What's wrong with Lionel Messi? Barcelona are failing their icon

The world’s best player is looking powerless for Barcelona, was called an ‘ex-footballer’ after the Clasico and seems to be declining without old pal Neymar… so just what IS wrong with Lionel Messi?!

  • Barcelona are relying too much on Lionel Messi, who has no one to play off him  
  • Criticism aimed at his performances for Argentina are following him at club level 
  • He was labelled ‘an ex footballer’ for his display in the 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid
  • The club need to cash in on underperformers and sign a star to support Messi 
  • The six-time Ballon D’or winner needs help, and Barca are failing to give it to him 

All those years of Argentina trying to be like Barcelona to get the best out of Lionel Messi, and we end up with Barcelona starting to look like Argentina. It wasn’t meant to end this way.

In the big games Messi now seems to cut the same forlorn, powerless figure in the Barça shirt as he does in the blue and white stripes. There is an over-reliance on him. He gets given the ball too often and in areas of the pitch that don’t maximize the effect he can have on the game.

There is no one to play off of anymore, no Luis Suarez. And there is no one to put defenders on the back foot and take attention away from smothering him as there was once when he had Neymar alongside him.

Barcelona are relying too much on Lionel Messi and the club need to give him more support

Messi was labelled as ‘an ex footballer’ by a pundit after his display in the 2-0 loss to Madrid

The result is that Messi looks human and the criticism that for years followed him through his international career is being applied to his performance at club level. Barcelona supporters have not turned, and you’d like to believe they never will. 

But others have. Former Argentina goalkeeper Hugo Gatti is now a pundit on Spanish television. He called Messi an ‘ex-footballer’ after his display at the Bernabeu at the weekend.

Messi has 23 goals and 16 assists in 30 games this season. He put four past Eibar two weeks ago. He’s on a goal every 111 minutes. He has 18 in La Liga and is on course to win his seventh La Liga top scorer award. 

They are not the numbers of player in his last season before retirement. But Marca’s more moderate appraisal that he has been ‘offering a level of performance below his own standard for six weeks now’, is hard to argue with.

The Argentine has no one to play off him after Luis Suarez was ruled out through injury


La Liga

Games: 21

Goals: 18

Assists: 12 

Copa del Rey

Games: 2

Goals: 2

Champions League

Games: 6

Goals: 2

Assists: 3 

It’s true that Suarez’ absence has hit him hard. ‘We have spoken about it,’ the Uruguayan explained in an interview with RAC1 last week. ‘It is much easier for him when he plays behind a number nine who is occupying the centre-backs.’

Messi always played without a centre-forward before Suarez arrived in 2014. But when flanked by first Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, and then by David Villa and Pedro, he had wide players who played high on the shoulders of the last defender, forcing teams back, opening space up. Messi played off them and with them in the space that they created it. There is none of that now.

On Sunday, Barça didn’t even play a front three. Antoine Griezmann started up front with Messi. Quique Setien’s idea is that one of the four midfielders joins from deeper to make up the front three. 

In practice it’s not working. Occasionally Arturo Vidal, who Messi likes, can manage it, but as Arthur’s one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois on Sunday suggested, he can’t. Frenkie de Jong has the pace to do it but he also is struggling to show his best form.

Manager Quique Setien’s tactics to get the best out of his talisman aren’t working at Barcelona 

Messi played up front with Antoine Griezmann in a front two on Sunday but it didn’t pay off 

In the absence of associates, the 17-year-old Ansu Fati had become a new pal for Messi this season. Fati can stretch teams with his pace and opens up space but despite starting in Setien’s first six games in charge he has fallen out of favour with the new coach. Since scoring twice against Levante last month, both from Messi assists, he has played only 97 minutes in five games.

Messi has always combined well with full-backs at Barcelona. Most brilliantly with Dani Alves and more recently with Jordi Alba. There is no such chemistry with Nelson Semedo, nor with Junior Firpo, who recently filled in for Alba when he was injured.

The full-backs don’t have the confidence to extend the opposition with runs high up the pitch, and when they do there seems to be a lack of confidence shown in them by their team-mates because they are often not played in.

Barcelona are currently getting the forlorn figure who often turns up for the Argentina team

The consequences of Messi’s recent relative decline are both short and long-term.

The immediate effect is that Barcelona are struggling to win the tougher games this season. Five away defeats in La Liga so far tell the story and will probably cost them the title. Messi has not scored on the road in three months.

And in Europe, Messi admitted recently: ‘Right now we don’t have what it takes to win the Champions League.’

But other consequences loom in the longer term. There is the possibility that Messi will not want to stay if the club cannot build a team around him that can properly compete.

If his desire for the club to sign Neymar last summer looked at the time like a frivolous attempt at doing his friend a favour, it now looks just like good business. He saw this dip coming and knew the return of a player he always had a brilliant understanding with would help keep it at bay.

Messi was desperate for the club to resign Neymar (C) last summer to boost the team’s attack 

The club cannot afford to leave Messi alone, he needs help to restore Barca back to glory  

Barcelona need to try to sign Neymar again this summer or bring in Messi’s international team-mate Lautaro Martinez. But both will cost over a £100million and years of disastrous transfer market activity have left the club struggling to raise such sums.

‘Spending will depend on sales’, read one Diario Sport headline on Tuesday. The club need to cash-in on players such as Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic before they can spend. Good luck with that lads. They were trying all last summer but no clubs wanted to give them back anywhere near their huge outlay on the first two and the rest were reluctant to be traded.

What they cannot afford to do is leave Messi alone. One picture of him in Diario Sport on Tuesday showed him surrounded by Isco, Casemiro, Marcelo and Kroos. ‘The solitude of the number 10’ was the headline. 

A decade ago he might have given those four guards the slip. But he needs help now, and Barcelona are failing to give it to him.

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