4 Things Lionel Messi Needs to Do for an Encore This Season for Barcelona
With 73 goals and 23 assists, Lionel Messi boasts the greatest individual statistical output in the history of European football.
Last season, Messi had his best season in terms of numbers and is once again a finalist for the Ballon d'Or.
In all likelihood, the records he set will not be broken any time soon. He will probably not even get near those figures this term. Probably.
For the last few seasons, Barcelona's No. 10 has gotten better with each passing season. The number of assists and goals scored has increased every year.
Surely he can't do that against this year, though. Can he?
Whatever his final goal count is and as great as his output was last campaign, it is safe to assume that he would trade many of those goals for the La Liga and Champions League trophies.
For Messi, the team results are more important than individual accolades.
So it is actually possible for the Argentinian to have a better campaign in 2012-2013. To do that, the entire Barcelona team has to have a better year, not just their star forward.
With that in mind, here are four things Messi needs to do this season to have an even better year this time around.
Give Up His Penalty Rights
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Lionel Messi is already recognized as the best footballer alive by most people and has been for years now.
What's more, the Barcelona No. 10 has actually improved with every new season.
Three seasons ago, some questioned his positional discipline and thought he could even become more selfish by wanting to play a more central role.
The next season La Pulga Atomica doubled his assist total and made his position on the pitch as indefinable as any in the world by playing a hybrid "false 9" role.
Two years ago he was highly criticized for being a poor free-kick taker. He spent the summer working on that skill and is now one of the best in La Liga and even Europe.
Messi's greatest flaw
However, one weakness that remains for Messi is penalties. He has never been a great penalty taker and has not really improved over the course of his career.
He is extremely predictable, going to his right almost every time and further gives weight to the argument that left-footed players are typically not great at PKs.
Leo always wants to be the center of Barcelona's attack and that is understandable considering how valuable he is not just with scoring goals, but creating them as well.
If he wants to help his team succeed, though, he needs to start letting other players take penalties. Cesc Fabregas, David Villa and even Xavi are all better at it than the Argentinian.
Giving another player a larger, more important role will not only help the offense statistically, it will take a bit more pressure off of Messi.
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Call it stubbornness, a competitive nature or just an insatiable desire to play football; whatever the reason, Lionel Messi never wants to sit on the sidelines.
In the last three seasons, Messi has started an average of 61 games per season. Last term he started 70 matches—70!
Even at his age and fitness level, spending so much time on the pitch will end up catching up to him. In order to lower the chances of injury or exhaustion, the forward needs to take a break every now and then.
Pep Guardiola once tried to spell Messi and the result was not very positive.
In the final match of the season against Barcelona, the former Blaugrana manager rested his star player because the league had already been decided and the team was set to play a Champions League final after that.
Instead of celebrating with the rest of the team, Leo walked around the pitch looking unhappy and sulking around the field.
It was later discovered that Messi was upset at not featuring in the match even though he was unneeded in the end.
Competitive or just stubborn?
While such a competitive spirit is admirable, the Argentinian play-maker has to realize that while the team is weaker without him playing one match, losing him for an extended period due to an injury would be the bigger detriment.
Last season the team was far too over-reliant on Messi and it was clear in the last month or so of play that he had grown very tired.
While there is little he can do about the form of his teammates and their ability to score more goals, he has complete control over his body and he needs to be more willing to sit throughout the season so that he is more useful to the team later on.
Take More Chances from Distance
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Lionel Messi is one of the most dynamic and complete players of all time.
He is as great a goal-scorer as football has ever seen, but is also one of the best playmakers alive.
Yet, as great as he is at getting a goal for his team, one complaint about what he does in the run of play is that he does not score from distance as much as one would expect.
In the last few years, Messi—and honestly, the rest of Barcelona—seem almost unwilling to take a shot from outside the box. At times the team is criticized for trying to walk the ball into the net.
While that type of elegant, quick-passing football is beautiful to watch, it is often very limiting.
In the Champions League semifinals last year, we saw how desperate Barca were to have someone who was a strong threat to score from distance or, at the very least, someone who was willing to test the keeper.
There is no need to bring in a specialist to do this. Messi—and a healthy David Villa—can do that job.
We know he can do it. He has proven that he can score from distance in a Champions League final and in La Liga a few times.
If he is going to make Barca's attack less predictable and harder to plan against, Messi should take more risks in order to test the keeper when he least expects it. It can only improve his game in the end.
Consider Moving Back out Wide
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First of all, let it be clear that I am not calling for Messi to permanently move back out wide.
The simple and proven truth is that La Pulga Atomica is more dangerous and better utilized in a central role.
But sometimes, the attack needs to give a different look to opposing defenses. While Barca remain almost unstoppable on their day, more teams are using the same tactic of focusing almost solely on the Barca No. 10.
The front three need to be more interchangeable so that the strategy of just doubling Messi in the middle and taking chances out wide is less advantageous.
Pushing Messi out wide on occasion does just that. It makes the entire opposing strategy useless.
The goal of sending one or two extra markers in the middle to close off Messi's lanes and limit space for him is no longer feasible.
The effect of Messi the winger
By moving out wide, the defense has to either risk having a fullback all alone with the world's best player or making the middle of the pitch more vulnerable by providing more help out wide.
With multiple defenders on him, Messi is at times unbeatable and still manages to create opportunities for his teammates.
In isolation, with only one defender on him, Lionel Messi can wreak havoc against any team in football.
In addition, he can help whoever plays in the central role by allowing him to move with fewer bodies and more space to score.
This shift out wide certainly should not be permanent, but it should be used this season to add more variety in attack.
At the very least, moving Messi out wide for long periods should be a more commonly used in-game adjustment by La Blaugrana.