When Alejandro Sabella became manager of the Argentina national side, he approached Barcelona’s then-manager, Pep Guardiola, and asked him, "What do I do with Leo?"
Guardiola’s answer was short, unequivocal and to the point: "Give him the ball and keep him happy."
This Barcelona side under Tata Martino is doing neither, which is why they are out of the Champions League and will probably come up short in the race for the league title this season.
Of course, they still have the Copa del Rey to go for, and if you’ve ever wondered why the Spanish Cup is played over two legs except for the final, it is precisely for seasons like this when, despite everything, the big clubs can at least have a good chance of winning some silverware and retain some sort of bragging rights.
Much has been made of Lionel Messi’s poor contribution in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid, where he was measured as having run 6.9 kilometres over the match, which is just 1.5 km more than goalkeeper Jose Pinto covered.
To put it into perspective, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, who were substituted in the 72nd and 61st minutes, respectively, both ran 7.8 km.
A striker normally runs 10 km, but Messi did an average of 8.5 km under Guardiola. He has always chosen his runs, so don’t be totally surprised about the short distance covered.
However, Barcelona have no one to blame but themselves, because what they have effectively done is taken the ball off him. Xavi now drops far too deep to be able to link with Messi, they put in far too many crosses and the distribution of the ball is too slow.
Barcelona are not creating the space for him to be able to play his game, and what happens then—like it or not—is that he simply switches off.
The club need to understand that when he doesn’t have the ball, Messi is unhappy. When he’s unhappy, he sulks and he walks. It isn’t rocket science.
But that’s just one of the problems facing Barcelona. Victory in the Copa del Rey final against archrivals Real Madrid might well cushion the landing, but this is a side heading for an institutional crisis.
Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
It seems unlikely that Martino will be at the club next season, and the penny has finally dropped. Barcelona under Tata have not evolved as they hoped they would, and the FIFA transfer ban is a red herring.
Barcelona have to return to the tried and trusted template that has stood them so well in the past.
We’re not even just talking about tactics here, it's also the culture, attitude and work ethic employed by players and coaches alike that took the side to the dizziest of heights and have now been abandoned. It is time to find out what the Barcelona way—now not helped by new signings—is made of.
With that said, I still believe that the club have enough in the locker to see off the challenge of Real Madrid for the third time this season.
Real Madrid can claim they are still fighting on all fronts for silverware, but they have nonetheless shown themselves to be vulnerable when coming up against the really big obstacle, losing twice to Barcelona and once to Atletico and Sevilla.
They looked good in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund before almost contriving to throw it away in Germany.
It would be too easy to blame the club’s shortcomings on Carlo Ancelotti’s efforts to mix the club’s philosophy of playing the big names with a need to put out a balanced side.
In my opinion, however, his real problem is that while he may have a fine starting XI, his bench is found wanting—especially when you have injuries to players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo, Alvaro Arbeloa and Jese.
Players like Asier Illaramendi, Isco, Daniel Carvajal and Fabio Coentrao do not offer the same security other benches do, and when needed, most have not stepped up to the plate.
Barcelona also have fitness concerns, predominantly in the centre of defence where, with Marc Bartra and Gerard Pique missing, they’ll be dragging Carles Puyol off the treatment table for one last effort. Also, and again not for the first time, they'll be drafting in a midfielder in a central defensive role.
Playing people out of their natural position has happened before. In 2009, Yaya Toure played as a centre-back in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, as he did in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United.
The much-criticised Javier Mascherano played there in the 2011 final and has been almost a regular feature in the role for much of this season.
Despite all the problems that both clubs are facing, though, someone’s going to leave the Mestalla with another trophy to squeeze into one of their bulging cabinets. With Ronaldo out and Messi’s ability to create something special, my money’s on Barcelona.
All information and quotes gained firsthand.
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