Out-of-shape Messi far from his preferred spot

Posted by Francesc Tomas

Lionel Messi has been the key man for Barcelona since he inherited the legendary Number 10 from Ronaldinho in the summer of 2008. In the 5 1/2 years since, the Argentine wizard has grown into the most decisive footballer on Earth, a little genius capable of terrorising rival defences with his jaw-dropping skills and relentless desire to continuously improve his performance.

His status as the world's best player has, unsurprisingly, brought Messi unanimous worldwide recognition and adoration from millions all over the globe. Becoming such a high-profile individual has, however, also meant that every football fan, player and coach around the world has analysed his unique style to such degree that some astute tacticians became able to eventually predict his movements and, as a result, stop his dangerous plays before they actually happened.

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Unfortunately for Barcelona, the way major European teams such as AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich managed to diminish Messi's influence last season made it very difficult for the Catalans to achieve positive results against them.

The fact La Pulga was far from his optimum mental and physical fitness due to a painful string of muscle injuries took some of the indispensable explosive acceleration and confidence the quadruple Ballon d'Or winner needs to perform at his very best.

Despite the clear need for Messi to fully recover ahead of the current season, his busy schedule during the summer "break" (when he traveled all over the world playing friendlies in order to promote his charity) seemed to have a negative effect. In what seemed like a repeat of his previous struggles, he picked up yet another thigh injury as soon as serious competition started again.

It's worth noting Messi continuously had muscle injuries in the earlier part of his professional career. After making his professional debut at just 16, the up-and-coming star quickly won over the hearts of the Camp Nou faithful with outstanding performances as an impact player supporting the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o under the guidance of Frank Rijkaard.

Such pressure caused Messi's muscles to feel the strain and, regrettably, he was no stranger to spending long periods sitting on the sidelines while trying to recover full fitness.

The arrival of Pep Guardiola changed his destiny. The Catalan coach had Messi constantly under strict dietary supervision and made him follow a strict muscle reinforcement programme. The improvements were obvious from the start and, over the next four years, La Pulga played virtually every game in full at an unbeatable standard.

For whatever reason (the departure of Guardiola being the most likely), Messi regressed in terms of injuries in the second half of the 2012-13 season. From that point until now, Messi just hasn't been able to develop his game in the commanding manner Cules have been spoiled by for so many years.

With this in mind, and also with the intention of taking some responsibility off Messi's shoulders, the Barcelona directors invested heavily in order to bring the promising Neymar to the Camp Nou. The talented youngster has, luckily, not taken long at all to impress the highly-demanding Blaugrana crowd -- his stellar display in Saturday's Clasico being the most obvious, recent example.

Coach Gerardo Martino, conscious that Messi was still far from reaching his ideal fitness after spending three weeks on the sidelines, took Messi out of his usual false striker position and placed him as a right wing with the freedom to cut diagonally toward the centre whenever possible.

I believe the Argentine captain was less effective that usual as a result of being positioned unusually far from his preferred, more central, role. Having to chase after the ball for 60 metres is just not what Messi is used to, and I believe it is a waste of his talent.

La Pulga's greatest asset is accelerating while dribbling by defenders and, to succeed when attempting that, he must be fresh whenever he gets the ball in those advanced positions. Players such as Alexis Sanchez, Pedro or Cristian Tello (inexplicably forgotten by Martino, might I add) are better suited for that wide wing role.

The arrival of Neymar and El Tata were always going to bring some necessary changes into Barcelona's traditional system. Having said that, getting the maximum out of the best player in the club's history is certainly a must in order to achieve collective success this season.

The Quote -- "There is no problem with Messi. I'm not worried about him scoring or not, he adds much more than that. Having him in the team is motivating. He is fully fit, which is why he played for 90 minutes against Real Madrid. We may change his position to face adverse situations. I talked to him about playing on the left or even further back into midfield as he does with Argentina. Normally, he would score the most goals but we have found variety as a team." -- Martino

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