At Getafe's Coliseum Alfonso Pérez stadium on Saturday night it became increasingly apparent for Barcelona that something - or in fact, someone - was missing. No it wasn't Xavi, nor Iniesta (even though he was actually missing), but Lionel Messi. The three-time Ballon D'or winner was the quietest he's been in Madrid on Saturday and it became further evident that for this Barcelona side they've begun to rely on more and more on one individual to supply them with ammunition. His name's Lionel Messi.
These days, Barcelona are essentially a 'one-man' team. Spanish football expert Guillem Balague wrote in his preview of the Getafe vs Barcelona game last Saturday that Barcelona are "heavily reliant" on Messi. And to an extent, that's true. They have become extremely reliant on the Argentine. In fact, last season, if you take away what Lionel Messi contributed - goals and assists - for Barcelona they would have finished 2nd, which means Lionel Messi alone contributed 24 of Barcelona's 96 overall points.
Guardiola has yet to speak about this in person but journalist Graham Hunter, whose new book 'Barca: The Making of The Greatest team in the World' hits shops in January, has written about how highly the Barca coaching staff regard Messi above the rest of the squad. In an excerpt released last week he says:
"It was decided that Brau would be dedicated to Messi, helping him avoid injury, rather than recover from it.
Messi’s diet would now include previously unknown quantites such as fish and vegetables and these changes in the way he maintains his body have made him leaner and stronger, less susceptible to injury and quicker to recover. However, there was more to the plan than that.
Ronaldinho and Deco were to be removed from the team – partly to clear the decks for a new coach but, those in the war cabinet decided, this was equally to save Messi from thier destructive influences."
This favouritism has irked many, some more than others, but nobody as much as former Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swedish national made it clear in his newly released book I am Zlatan, which sold over 300,000 copies in its first week last week, that he resented the fact that Barcelona cherished Messi so much:
"He came to Barcelona as a 13 year old, was brought up in their culture. He has no problem acting like a schoolboy. But in that team it is all about him.
After I arrived I was scoring more goals than he had. So Messi went to Guardiola and said ‘I don’t want to play on the wing any more, I want to play in the middle of the attack’. Guardiola became pathetic, and he swtiched to something more like a 4-5-1 formation with me just ahead of Messi.
He shouldn’t have adjusted the team for one individual. Why had he bought me if that was the case.”
It's the same in Argentina. When playing for the national team he's made the permanent 'scapegoat' whenever they fail to produce the goods in a tournament. That so-called 'spark' we have the pleasure of witnessing every time he plays for Barcelona is so often absent while he dons an Argentine jersey. This was recently stressed by former Argentine legend Gabriel Batistuta who spoke about Messi in an excellent interview he gave to Fox Sports Latin America in early November stating that:
“I see a Messi that is intelligent, away from controversies. What I don’t like is how [Argentines] always find him responsible for the national team’s shortcomings.
For Barcelona, Messi smashes it and we want him to do the same for [Argentina], but there are different players...Messi doesn’t play for Argentina as he does for Barcelona, I think he seems nervous, because if he makes a mistakr, everyone turns against him.”
As previously mentioned, the Barca team now revolve around Messi. When he plays well, they play well. When he doesn't, they don't. While this may seem a good plan, it can have its disadvantages. In fact, it already has become predictable as this was countered fantastically by Getafe last Saturday in their 1-0 defeat. Messi, you could say, 'went messing' and never really looked like causing too much trouble, partly because he was dealt with superbly by Getafe.
The Blaugrana travel to the Bernabéu on December 10th for their third El Clasico meeting already this season. In the two previous meeting, both Super Cup fixtures, Barca prevailed as victors having drawn the first leg 2-2 and winning the second 3-2 in a thrilling encounter at Camp Nou. Of those 5 goals Barcelona scored three were scored by the ever so brilliant Messi, while the other two were supplied by Andres Iniesta and David Villa.
In that first game, José Mourinho attempted to reduce the threat of Messi by pushing Richardo Carvalho high up the pitch to stop the Argentine doing what he does best. But it was to no avail as when Carvalho pushed up, Messi skipped by him and played in Iniesta for the first goal at the Bernabéu. As Zonal Marking's Michael Cox suggests, Pepé, having been so impressive in last season's classico's, would have been the player to have prospered better, rather than Madrid's no.5.
So often looked to for goals, Messi's influence is undoubtedly undeniable. But, when La Pulga and Co. arrive in Madrid in mid December, many wil be expecting the Flea to be dealt with effectively by Pepé in Real Madrid's midfield. As Didier Deschamps once said: "Great teams are not just created by architects but also by bricklayers and hod carriers", and with the Galacticos just around the corner, now's the time to play to the teams' strengths and not just Messi's.