It’s not a regular that you see someone getting 99,000 people up on their feet a day in and day out with their wizardry. Lionel Messi has been doing just that at Barcelona ever since he exploded on to the scene with Ronaldinho carrying him on his back. While it has been more than one and a half-decade since Messi made his debut, his significance for FC Barcelona continues to grow day by day. Ageing like a fine wine, Lionel Messi’s evolution and tactical maturity combined with his extra-terrestrial capabilities makes him one of the players to watch out a blink.
This scout report will be a tactical analysis of Lionel Messi’s role in the current Barcelona set up along with his individual evolution. This analysis will focus on the current season, highlighting Messi within Quique Setién’s tactics.
Messi’s 2019/20 at a glance
Beginning the season after an emphatic individual season, Messi has bagged 24 goals and 16 assists in 31 appearances for the Blaugrana this season. Messi boasts an xG of 0.72 per 90 in LaLiga, with an xA of 0.47 per 90. In this regard, Messi has been the real weight-bearer for the Barcelona side as the top goal and assist provider for the team.
Similarly, La Pulga averages 6.26 successful dribbles per 90, with a success rate of 71.74%. With a pass accuracy of 82.5% and 3.38 passes to the box per 90, Messi displays the versatility while maintaining the topmost quality statistically.
After Quique Setién’s appointment, Messi has made 11 appearances with eight goals and seven assists on the tally.
Positioning and movement
On a 4-3-3 setup, Messi starts up as a right-winger, accompanying Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez in the front line. Similarly, in a few occasions, Messi started as a striker alongside second forward Antoine Griezmann.
However, Messi’s position on papers is only a theoretical representation of what he offers. Messi is frequently seen drifting towards the central area, predominantly inside zone 14 to capitalize on the space created by the number 9. Similarly, Messi does this to get himself ready to switch into a goalscoring position from a playmaker several times during the match.
Antoine Griezmann has been deployed more in the left area of the pitch and with both the players liking to cut inside eventually, Messi’s influence in the left has slightly decreased this season, compared to the previous season.
Similarly, under Setién, Messi is given the liberty to freely operate around the pitch. Messi frequently drops deep to get involved in the link-up play during the link-up. While he covers the central zone of the pitch, the right-back covers advanced right flank, while the adjacent midfielder makes up for the defensive aspects of play.
Messi and Griezmann have been seen switching the central position frequently as the former Atlético man is able to play as a central forward in addition to an interior position. Hence, Messi moves to occupy the spaces, apparently playing as a false nine when Barcelona are progressing higher up the pitch.
Link-up play and progression
With the diverse skill set he possesses, Messi can operate as a deep-lying playmaker and has adopted this role every now and then. His ability to play between the line and detect spaces to move the ball ahead makes him an active figure in the Barcelona buildup. Messi teams up with Busquets to create passing chains, as well as receives balls directly from the centre-backs to receive in between the lines.
In addition, Messi is able to open up channels for the pass receiver to get rid of the advanced marker, making the transition even smoother.
In the instance seen above, Barcelona are building up after recovery and Messi is in a deep position, ready to receive a pass from Busquets. He’s got two oppositions in close proximity which makes it equally difficult to manoeuvre and detect a free teammate.
With a turn towards his own post, Messi draws the advanced player in his passing direction, thereby protecting the ball. Similarly, the space created by out of position player can be utilized by the receiver. Messi executes a signature body faint to deceive players here.
It becomes almost impossible for the opposition player to regain the ball because of the swift pass played towards the free player.
Similarly, Messi’s evolution includes the increase in long balls towards the opposite flank. It is a regular sight to see Jordi Alba and Messi link-up with a lightening Alba run and an accurate Messi pass. The ability to detect overlapping runs towards left flank makes it extremely easy for Barcelona to penetrate from wider areas as multiple opposition lines can be surpassed with just one pass. Similarly, Alba’s pacey run from the blind side makes it equally lethal with a possibility of him finding Messi inside the box afterwards.
Similarly, his ability to progress the ball via different options comes handy while Barcelona attempt a counter-attack. His actions in counter-attacks are a mix of short accelerations, dribbles and long passes, meaning he can switch the play to the other flank, or get rid of a few players before passing it to an advanced player.
Messi is a genius when it comes to decision making, whether to pass the ball ahead or to progress it via runs. The chemistry between brain and boots, for Messi, has got stronger than ever, and his ability to conclude with an accelerating run or a pass has made him a key figure in counter-attacks despite not making long strides.
A complete zone 14 player
Despite roaming around to create combinations and plays, Lionel Messi’s most lethal area has to be zone 14, which he mastered at an early age under current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Most of the events that Messi completes comes within this zone, which makes him effective and a deadly threat just in front of the goal.
In the instance above, Antoine Griezmann is seen approaching the right area with ball progression, in order to accommodate Messi between him and the striker. This gives two on-field advantages, it either releases markers off Messi or draws enough markers for Leo to switch play and create threat using wider options. This lands Messi to be able to end up in zone 14 eventually:
As a prolific dribbler, Messi’s dribble density inside the zone 14 is extremely high. Messi has a dribble completion rate of 74.8% inside this area and is able to properly capitalize surpassing the centre-backs in this area. Most of his dribbles are followed by a shot on goal, which yields higher xG because of a favourable position on the pitch.
Similarly, Messi is seldom seen dropping deep and defending. Hence, most of his defensive duties constitute of winning the ball high up the pitch, in zone 14 itself. Messi uses counter-pressing to regain possession and 32 of his 64 recoveries during the season came inside zone 14. Regaining possession higher up the pitch makes it even more lethal and can be used to force opposition errors frequently.
A prolific goalscorer
Due to his versatility and vision, Messi is a clinical finisher who is able to get into spaces to receive the ball or create chances out of nowhere for himself.
With a poacher like Luis Suarez alongside him, it has become very rare that Messi puts himself in the receiver’s position. Under Quique Setién as well, Messi tries to create chances for himself through one-twos and dribbles.
In addition to being an efficient free-kick taker, Messi prefers to shoot from the central area of the pitch, getting as close to the post as possible. Similarly, against low blocks, Messi is able to pull off long rangers, making him a double-edged sword to counter almost any existing defensive approach.
As the shot map indicates, most of his goals come from deep inside the box, either attained by a penetrating run or a quick interchange of passes to open defence. In this regard, Setién prefers generating passing triangles with Leo’s involvement to open defences. Messi’s goals under Setién have come under this fashion, with direct involvement with Griezmann or any adjacent midfielder.
In the instance, Messi makes a progressive run, spots two options on either side. Messi decides to pass it right, and instead of immediately getting into position. He draws players for the player in the left to receive. As seen in the picture, Messi moves the defender towards him in order to release the pressure from the left.
Thus, when the player on the left receives, Messi is able to position himself on the blindside to receive and get a shot on goal, which eventually turns up in the back of the net.
Amidst the rollercoaster of transfers, managerial and tactical changes, Lionel Messi has been the constant for FC Barcelona for more than a decade now. Messi’s ability to control the play as well as put on the number makes him more vital as the team continues to strive under Setién. This tactical analysis covered certain aspects that signal how Messi’s gameplay evolution has facilitated FC Barcelona and Quique Setién in recent times.
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