The little genius has been the savior of FC Barcelona more times than anyone can care to count but as he is getting older, Messi is creating more problems for the team than he is solving

When most people talk about Messi creating problems on the football pitch, they usually mean creating problems for the opposition team. This has been the case for almost as long as he has been playing for FC Barcelona. However, the Argentine, in recent times, has also started to create complications for his own team when he is not creating problems for the opposition.

Messi’s lack of defensive work rate is one of the biggest problems that Barcelona has right now. He doesn’t really press the opposition team anymore when Barcelona lose the ball, and neither does he defend the side he’s played in. And seeing as how Barcelona’s way of playing revolves around high pressing and recovering the ball as soon as possible, you can see how this would be a problem.

While it is true that Messi has never contributed that much in the defensive part of the game, as evident from his time under Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, he did use to press the opposition under them. However, even this aspect seems to have disappeared from his game in recent years, especially after Valverde came into the club.

After Valverde took over the team at the start of the 2017/18 season, the high pressing part of the game almost disappeared from the team as a whole. Barcelona, under him, looked to soak up the pressure from opposition rather than pressurize the opposition, and the team went from defending tactically depending on which side of the pitch the ball was to have two lines of four. Valverde usually left Suarez and Messi high up the pitch exempt from defensive duties, and the two, with their age, got used to this during his two-and-a-half years at the club.

The reduction in his contribution during pressing and defending is backed by stats. In the first two seasons under Valverde, Messi had 0.39 and 0.50 tackles per game and won 0.27 and 0.40 of them respectively. Similarly, the times he applied pressure on the opposition player in possession was 12.4 times per match with a success rate of 3.62 during the 2017/18 La Liga season. This decreased to 10.8 times per match with a success rate of 3.02 in the following league season. His interceptions weren't that good, either, as he had 0.21 interceptions during Valverde's first season in-charge, which dropped to 0.10 during the second. These stats might also be the result of the way the team played under Valverde, but Messi is definitely at fault in parts.

Then in comes Setien in January of 2020, with a promise to bring back the high press and quick ball recovery and the general style of play that Barcelona had lost during those years. Everybody had to press and defend without possession of the ball. However, Messi doesn’t seem to be willing to press or defend his side anymore. May be due to his age or due to his time under Valverde.

Messi with the ball in a match against RCD Mallorca on the 14th of June 2020 (Photo: Leo Messi's Instagram) 

Messi with the ball in a match against RCD Mallorca on the 14th of June 2020 (Photo: Leo Messi's Instagram) 

Whatever the reason may be, this has created a few problems for Setien as he has struggled to find the right team selection that could provide some compensation to Messi’s unwillingness or inability to press and defend while not sacrificing anything in attack.

Usually started in the right-wing position in a 4-3-3, Messi drifts inside to more central areas during the game, leaving the right-back to do all the defensive work. This prompts the opposition to overload that side and leads to goal-scoring opportunities; a problem blatantly apparent during Barcelona’s match with Atletico Madrid which ended in a 2-2 draw.

Atletico made 44% of their attacks from their left side or Barcelona’s right side. Semedo was alone, and even though Setien played Vidal on that side to provide cover for the Portuguese right-back, it wasn’t enough. The box-to-box role that Vidal was asked to play also didn’t help as he had to cover the entire right-hand side to defend and attack for the team. Carrasco and Renan Lodi, Atletico’s left midfielder and left-back respectively, took full advantage of this and the former won two penalties for his team.

Messi’s habit of cutting inside leads us to our next problem which is the lack of width down the right wing. Messi is not a traditional winger. Therefore, he does not hold his position on the flank. He drifts inward and as soon as he does this, an unoccupied void is created on the right flank.

While nobody blames Messi for moving to the part of the pitch from where he does the most damage, this does create a complication. In a 4-3-3, which is the formation Barcelona use more often, the utilization of the full width of the pitch is the most essential thing. This was one of the main reasons why Guardiola and Enrique were so successful here. And when nobody is on the flanks, the team loses its width and ultimately the ability to stretch the opposition defense.

Messi cutting inside means that the wide players of the opponent do not have to worry about constant overlaps. On the other hand, if a traditional winger who held his width were to play instead of Messi, opponent fullbacks would have to constantly keep an eye out for in-behind runs.

Again taking the example from the game against Atletico, there was no real width on the right side except what was provided by Semedo. Semedo was constantly making runs in-behind and even won a penalty for Barcelona. But, while 44% of Barcelona’s attack came from the right side, it wasn’t enough to give any kind of headaches to Carrasco and Lodi. Due to the lack of a winger, Carrasco did not have to defend too much and created many opportunities for Atletico. He completed 4 dribbles, had one shot, and was a key part of Atleti’s attack.

However, the biggest, and probably the most serious problem Messi has created for Barcelona is through his sheer brilliance on the field, ironically. He has been the main man for FC Barcelona for more than a decade now, and rightly had a team built around him all these years. But, as the years have gone by, the team built around him has lost its quality, and more and more responsibility has fallen upon his shoulders.

The little genius has gone from having players like Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Dani Alves, and Neymar alongside him, players who could take the opposition’s attention off him and create scoring chances for the team to having players like Vidal, Rakitic, and Suarez, who are nowhere near the players they were in their prime and cannot create anything on their own anymore. Now, Messi is both the creator and the finisher for the team.

And it seems like the club has become comfortable with this reality. The current board has not tried to address the problems created by such a high dependency on Messi for goals and neither have they planned for a time when he won’t be playing for the club anymore. They seem to be oblivious to the possible gap that Messi will leave at the club after he retires, and this lack of attention towards the club’s future is a sign for bad things to come.

There are, however, possible solutions to all these problems. The solution to the tactical problem that Messi poses is to build a team that complements his playing style. This could be a much-required change in formation from the now-preferred 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 or even a 3-5-2 to make him play more centrally all the time, or it could be convincing him to take a rest once in a while so that he can press for the team and also not wear himself out. Admittedly, keeping Messi on the bench isn’t an easy job, especially seeing how dependent the team is on him, but at 33, he certainly requires more game management to push that dreaded retirement a few years back.

The solution to the long-term problem that he presents the club with, however, is much more complicated. It would require a lot of focus on the club’s youth academy and transfer policies to create a team that can sustain itself after he retires. The current transfer policy of the club is atrocious, to say the least, demonstrated by the transfer of Miralem Pjanic which only aggravates the current problems of the squad.

The things that Messi does for the team certainly outweighs whatever contribution he lacks for the team. The problems that Messi presents aren’t unsolvable and with the right approach, Messi can keep doing what he does best — creating and scoring goals — while the team, on the other hand, doesn’t have to suffer from his lack of contributions in certain areas on the pitch in the immediate future and his absence from the pitch in the distant.