Messidependencia: Barcelona’s biggest strength and weakness

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Messidependencia has been the word around every time FC Barcelona is brought up by fans throughout the world. For Culers, however, this is a matter of grave concern as the greatest of all time turned 33 and a series of unfortunate knockouts in European football, despite Messi being the standout player in these matches.

This Champions League campaign was brought back to life for FC Barcelona by yet another Lionel Messi masterclass, scoring an impossible goal and winning a penalty by putting his body on the line.

Messidependencia
Lionel Messi scores an impossible goal from a tight angle with three defenders barely feet apart.

Although Lionel Messi has performed such feats throughout many seasons, and Messidependencia is true to an extent, there are too many variables to consider before we can conclusively say that the root of all problems at FC Barcelona, is Messidependencia. Let’s look at the situation at FC Barcelona over the past few seasons and how Lionel Messi has been involved in the team.

Messidependencia: How did it start?

Lionel Messi is the greatest player to have ever kicked a ball, as stated by the finest minds ever to analyze the game and many former players who faced him. Barcelona legend Johann Cruyff could foresee the Argentine’s Ballon D’or domination, and stated it as follows:

“For the world of football, Messi is a treasure because he is a role model for children around the world… Messi will be the player to win the most Ballons d’Or in history. He will win five, six, seven. He is incomparable. He’s in a different league.”
– Johann Cruyff
[FC Barcelona and Ajax Legend]

Messidependencia has often been brought into the spotlight over the past few seasons as fans believe that the team isn’t at its best and that the team grew complacent, relying on Messi to make a difference and win matches.

Back in the Lucho era, FC Barcelona possessed what many people throughout the world consider the deadliest attack ever to exist, the trio of Messi, Neymar, Suarez. The team was heavily reliant on the attacking trio, as the idea was to play attacking football and remove the emphasis from midfielders, as Xavi and Iniesta were approaching the twilight of their careers.

Messidependencia
The unstoppable trio of Messi, Neymar, Suarez

Towards the end of Lucho’s reign at FC Barcelona, Suarez had begun to show signs of decline by age, and even though Messi was still the best in Europe individually, his athleticism wasn’t as explosive as the earlier seasons. This particularly would not support the attacking football that brought a treble to Camp Nou, in the seasons to come with aging core players and decreased work rates.

FC Barcelona had to enter a new phase in which they would begin transitioning into solutions for problems that had developed in the team and possibly make most of the final years of the very talented core members, which is when Ernesto Valverde, then former Athletic Bilbao manager, was brought in.

Messidependencia under Ernesto valverde

Ernesto Valverde brought defensive stability to Bilbao, and his pragmatic style brought the best out of pacy forwards such as Inaki Williams.

He was expected to bring stability to the FC Barcelona side, and fans, however, expected him to bring Cryuffian football back to the club as they criticized Lucho for deviating towards a more direct approach, rather than sticking to the philosophy.

A pivotal player to Ernesto Valverde and his plans was supposed to be Neymar, which is understandable as the youngest of the attacking trio was supposed to step up more often, taking more responsibilities in attack. From a tactical perspective, Neymar was the only player in the attacking trio that brought the much-needed advantage of exploiting the width of the pitch. But the heartbreaking move to PSG meant Ernesto Valverde no longer had arguably the most crucial player in the final third, as Messi was supposed to be a trump card for FC Barcelona’s strike force.

This meant a complete change in tactics with an aging core, decreased work rates, and when it came to attacking, Messi was the only way out.

Ernesto Valverde and Messidependencia

Ousmane Dembele was supposed to be a ray of hope, but his unfortunate series of injuries meant that Messi had to step up for Barcelona’s attack. What started as a smooth solution to an aging core, was now a desperate attempt at trying to win matches with what was at hand, and this increased responsibilities on Lionel Messi due to tactical obligations meant that Messi had to be relied upon, without much room for choice.

Messidependencia grew out of the tactical limitations with players at hand, something this board has been often accused of, a series of signings that haven’t filled the massive shoes of their predecessors.

The above tweet by Mundo Deportivo journalist Miguel Rico is an argument made by him back in 2013

He meant that he would be fortunate to have the best in the world in the team, and Messidependencia is in no way a problem.

