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article imageOp-Ed: Time for Barcelona's Lionel Messi to consider a move abroad?

By Tyrrell Meertins     May 13, 2014 in Sports
Lionel Messi stood inconsolable at the half-way line, as he was forced to watch Cosmin Contra’s Getafe celebrate Angel Lafita’s injury-time equalizer at the Camp Nou.
Seconds later the final whistle blew and Messi walked towards the tunnel emotionless and disinterested.
Although Barcelona’s season isn’t officially over –– due to slip-ups from both Atletico and Real Madrid –– it’s unlikely that Messi’s mood will change, even if they successfully retain their La Liga title. The four-time Ballon d’Or winner is now seen moping around the final third frustrated, at times, he’s anonymous.
While it’s easy to instantly look at Messi’s goal tally and highlight the vast difference between previous seasons, the Argentine has scored 20 goals in 2014 –– the highest goal return in the top five European leagues this year –– and still possesses an impressive 28 goals in 28 appearances following a two-month lay-off. Oddly, while the performances haven’t matched the levels we’re accustomed to, Messi’s efficiency has made up for it.
But when you’re given the title as the best player of a generation –– possibly all-time –– the likelihood of cynics overlooking poor performances are slim, due to the enhanced level of expectation. Messi, though, wasn’t projected to be this good, and the Catalan side –– who finished 18 points behind league champions Real Madrid in 2008 –– were spiralling towards mediocrity during Frank Rijkaard’s final season. The issues within the dressing room led to the departures of Deco, Ronaldinho, and Rijkaard, and the unknown Pep Guardiola was appointed the new manager.
That’s when the pendulum swung.
Discipline was instilled, togetherness was regained, and the winning mentality mixed with the hunger to return to the top of Spanish and European football pushed Barcelona to attain an unprecedented treble.
12 months and a change of manager saw Barcelona transform from the laughing stock of Spain to the best side in the world. It was the change Messi required, and it was the beginning of an era. During Rijkaard’s tenure, Messi struggled to stay fit, his diet consisted of steaks and cola, and one of his favourite past-times consisted of the Argentine staying up late to watch football. Guardiola, though, ensured Messi strayed away from these bad habits –– the 26-year-old was given a special diet consisting of vitamins and vegetables, Barcelona physiotherapist Juanjo Brau monitored his fitness levels on a daily basis, and Guardiola limited Messi’s overnight football fix.
Suddenly the chronic muscle injuries disappeared and he was steadily making 50 appearances per-season. Likewise, Messi’s goal tally increased on a yearly basis, and he’s scored 211 goals in four seasons under the Spaniard, and an additional 60 the following year under Tito Villanova.
Guardiola’s tactical alterations were also beneficial as Messi adopted a false-nine role and was now fielded as the highest Barcelona player on the pitch. The aim was to limit Messi’s route to goal preserve his fitness levels and enhance the effectiveness of his quick bursts of pace. This isn’t to say Messi didn’t have to work hard, as Barcelona implemented a high-pressing game that forced Messi to improve his positioning without the ball.
These little factors saw Messi’s game reach heights that were unheard of. Ultimately, Messi became the world’s best striker, no.10 and winger in one; he’s a killer in the final third, his passing is proficient, and the Argentine’s quick change of pace leaves defenders flat-footed.
With Messi yet to reach his peak it seemed evident that his best years were yet to come, especially with his success following Guardiola’s departure. But one cool night in Paris saw the 26-year-old aggravate his hamstring for the first time since 2008, in which he was forced to depart Barcelona’s first leg Champions League quarterfinal against Paris Saint-Germain.
Messi hasn’t been the same since, and his battle with recurring muscle injuries eventually led to a two-month absence. It’s also key to note that he no longer follows Guardiola’s fitness procedures, and Brau’s promotion within the club means he doesn’t work with Messi on a daily basis.
Coincidentally, the three finalists for the award have all suffered a dip in form since the announcement in January, but due to Messi’s consistency over the past four years, and Barcelona’s poor season, the Argentine has been under the microscope.
Saving himself for the World Cup?
Best years behind him?
Fears that he may suffer another lengthy injury?
Perhaps Messi is saving himself for the World Cup, as he’s persistent on claiming international glory. Messi, however, has nothing to prove; albeit failing to score in the World Cup or Copa America, Messi has produced remarkable performances for Argentina over the past four years, and his relationship with Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, along with Argentina’s favourable group will likely see the Barcelona attacker thrive in Brazil.
