Football Features

How many ‘The Best’ wins does Lionel Messi have left? 2012 holds the key for Barcelona

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:06, 24 September 2019 | Updated: 12:38, 16 October 2019

Leo Messi is The Best.

This is not a surprise to anyone who has watched football over the last 10 years, or people within Barcelona that knew they had a secret weapon on their hands when he debuted 15 years ago. But Messi’s “best-ness” is also now enshrined as literal fact for at least one year after the Argentine took home FIFA’s “The Best” award at a star-studded gala in Milan. This marked the first time Messi won the award since it’s rebranding, but the pertinent question is will it be the last?

After all, Messi is 32 now and he’s spent the first month of the season out injured. He’ll be 33 in June, and no matter how great he is, no sportsman in history has escaped Father Time. You can avoid him for longer now with modern sports science, but eventually he will come for you, and he will win. So how much longer does Messi have at the top? “As years go by it gets more difficult,” Messi said to FIFPro, explaining that recovery and preparation for games is that much harder now. “The body shows no mercy.”

That’s not to say Messi is a player in decline. Obviously in terms of pure output he “peaked” back in 2012 when he scored a frankly ridiculous 91 goals for club and country across the year. That was a preposterous feat that will likely never be equalled because of the sheer improbability of a world-class goalscorer remaining so deadly consistent over a whole calendar year.

Since then he had his heart broken by Argentina (three years running!), won a second treble, grown a beard and become Barcelona captain. He’s less prolific now, but there has been no decline. In fact, one could argue he’s a better player. Alright, he’s not scoring 73 goals in one season like he did in 2011/12 (no, seriously – he once scored 73 goals in a single season) but he hasn’t dipped below 40 goals at all since first crossing that threshold in 2009/10.

So he’s still putting the ball in the back of the net, but his rate’s a little bit less relentless now. He’s not as insistent on chasing the hat-tricks when Barcelona are pummelling weaker sides. He regularly lets others take penalties (free-kicks are still his domain, however).

This new, less insistent Messi is ironically contrasted with a Barcelona that, under Ernesto Valverde’s leadership, has repeatedly called on Messi to drag his team out of yet another fine mess. And more often than not, he’s done it, because he’s just that good. His goalscoring has remained so consistent that when he didn’t score at Anfield when Barcelona lost 4-0, people branded him a failure even though he created three gilt-edged chances for teammates, chances that they – of course – wasted.

Every manager has relied on Messi. How can you not? But with Valverde, it seems the Blaugrana have built a team incapable of even performing without him under even minimal pressure. In their Messi-less start to 2019/20, Barcelona looked great at home but on the road they have been easily outplayed by Athletic Bilbao and Granada, and while they performed well against Osasuna they still didn’t ever really have control of the game and they needed a midfield masterclass and Ter Stegen penalty save to emerge from Dortmund unscathed. Four games, no wins, just two goals scored and five conceded. That’s bad.

Without Messi as the reference point in the final third, Barcelona look lost on the road without the Camp Nou to drive them on. The introduction of Sergio Busquets can fix midfield, but then midfield are still moving the ball on to a front three that has precious little idea of how to functionally structure itself without Messi.

Part of that is Ernesto Valverde’s selections, thrusting Luis Suárez into the heart of the attack even though he can barely break into a sprint anymore and isolating Antoine Griezmann in thankless wide areas, keeping him away from the action as some sort of weird decoy. Only 16-year-old Ansu Fati looks the part, and that’s only because teenagers have such a fearless energy that nothing was going to stop him (though give Valverde a season and he could drill the joy out of even Ansu).

So what’s the solution? You can’t just thrust an ageing Messi back onto the right-wing and expect him to fix everything. He’s not that young stallion anymore, he’s entering his mid-30s and needs to be used more judiciously. Certainly, the debacles in Rome and Liverpool have proven that Barcelona cannot pair Messi and Suárez in the same attack together if they want to hurt top sides, or athletic sides. The Uruguayan, even at 32, is very much a player in steep decline and his lack of athleticism means the attack needs reshaping.

This means Messi can’t just play off a No.9 anymore, because Barcelona don’t have a No.9 besides Suárez. And there aren’t many out there that they could sign who could replicate what Suárez gave the team. Roberto Firmino is the only option and the idea that Liverpool would countenance selling him is absolutely laughable.

So what, then? How does Messi continue to thrive for Barcelona? (and make no mistake about it, Barcelona need him to thrive). Perhaps now is finally time to move Messi back into midfield. For years it was assumed this is what he would do as he got older, slide back into playing as more of an orthodox No.10, or even No.8. He obviously has the ball skills to thrive in midfield. Hell, for the past few years he’s been playing a hybrid midfield-forward role anyway.

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But the arrivals of Frenkie de Jong and Arthur, as well as the emergence of Riqui Puig, means that Barcelona’s midfield (if nothing else) has a bright and beautiful future ahead of it. Inserting Messi into that trio’s path when they already have Busquets standing there would be both cruel and, honestly, not the best use of Messi’s skills.

