yard-box alongside Gerard Pique, and Lionel Messi tore defenses apart with his lightening quick feet.
They had something extra though.
They had a killer instinct that stretched across the full length of the final third. Alongside Messi sat Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, two of the most ruthless and accurate strikers in the game.
Henry wasn’t the man that flourished with the Arsenal Invincibles of 2003-04, but, nevertheless, he was still Thierry Henry. Eto’o was just ruthless. An unadulterated hitman from five to 35-yards and a player that was always looking to pull the trigger at every opportunity, Eto’o was everything that tiki-taka wasn’t. The skill was there but the patient passing 20-yards from goal wasn’t. He played to score goals, and he did just that.
Eto’o finished the season with 30 league goals, while a 21-year-old Messi added 23 and Henry 19.
Fastforward to modern day Barca and things are a little different. Messi’s magic enabled him to score 50 goals for Barcelona last season, a phenomenal tally for one player to amass in 37 league appearances. He was also one of just two Barcelona players to score more then 10 goals last season.
This was, in part, because Barca have begun to stall in the final third. They, as I said, do what Arsenal began to do a few years ago. They wait for that perfect ball and they expect the other person to make that defence-splitting run that either drags defenders away or leads to that inch perfect ball into the vacant space.
Too often do we now see five or six players stood stationary in the final third, and the aggression of seasons passed has been replaced by nonchalance and a patience that almost borders on lethargic. There was, last season, a seemingly over-confident air to their game, and the tempo of their build-up play was never influenced by the score in the game. At 2-0 up, that’s fine, but 1-0 down with 10 minutes to play must inspire an added urgency.
The Catalan giants are lucky enough to boast enough talent in their squad that they can still win convincingly playing in such a manner. But where they – or, rather, Messi – succeeds, others, like the Gunners, have failed. Arsenal's reliance on Robin van Persie last season to make those runs, or to fire from range, created a team of players that were happy to wait for the inevitable. It lead to another season without silverware and a Champions League birth that only happened thanks to Tottenham Hotspur's inability to continue their early season form after Christmas.
Barcelona are amazing to watch, but the continued hysteria that surrounds the side that Guardlioa built, and Tito Vilanova now leads, should be quelled slightly. Without a talent like Lionel, Barca would be a side in serious need of a real striker. This false No.9 may work, but there is a reason why Real Madrid won La Liga last season - and it wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo.
The fourth and fifth top strikers in Spain’s top flight were Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema. CR7 may have carried a lot of the load in Madrid, but he also had two predator-like workhorses to support him. Messi does not have this luxury.
David Villa’s return to action will help solve part of this puzzle, but Messi’s unequivocal desire to play in the centre of the park will interfere with another marksman’s ability to find positions to hit the back of the net from.
Trophies may still come Barca’s way this season, but the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o, and David Villa's fractured tibia last season, leaves Vilanova’s side one injury away from potential problems. Could anyone at Barca pick up the slack from Messi?