Put simply, the main concern is Gerardo Martino’s system. Majority of the buildup play is developed in wide areas with the fullbacks linking play with the wingers, whereas Barcelona dominated central areas over the past five years.
The buildup play is now laboured and predictable, and the ball circulation is languid. The days of quick ball movement, constant interchanging, diagonal runs from the wingers behind the opposition’s back-line, and wall-passes are non-existent. More crosses are being played into the box without a legitimate target man, Messi is seeing less of the ball, and when the Argentine isn’t involved in Barcelona’s buildup play his interest decreases and their attack suffers.
"The only credit I can take is that I always put him in the team and we just try to make sure he gets the ball. After that our task is done,” said Guardiola following Barcelona’s emphatic victory over Bayer Leverkusen in 2012.
"The throne belongs to him and only he will decide when he wants to relinquish it."
Messi no longer buzzes around the final third in search of pockets of space like in the past. The wingers stretch the pitch for width opposed to making runs behind the defence so his penetrating passes aren’t required, and the triangles in pockets of space that involved quick intricate passes that played Messi into key areas are scarce. Likewise, Barcelona maintained an organized shape when teams broke past their press, whereas now their disjointed shape out of possession is often exploited.
It’s illogical to neglect the strengths of arguably the best player to ever play, especially based on Barcelona’s previous success, and while defensive issues have followed the club over the past five years, Messi’s brilliance has often overshadowed their deficiencies.
"Messi is from a different planet. He's certainly the best player in the world, the best I've ever seen,” Arsene Wenger once stated.
“The best word to describe Messi is 'phenomenon'. At such a young age he has reached the same level as the likes of Zidane, Pelé, Maradona and Cruyff,” said former Bayern Munich coach Jupp Heynckes.
Messi is human, though; he definitely has an ego, and from a psychological standpoint being misused in a system that’s unsuccessful doesn’t bode well with the Argentine who strives to improve on a daily basis. Already Barcelona’s leading all-time scorer at 26, Messi is likely to surpass the Champions League and La Liga record, but personal gain isn’t the Argentine’s aim. He simply wants to enjoy football. Frankly, Messi’s brilliance has developed into a norm; the ruthless finishing, nonchalant dribbling, mazy runs and appreciation of space is why the world fell in love with him, but sometimes his achievements are taken for granted.
“We are witnessing the best [player] in every sense. He does everything, and he does it every three days. I’m sorry for those that want to sit on his throne, but this lad is the best. Hopefully we can enjoy his football for many more years,” said Guardiola.
Over the past few weeks there’s been speculation regarding a move abroad, and if there was anytime for Messi to consider a transfer, it’s now. Despite possibly claiming a second consecutive La Liga title, Barcelona is at their weakest state since Rijkaard’s final year, and with the chances of Martino’s summer departure likely, the Catalan club will undergo another transitional year.
That will be four managers in the past three years along with the off-field issues regarding Neymar’s arrival, Sandro Rosell stepping down as Barcelona president, and a potential FIFA transfer ban. Equally, from a financial perspective, now would be the best time for Barcelona to sell Messi as he slowly approaches his peak years.
And while there may not be many clubs capable of sanctioning a move for the Argentine, Manchester City would be best suited as possible destination. With Messi feeling like his significance has decreased, a move to the Etihad would not only see him be the main man, but he’d thrive in Manuel Pellegrini’s possession-based system, along with joining compatriots Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero, and former teammate Yaya Toure.
Barcelona is one win away from winning arguably the greatest title race in La Liga history, in what could be the end of an era at the Camp Nou. Although Messi has pledged his commitment and desire to finish his career at the Catalan club, a move abroad might be beneficial. Adapting to a new environment –– a new lifestyle, food, weather and housing arrangement –– could pose a problem, but it would remove Messi from the toxic atmosphere at Barcelona, and serve as a fresh start.
City just secured their second Premier League title in three years, and in Pellegrini they possess a manager that the players trust, adopts attractive football, and looks determined to build a dynasty at the Etihad.
Records will break, goals will be scored, and his brilliance will continuously amaze the football world, but Messi needs to be in a positive environment where he’s enabled to make a difference. Perhaps Guardiola and Messi were the perfect match, but change could present a new challenge that enables the Argentine to elevate City to an elite level, and the platform to potentially match the heights achieved under the Spaniard.
With Messi, anything’s possible.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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