Sure, Messi can dribble, pass and dictate tempo, but he doesn’t play like a traditional central midfielder can do. He wouldn’t be able to handle the additional defensive workload, and having a midfielder that can’t defend means your other two midfielders need to be excellent defensive midfielders. You may as well play 4-2-3-1.

So why not play 4-2-3-1? Messi as the 10 ahead of a double pivot consisting of De Jong and Arthur and/or Riqui Puig (well, Busquets for the meantime). This plays to Messi’s strengths, protecting him from defensive duties as well as allowing him to run the show surrounded by constant passing options, but here’s the thing: it needs a No.9 to function.

In their current guise, Barcelona could perhaps play Antoine Griezmann as a No.9 and Messi as a 10 and it’d work because the Argentine still has enough thrust in his legs to push forward and be a massive goal threat, but the idea here is to find a formation and structure that will allow Messi to play out more than just one season.

Remember: “the body shows no mercy.” You want a system that Messi can play now, this season, instantly. Something he can do with the players Barcelona have that will be effective, but you also want a system that will last the test of time. That can become Barcelona’s new normal to replace this current paradigm of Messi on the right.

Turns out the solution is in the past, back in 2012.

Yes, the 73-goal season (or the 91-goal year) holds the key. Back then Messi played as a false nine. That is to say, he was the central attack in the forward band, but that role didn’t always involve him being the most advanced player. In fact, the very idea of the system was that he would withdraw deep, often into midfield, and let players run beyond him where his passes would find them and thus havoc ensued.

It was a brilliant system and led to an avalanche of goals for Messi and Barcelona. Why did it stop? Because teams began to get wise to it and Barcelona no longer had the penetrative wide-forwards like David Villa or Thierry Henry to make it dangerous. Pedro was still there but he always functioned best as a third scoring option, and Neymar was as much of a creator as a scorer. They needed a killer.

Luis Enrique switched it up to an orthodox front three with a No.9, bringing in Luis Suárez to do the job. M-S-N was born and for three years many, many goals were scored. But now Neymar’s gone and Barcelona find themselves unable to replace Suárez as they once couldn’t replace Villa, and so should return to that false nine system in order to bring the best out of the players they currently have.

For Messi, the benefits are obvious, because he gets to basically play like a No.10, except this time there’s even a trio of midfielders behind him, all magnificent technicians who could help him dominate play and control games with actual tempo rather than just lethargic passing; possession with a purpose. And what’s more, we’ve already seen this season that both Arthur and Frenkie de Jong can get forward and score.

Out wide we have Ansu Fati, a youngster adaptable to any circumstance, but also a player who has already shown himself a capable goalscorer. There’s also Carles Perez, another player who looks more effective finishing chances off than fashioning them himself. Ousmane Dembélé is the kind of player whose two-footed nature gives him a colossal goalscoring capacity. All he needs is a role that demands he makes more off-the-ball runs and finds himself in the position to score more often. Playing wing-forward in a false nine would do just that.

Finally, there’s Griezmann. Not a no. 9, nor winger. So how does he fit? Well, he’s basically a mini-Messi in terms of his skill-set. A lethal goalscorer and an unrelenting workhorse, a true world-class talent. Allowing him to start out wide on the team-sheet – as Ernesto Valverde has done – makes sense. He has the stamina and discipline to track his full-back and can cross the ball nicely. Making him stay wide – as Ernesto Valverde has also done – is utter nonsense. Griezmann is not a true winger; his skills are best used in central areas.

So what if you start Griezmann on the right-wing, and when out of possession he tracks the left-back and so on – but when Barcelona have the ball he doesn’t hold his width but makes outside-to-in runs? Griezmann darting in off the flank makes him the perfect target to link with Messi, and the Argentine’s playmaking ability should be able to find him. Sure, this requires someone else (Nelson Semedo, perhaps?) to flank wide and keep the defence honest – but that’s why you then have three midfielders because there will be an adequate shield to protect against counter-attacks should the ball be turned over.

And if the ball is lost, Messi doesn’t need to expend energy tracking back. He can stay floating about between the lines of the opposing defence, waiting for his side to regain possession and find him again. Then, with the ball at his feet, he can resume directing the Barcelona orchestra to play in the sweetest harmony.

Messi brought the false nine to the popular conscious back in 2009 (though Francesco Totti really was the one who pioneered it at Roma in 2007) and now, 10 years later, he’s primed to bring it back again. He’s an older, more considered player now. The kind who is thinking about a possible future beyond playing “I would like to work with youngsters, to train them and coach them,” he said, before acknowledging that such a thing is quite a way off.

Then again, he has always said: “it’s a childhood dream of mine to play in the Newell’s shirt.” Now he’s 32, but how old will he let himself get before he tries to chase that dream back in Rosario? Messi clearly has his eyes on the future, which is why Barcelona have to look to the past in order to construct a side the Argentine can guide to success. Real, sustainable, dominant team success. The kind that is worthy of a player who is now, officially, The Best.