Barcelona vs. AC Milan: Lionel Messi's Big Night Shows How to Best Use Striker

Dan TalintyreSenior Analyst IIMarch 13, 2013

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 12:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and AC Milan at the Camp Nou Stadium on March 12, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Lionel Messi is a phenomenal striker and an absolute joy to watch in world football, and he proved that once more in his most recent Champions League performance.

Carrying Barcelona back from two goals down against AC Milan with two simply delightful finishes, Messi showed many things about his game and current mental state—ranging from the fact that he isn't overcome by Italian clubs to the fact that he can step up big in key matches.

Yet what Messi revealed most clearly in this one was just how Barcelona and Jordi Roura can most effectively utilize the mesmerizing striker.

And it's not just give him the ball and let him do his thing.

Unlike in the first leg, Messi was deployed in behind the top of the attack, rather than at the top of the attack. In footballing terms, he played as the No. 10 rather than the No. 9, and it proved to work dividends for the Blaugrana throughout the match.

Having someone ahead of him—and a strong presence like David Villa nonetheless—allowed Messi to drop further down the pitch into a more creative role. It also meant that the Milan defenders would not follow him, for fear of leaving Villa unmarked at the top of the attack.

It was evident in both of Messi's goals here.

For the first one, Villa's presence at the top of the attack meant that Messi was able to drop back into more of a central attacking midfielder's position. The space around him for the pass and subsequent shot to be taken can be seen clearly from this image of the build-up play.

Not being at the top of the attack meant that Messi had the time to get a shot away and completely change the complexion of the match. Even if, as images showed afterward, that there wasn't that much space by the time his actual shot took place.

It wasn't as clear in the second goal, but having a regulation striker at the top of the attack was still crucial for Messi. It allowed him to drift right and find just a slight channel of horizontal space—which was enough for his left foot to magically drill the ball into the bottom corner.

Villa himself was playing as the perfect smokescreen here for Messi, but would then turn into Milan's biggest villain here as the reverse impact came back to haunt them. Barcelona's third goal, the goal that would win them the match, saw Villa in an abundance of space on the right-hand side after Messi (central) had attracted the vast majority of defensive attention.

And Villa would make no mistake with his finish—sending Barcelona through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League when it seemed highly unlikely.

I wrote this prior to Barcelona's incredible victory about the effect that Villa and Messi could have together, and highlighted the table below as proof of how effective the Argentinian international is once Villa starts alongside him at the top of the attack.

Not like in the first leg, where they played essentially side-by-side—Villa must be consciously ahead of the Argentinian international at all times. If he does this and does this well, the flow-on effect throughout the entire Barcelona team could be profound.

Villa occupying the center backs creates more space for Messi. 

Messi with more space is deadly enough, but with the ball at his feet and achieving more touches in the No. 10 role than the No. 9, the little wizard could very well have one of his greatest games ever. 

Opponent Lionel Messi's Performance Barcelona's Performance
Deportivo Three goals, one assist Barcelona win, score five goals
Mallorca Two goals Barcelona win, score four goals
Real Zaragoza Two goals, one assist Barcelona win, score three goals
Osasuna Four goals Barcelona win, score five goals
Getafe One goal, one assist Barcelona win, score six goals
Sevilla One goal (Villa also scores) Barcelona win, score two goals


And now, with that Champions League match under their belts, it seems that we can add another row of success to the Messi-Villa combination.


Opponent Lionel Messi's Performance Barcelona's Performance
AC Milan Two goals (Villa also scores) Barcelona win, score four goals


With Messi back in the No. 10 role, Barcelona were back at their best.

Credit deserves to flow in for Villa too, who had an excellent performance for the Catalan club, but it was the man feeding off him who did the damage.

It was the man who seemingly always does the damage who struck here.

The onus, it seems, is now back on the defenses of the teams that Barca will face in the remainder of the Champions League to try to stop La Blaugrana. For even Milan, with their brilliant first leg, were left stunned and without answer to the creative mastery that Messi produced this week.

It wasn't drastic, but it was profound, and it could well be the tactical adjustment that allows Barca to establish itself as the European favorites once more.

Especially if Messi, and Villa, continue to take the field together.


Is Lionel Messi better suited at the No. 10 position than the No. 9?

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