Lionel Messi: In-Depth Tactical Analysis of His Role for Barcelona

Sam TigheWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJuly 18, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 05:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on May 5, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Barcelona's Lionel Messi is a mind-boggling footballer. The truly talented can excel in multiple roles, and the Argentinian is no exception. At one stage, we thought he'd be the best winger in the world. Now, he's arguably the best forward in the world.

He has shown over the past five seasons he can fulfil a number of roles, prompting discussion as to what his best role is, and how new boss Tito Vilanova can deploy him in order to achieve maximum success.

Let's break down, in detail, how Barcelona play in accordance with Messi's presence and position.


Right wing

Messi cutting in off the right and shooting with his left is largely a sight of the past. Sad, of course, as it was one to behold in football terms; however, he's now so immersed into the fabric of the playing style he can't risk isolation on the wing.

When he was younger and seen exclusively as a peripheral, the right-wing position suited him. Barca had not yet come to rely on him, and his slippery movement on the flank was something full-backs were only just coming to terms with.

Here is one example of his genius for a wide position, taking advantage of Getafe's relatively limited knowledge of his skill set.

Considering the natural attributes and technical talents he has, he's perfect to play on the wing. Unfortunately in the modern game, wide players must be brought into play by others, meaning there's a chance the opposition can "freeze" a player out of the game.

This, combined with Dani Alves' increasingly ambitious play from the full-back position and the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, meant Messi was destined to move inside.


False 9, Traditional 9

Messi's goal threat is just too great to risk isolation, so it's no surprise he found himself more involved.

From a more central position, he has fulfilled a number of roles, including the central-striker position—whether that's false nine, traditional nine, nine-and-a-half or whatever else football can throw at you.

Messi as a No. 9, at one stage, seemed implausible. His slight build led to a worrying belief he'd simply fail in leading an offensive line, but his goalscoring touch and incredible awareness proved he could succeed in it.

Over time, Messi moved from "something approaching a false nine" to a full-blooded sixth midfielder. Whether this coincided with the departure of Bojan, I'm not sure, but the Argentinian went on to make this position rather famous.

The fantastic thing about employing Messi in this role was the freedom it allowed him. His ability to freely drift across the pitch left so many coaches stumped as to how they can deal with him.

Man-marking proved no good, as Messi would withdraw himself all the way back to the halfway line and pull his marker 30 yards away from where he was meant to be.

It transpired, over the course of two years, that the only way to stop Messi from prospering in this role was to build a brick wall on the 18-yard line. Both Roberto Di Matteo and Jose Mourinho were the successful architects in question.


No. 10

Surprisingly, Messi seems to have utilised the No. 10 role on the pitch less than he should.

As a No. 9, he was very effective. As a false nine, his ability to drop off and play a forward pass to slip a wide forward through on goal was nigh-on impossible to defend.

But if Messi is to occupy the role of the scorer and the creator, Barca can—in rare circumstances—look a little toothless up top.

He has shown his ability to play the No. 10 role perfectly well in the past—behind Alexis Sanchez in the El Clasico, behind Bojan against Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League, for example—and could fulfil it with ease for Vilanova.

His game is suited to it. It combines his excellent forward passes, roaming ability and lethal instinct to deadly effect. Playing a No. 9 in Sanchez gives him three options to pass to instead of two, and Dani Alves' outrageous runs are also accommodated nicely in this system.



Such a wealth of options. Scary, isn't it?

The false nine was Messi's forte last season, as WhoScored? suggest he played 45 out of 47 games as a centre-forward.

He appears to have completely left his days on the wing behind, so much so you're more likely to see Andres Iniesta out there than him.

That's not to suggest he hasn't ever played in from the left, either, as a winger swaps touchlines with regularity in the modern game.