Arron Duckling defended Messi in the latest The Weekly Review that Messi needs his teammates to play through balls, anticipate passes and make decoy runs, which have been in short supply this season. I agree with these points, but I'd like to add one aspect of Messi's game that is not dependent on his teammates: finishing.
Messi's finishing has been phenomenal the past three seasons, and come to think of it, ever since he was brought to the first team (remember his hat trick in the first el clasico of 2007-2008 season). This season though, he has been wasteful even when he was racking up record number of hat tricks, summed up by the missed tap-in in the first Milan game (or the first Sociedad game?). Even when he provided one assist and one goal in the second Sociedad game, he missed a whole host of chances in between. In the game against Osasuna game, his weak effort after Sergi Roberto's pass in the first half was another disappointment.
The only way to get Messi off the hook for his poor finishing is tiredness, physically or mentally. Lacking support from teammates, he has to go deeper to seek the ball, run longer to get near the opponent's goal and has to run more often. He also plays week in week out, which is remarkable, but one has to question its rationale. He is the only permanent fixture in the front line and he does not have the consistent quality support in the midfield in the form of Xavi and Iniesta every game.
If Messi is tired, why is he not rested like Xavi, or others like Busquets, Pique. Even after playing 2 demanding games for Argentina and embarking on a crazy 20+ thousands miles trip around the world just to get back to Barcelona, he played the next game after only 3 days of rest and without pre-game training. One explanation is that Pep wants to keep him as a permanent offensive fixture to provide some level of stability in attacking threats. His mere presence on the pitch provides psychological edge for the team and against the opponents, much like keeping Valdes as a fixture in the defense (except for Copa del Rey matches). This does not work well though, as manifested by Messi's woeful record on the road, representative of that of the team.
An alternative explanation is that Messi requests to play every game, no matter what his condition is. And maybe not just every game, but every minute of every game and Pep has to comply. This is a more disturbing scenario since we already have a history of vicious cycle between bad performances of the team and of its talisman in the case of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. In both cases, the star (or once-star) player leaves for free or with a cheap price tag following disppointing team results.
One valid argument is that there would be none of the criticism about Messi's motivation or attitude if he is in good form and that we can just treat his poor performances as poor forms that every great players are still bound to have at one point. The answer is yes, of course, but we still have questions to ask Pep in that case. For example, why does he never bench or substitute Messi when he is sub-par. If the answer is that Messi's role is irreplaceable, we have another problem of our game being too dependent on Messi. Not only does the team's form depend on Messi's, but it is also easier for the opponent to crack our game plan.
Just last year, we boast an offense which was hard for any defense to focus on anybody: Messi, Villa, Pedro, Iniesta, Xavi. This year, although Iniesta and Xavi have fitness problems, they still struggle when they are fit in away matches. Villa and Pedro were not themselves before they were injured. Did Pep's experimentation with formation alienate them and/or prevente them to settle in this season? Or is it because Messi's role too dominating now that he does both of the creating and finishing. Notice that this season, Messi tries to score himself almost all the time after a dizzy long dribble in to the area instead of passing to a teammate in a better position. Most of his assists are clever passes from outside the box. Another trend is everybody passes the ball to Messi now, even the ones up front like Adriano and Cuenca, which exacerbates the Messi dependece problem.
Pep, please be strong and help Messi, which will in turn benefit the team and your resume. Let's try to keep our World Player of the Year in top form for a long time for a change.