Saturday’s goalless draw with Sevilla was a tough game to watch for Barcelona fans. The Blaugrana dominated possession and spent most of the match in Sevilla’s half, but were stopped again and again in front of goal. Worst of all, a penalty kick in extra time was squandered as the heroic Javi Varas snuffed out Messi’s left-footed strike, and Barcelona found themselves looking up to Real Madrid and Levante in the classification.
So what went wrong? Why couldn’t Barcelona find a way to score? The 3-4-3 formation seemed to create loads of goal-scoring opportunities, but for some reason the home squad couldn’t convert a single one. For me, Lionel Messi is the player to blame, and Pep Guardiola should have taken him off.I’ve written before that Barcelona keeps possession so easily that it is only when a player decides to take a risk that the ball is lost. The easy pass is almost always available, especially in the 3-4-3 formation, so unless a player decides to force the issue—either by taking on defenders individually or squeezing a pass into a tight area—the ball stays in possession of FC Barcelona.
Because Lionel Messi is the best player on earth and the designated goal-scorer of this squad, more often than not he’s the one to take the risk. How many times have we seen the little Argentine dribble through three or more defenders to goal, or send dagger through passes across the box to the waiting feet of Pedro or Villa? Often he’s dispossessed, or his passes are cut out, but usually these mistakes are justified later in the match when Messi finally breaks through. For this reason, I understand why Pep didn’t pull his star—indeed, had Varas guessed wrong there would be no questioning the decision to leave Messi on for 90 minutes. But Saturday night was a different story. Messi lost the ball again and again. He was stood up by defenders with more authority than I can recall, and time after time his passes across the box were easily cut out. He was having an off night.
With Pedro and Cesc on the bench, Pep had the opportunity to make a very bold move and take off the world’s best player. Instead, Keita, Thiago, and Xavi were removed. I won’t argue with Keita being pulled for Pedro, but in the 75th minute, when Messi was clearly tired and playing himself out of the game, he should have come off. Xavi and Iniesta could very likely have played Pedro or Villa through onto goal, and “El Guaje” may very well have converted the last-minute penalty.
Instead, Messi stayed on to lose possession a few more times and smack a penalty kick into the mitts of Javi Varas. Again, had he gone the other way Pep would be vindicated, but the reality is Messi didn’t get the job done, and there were plenty of signs saying he wasn’t in form to do so.
As Messi’s brilliant little legs gradually accrue more minutes, as Barcelona continues to go deep in Champions League play and be called on international tours year after year, 90 minutes will increasingly be too many. We all know that Messi will never remove himself from a match, so as Arron observed in his preview for the Granada match, the onus falls on Pep Guardiola. The question is: when it’s clear that Leo Messi isn’t getting the job done, will Pep have the guts to pull him?