To have the best player in the world can only be an added advantage to the existing team, and it only makes sense to have him play to the best of the abilities as the best players are all about making the difference required in matches.

As Iniesta said, FC Barcelona has a player of such quality that teams can’t even comprehend. With that said, Ernesto Valverde optimized the team for Messi to get as much freedom in the attacking phases of the games.

This is what a pragmatic approach is all about, looking at what you have and optimizing to play to your strengths.

This, unfortunately, brought in the disadvantage that is Messidependencia. Although this gave FC Barcelona a chance to do well with the existing members, it wasn’t helpful for the future of the club.

The unrealistic demands of fans for titles didn’t help either. Top clubs are willing to develop for a season or two without the expectation of silverware. However, FC Barcelona had a dilemma. They knew a player of the stature of Lionel Messi isn’t going to come around soon and hence wanted to make the most of his presence.

We’re talking about a player who dismantles teams alone, which gives us another point to wonder: FC Barcelona would be accused of Messidependencia solely due to the difference in quality that he brings, even if his peers were at their best.

The fans at FC Barcelona crave domination, not mere victory, and silverware, hence to say whether Messidependencia is an immediate problem would be uncertain, as the team at that time was centered around Messi for his attacking prowess.


Messidependencia in 17/18
Lionel Messi’s stats from 17/18 [source: understat]
Messidependencia
Lionel Messi’s stats from 18/19 [source:understat]

Now, people could look consider these numbers a serious case of Messidependencia, or the team making the most of him, but this implied that other players didn’t have scoring or creating responsibilities, and in times when Messi was contained by multiple players, there was nobody to step up and create since they’re out of their depth from lack of creating responsibilities.

Although the whole strategy was a good temporary fix, it was exposed by teams that could contain Messi, and hence the tactical failure seemed to be a lack of quality in players, whereas they’ve just been given roles that aren’t progressive for a long time.

Sure, FC Barcelona lacked players in terms of creating abilities, but the “lack of bite” in the team is from the lack of attacking involvement over an extended time for players excluding Messi.

Messidependencia and Quique Setien

Messidependencia

Messidependencia as a problem has been one of the highlights of FC Barcelona’s failures to do well in Europe, and one could argue that the team needs improved circulation of the ball, if they want to involve more players while attacking and avoid crashing like the past few seasons.

With the core, Busquets, Pique, Suarez, Messi, Alba, all aged around 33, it is time to bring in younger players and transition smoothly without abrupt changes. Young players need to be involved more in the games, and the core must be replaced, one by one.

It seems like an impossible task given the shoes these youngsters need to fill, but FC Barcelona has made a good move by bringing in Quique Setien, who is a proponent of Cruyffian ideologies and offers a solution to the team’s problems Setien brings with him better involvement of other players in both phases of the game.

Increased circulation of the ball, better involvement of the full-backs, more minutes for homegrown players like Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati, all seems a positive change to improve FC Barcelona and remove the tag of Messidependencia.

But this isn’t an overnight task. Setien has just had half a season with FC Barcelona and has already shown the willingness to make bold decisions and bring on young players, compared to the “untouchables” of Ernesto Valverde. There is better rotation in the squad, and Setien is ready to adapt in matches in which the philosophy might require some tuning.

He understands the balance between philosophy and pragmatism. Without the philosophy, problems such as the Messidependencia will arise, and if FC Barcelona sticks to the philosophy ardently, there are teams against which FC Barcelona will suffer.

Conclusion

Messidependencia was a necessary evil, given the situation of the club. Although FC Barcelona could have made better signings and trust their homegrown players more, it all comes with a degree of risk and uncertainty that may not necessarily be the best option with the given stature of the club. The phase of pragmatic football at FC Barcelona brought in the much-needed stability to make most of Messi’s final few seasons in the game.

Now with the required style for the growth of the youngsters FC Barcelona possesses, it is a matter of time to see how they perform given the stature of the club. Messidependencia seems to be an intended event to involve and focus on getting the most out of Messi, and now with Lionel aged 33, youngsters are supposed to step up and shape the future of the club.

Although Messi has been heavily relied upon by Setien this season, it is going to be a gradual process over the next few seasons, to play at a very high level without depending on Messi. The best we can do is give the youngsters time to improve and adapt to the club.

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