What Have Barcelona Learned During Lionel Messi's Absence?
Evoking memories of his earlier time at the club, Messi’s injuries are becoming more frequent, his absences longer, and it raises the unpalatable prospect of the worlds best beginning to suffer from the onset of burnout.
After all, here is a player that until the back end of last season, played in most, if not all of Barca’s games for a number of seasons. The punishment he's received from opposing defenders and the consequent toll on his body, was always going to have an effect on the player at some point.
Where Martino also deserves praise is not only in the way his teams, minus Messi, have gone about their business, but also in his handling of the player.
It's abundantly clear to anyone who watches Barca games that the Argentine has a dislike of either being substituted or starting from the bench.
Yet Martino’s sensible rotation policy will benefit Messi and the wider squad in the short and long term. Gone are the days when Xavi Hernandez can play 60 games a season for example.
So what have Barcelona learnt during Messi’s most recent absence?
Perhaps the first thing to note is that Barca still remain unbeaten without Messi in the side. A surprising stat, perhaps, but it would certainly suggest there is "life after Messi."
It's also given Martino the opportunity to tinker with his front line where, quite frankly, Neymar has been a revelation in the central role.
The Brazilian has most certainly showed he can provide an alternative dynamic in the position, however, as Dermot Corrigan of ESPN reported, the manager doesn't see the youngster as a like-for-like replacement:
Even though he is very young, Neymar is used to taking on the load of more experienced players.
Each player does what they can, in accordance with their own possibilities. Neymar does not need to fill the hole left by Messi.
Thinking about one player stepping into the shoes of another does not interest me.
Prior to the game vs. Real Valladolid, Martino noted (via the same article):
Neymar can play as a centre-forward—we will see that maybe tomorrow, or another time.
We know that, with Leo’s injury, Neymar, Alexis and Cesc can come in, with their different characteristics.
It is this versatility from Barca's attacking personnel that allow Martino the luxury of varying options which would otherwise be unavailable, given Messi would be first pick on the team sheet.
Would it therefore be fair to suggest that without Messi, Barca play [in an attacking sense] with a little more freedom? With the need to "give the ball to Messi" removed, players are able to express themselves just that little more on the pitch.
Barca are squandering chance after chance unnecessarily, and Neymar's insistence on assisting Messi and not pulling rank is a hindrance right now.
Neymar has made all the right moves and said all the right things, but the Brazilian needs to start taking more authority in games and decide not to pass to Messi on occasion if Barca are going to remain unbeaten.
We can also look at the example of Alexis Sanchez vs. Celtic in his cameo appearance. More direct than usual, his cross for Cesc Fabregas' winning goal was exquisite. Martino, again, is in no doubt as to the Chilean's qualities (Dermot Corrigan, ESPN):
When he does not play a good game, there is a lot of criticism. And when he does well and gives a good assist like the other day, nobody says anything.
Sometimes I am surprised at how harshly people criticise him. He should just play like Alexis Sanchez and not try to copy anyone else.
Barca perhaps lose some cutting edge when the Argentine is not playing, as it's often this incisive part of his game that marks him out as the difference, and match-winner. Eight goals and three assists in seven games already this season speak for itself.
Martino's way of working, both in a footballing and management sense, is paying dividends at present and what he and Barcelona have learned in Messi's absence is that there is more, much more, to this team than Lionel Messi.
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