Relaxed, refreshed and reinvigorated, Lionel Messi showed enough sharpness in the pre-season Gamper Trophy match against FC Leon to suggest that, after a less-than-satisfactory season under Tata Martino, it will probably be business as usual at the Camp Nou for the Argentina superstar this season.
Much has been said after his, and his country’s, performance during the World Cup in Brazil. More of that later, but it’s worth noting that despite criticisms of his country’s tactics and—to a lesser extent—his own performance, Argentina came within a hair’s breadth of actually winning the competition.
And while the World Cup may well be history, to find the reason for the renewed spring in his step and the return to the smile on his face, we have to go back to a meeting Messi had with the then-manager-in-waiting at Barcelona, Luis Enrique, just before the start of the competition.
The new head coach told him that despite who might be coming to the club—no matter what happened at the World Cup—as far as he was concerned, Messi was to be the focus of Barcelona’s attack and the side would work around him.
Effectively, what he was saying was: "I will provide you with the conditions that suit you best and, in return, you give me what you have shown in the past you can give."
The challenge was accepted, and the match against FC Leon, where we saw a more involved Messi working tirelessly—sometimes as a false number nine, other times as a false No. 10, but always at the fulcrum of everything—was the first repayment from Messi to Enrique for the vote of confidence.
Further bolstered by his selection by his own team-mates as one of the club captains, along with Sergio Busquets, following the departure of Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes, Messi—a man who thrives on confidence and the faith shown in him by others—looked a different proposition in a free-flowing, intuitive display with him deciding when, where and how he wanted the ball.
What a difference to the role that Messi was compelled to play in Brazil.
It’s really very simple. You don’t need to be a genius to realise that where Messi destroys sides is in and around the box. If you create a system where you don’t deliver the ball to him in those areas and you force him to come back deeper and deeper in search of the ball, he will be less effective.
Against Bosnia, Alejandro Sabella opted for a five-man defence that looked to the counter and effectively isolated Messi from much of the action. A half-time display of player power precipitated a change of tactics and a more effective Argentina with a more involved Messi in a 4-3-3 formation.
But injuries to Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria caused Sabella to revert to the defensive tactics he felt more comfortable with even though it meant Messi was some 50 metres away from where he could do the most damage.
Sabella had made precisely the same mistake Martino had during his tenure at the Camp Nou.
Now I’m convinced that we are going to see a better Messi this season than the one we saw last year.
The reason for that is because he will be more involved because, quite simply, the system that will be played by the team will benefit him.
The notion that Messi played below his best last year because he was frightened of being injured before the World Cup was always nonsense—he scored 41 goals in 46 games, despite being injured for almost two months.
There is a sting in the tail, though. While Messi may well be looking forward to working with Enrique at Barcelona, when he returns to his country for international duty he will find a new man at the helm—Martino.
It will be fascinating to see how they work together.