Arsene Wenger blames Lionel Messi for Alexis Sanchez's perceived difficulties at Barcelona, but 2014-15 will finally give the Argentine forward the chance to earn the recognition he deserves as a facilitator, not just a scorer.
Sanchez was really outstanding at Udinese but when he went to Barcelona it became a bit more difficult for him. It’s like you can see with Neymar at Barcelona, because there you have Messi and everyone has to fit in around him. You see Neymar with Brazil and he is a different player to Neymar with Barcelona. And it is the same with Sanchez.
The French manager is partly right, of course. Messi is arguably the biggest star in football, and one of the world's most gifted scorers. It's only logical for Barcelona to build their team around him, and for a lot of players, it's hard to shine with Messi taking so much of the spotlight.
But to say everyone needs to fit around Messi is an overstatement. The pint-sized attacker has a lot of attributes, and his versatility is one of his biggest assets. While we all know him as an excellent scorer, he has all the tools to be an exceptional facilitator as well.
In fact, he already is, as shared by Barcastuff:
Messi gave 130 assists at Barcelona, to 22 teammates, against 43 opponents, in 34 stadiums, in 6 different competitions. [via @barca19stats]— barcastuff (@barcastuff) August 4, 2014
In the past few years, Barcelona have surrounded their star forward with speedy wingers and excellent passers in the centre of the pitch, with their entire philosophy based around setting Messi up in front of goal.
That's not to say his teammates couldn't score—they could, and they did. A lot. Sanchez finished the 2013-14 La Liga season with 19 goals, per WhoScored.com, an impressive number for a winger.
But when push came to shove, the entire team always turned to Messi to deliver that one winning goal. Teammates expected him to produce his magic, and coaches would cater their tactics to give him as much space as possible around the box.
Last season, we finally saw the first true shift in mentality. When Barcelona acquired Neymar, they weren't looking for yet another player to fit into their tiki-taka system—they went looking for a scorer to pair with Messi.
The addition of Luis Suarez completes the process. Suddenly, the Blaugrana have a wealth of scoring options, including more than one player whose main task is just that—score. Sanchez, Andres Iniesta and Pedro all know how to finish, but scoring isn't at the top of their job description.
How to fit all of those options into one starting XI is still a mystery, although Goal's Ben Hayward believes Luis Enrique could opt for an innovative 3-2-3-2 that also includes transfer target Juan Cuadrado.
Regardless of the formation, Enrique will be looking to do one thing: Free up space for Messi. Not just in and around the box—everywhere. With some of the world's best passers playing behind him and top strikers Neymar and Suarez keeping their eyes firmly on goal, Messi will have the freedom to roam and distribute.
'Space' is going to be the keyword for Messi in 2014-15. Space to find passing lanes for his teammates, space opening up as defences have to account for Suarez and Neymar: The possibilities will be endless.
Of course Messi is still going to spend much of his time in front of goal, scoring with the same ease mere mortals draw breath. And there's no question he'll still be Barcelona's biggest star.
But the opportunity to open up new areas of the pitch and rely on teammates to be just as deadly in front of goal as he is will show us a whole new Messi in the coming campaign, and one who will no longer be blamed for taking up the spotlight.
People overlook what Messi can do as a facilitator, and by the end of the 2014-15 season, that will no longer be the case.