Lionel Messi will want to quickly forget his night at the Allianz Arena.
Having only passed a fitness test hours before kickoff (likely still carrying some sort of injury), Messi took the field for Barcelona against the best defensive team in the world—Bayern Munich—as they sought to book a place in the final of the 2013 Champions League.
Having already scored 51 goals in 36 appearances for Barcelona this year, including eight already in the Champions League, Messi's potential impact needed no introduction. Especially not after he single-handedly brought Barcelona back from defeat against AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain earlier in the competition.
Yet against Bayern Munich's strong defensive presence, disciplined and well-organized, Messi was but a shadow of the player we know he can be.
He finished the match without a single shot on target. He recorded just one shot, 72 touches and had more turnovers than he's had in any game this season.
The statistics of his performance (listed below) were simply astounding, as he finished with his lowest average match rating from the year (per WhoScored).
1 - Lionel Messi has only attempted one shot against Bayern, his fewest in a CL game in the starting eleven since May 2009 v Chelsea. Lost.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) April 23, 2013
Lionel Messi had six turnovers today, his most in any league/UCL game this season.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) April 23, 2013
GRAPHIC: Messi heat map vs Bayern. Weak. twitter.com/Squawka/status…— Squawka Football(@Squawka) April 23, 2013
There was no doubting that whilst this was a poor night for Barcelona, it was also a poor night for Messi. Unlike the Milan game, where he was simply shut out of the game, the Argentinian international was simply not his world-class self in this one, and he struggled to adjust to Bayern's defense—leaving the visitors without any direction in attack.
And that lack of direction showed that Barca cannot be solely dependant on Messi in their attack, nor can they continue to play Messi in the false-nine up front.
I've wrirten a great deal this season about the need for David Villa to play as the striker ahead of Messi, pulling defenders away from him and creating space in behind. Yet Barca were right not to employ that style here, for the height and strength of the Bayern defensive line wouldn't have allowed Villa any space or the chance to assert dominance in attack.
What they needed was a true, out-and-out striker.
They needed someone other than Messi to play to at the top of the attack—someone big and strong who could give their midfield something to aim at.
For without that, Messi is simply being swamped, and it's hurting Barcelona.
GRAPHIC: Barca heat map Vs Bayern. Didn't get close to the goal...: twitter.com/Squawka/status…— Squawka Football(@Squawka) April 23, 2013
Teams are figuring out how to play against La Blaugrana and how to deal with the threat of Messi. Perhaps not in La Liga, where tall, strong defenses aren't exactly in abundance, but throughout world football, it has most certainly been the case this year.
AC Milan did it. Paris Saint-German did it. Bayern Munich did it. You could nearly even make the argument that Real Madrid's Raphael Varane (a stronger, taller, physical defender) did the same when he played against Messi in their Copa del Rey fixture.
Teams are understanding how to shut down the Argentinian wizard, and whilst they will never be able to restrict him completely, they are having an impact.
Thus Barcelona—if they want to remain as one of the top teams in world football—need to respond. They either need to change their system or bring in a striker to boost their attack. Maybe it's time to make the move to the 4-2-3-1 revolution that is sweeping world football and start to use their greatest playmaker and finisher in a central attacking midfielder role more often.
Yes, it would mean less production in terms of goals from Messi, but it would help Barca's attack. The No. 10 was already forced to play in essentially a central midfield role in this one here—dropping a long way down the pitch to try and spark the attack—so why not play him in that role properly?
Should Barcelona sign a striker this summer?
Perhaps it's something for the second leg against Bayern Munich where they have nothing to lose. Perhaps it's something for the summer transfer window.
Either way, though, it's a shift that Barcelona must make sooner or later if they want to remain at the top. For the world is slowly figuring Messi and tika-taka out, and whilst they're still a long way from sinking the boat entirely, there's definitely some holes starting to appear.
Barcelona must patch those holes up before they become even greater.
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