Who's the Boss? Gerardo "Tata" Martino Changes Lionel Messi's Role in Barcelona vs. Levante

David Ramos

Some in the offseason accused Lionel Messi of having so much power at Barcelona that he even handpicked the coach. Tata Martino is also from Messi's hometown of Rosario, and even he speculated that Messi had some manner of influence. But Martino has, at least for now, been the man in charge - not the other way around.

Tata Martino was not a name most people in Catalonia knew prior to his taking over of the most successful team from the region. One of the few clues to go by was that he was from the same town FC Barcelona imported their best player, Lionel Messi. Martino played for and coached Newell's Old Boys, the very club that Messi came from as a child.

Some wondered whether Messi's influence over the club was such that he was even picking his mates to manage the club - never mind Martino had never actually met Messi. The striker told the press he had nothing to do with it, but the rumors persisted.

But if there were questions about just who was picking who before, those really should go away after game one of the Tata Martino era.

First, Martino gave Messi a different role. Instead of telling Messi to rest up when the team did not have the ball, he told his striker to press and roam, fighting to regain possession. Last year, in order to keep Messi in peak form to carry the offense, he was allowed to rest when the team did not have the ball. The wingers - mostly Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez - had to work double time to make up for that.

Letting Messi rest has its advantages. It maximizes the amount of energy he has to do what he does best at - score and pass. But if he takes a hit for any reason - dip in form, injury trouble, or fitness issues - the team can appeared confused.

That was part of the reason why the team seemed completely clueless against Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich when Messi was either not playing or only-half fit because of a muscle problem.

Martino's pledge to recommit the team to high pressing includes even Messi. Against Levante, this strategy worked to perfection. Messi won the ball back very high up the pitch and proved quite a danger. Dani Alves's goal was a direct result of Messi harassing a defender until he won the ball.

Read more: Barcelona - Levante tactical review

On the other hand, Alexis and Pedro - their mind perhaps more free this time - combined for three goals. Keep in mind, their combined numbers this past season was 16 goals in 84 appearances.

Another interesting development was Messi's substitution in the second half. Messi never was substituted unless he was injured last season. He played in some games of dubious meaning - like a Champions League match when Barca had already secured the group, or a cup tie against lower-division opponents.

It's only the first match so it's hard to make too many conclusions, but it can be read as a statement of intent that Martino took Messi out in his first match.

Messi was caught vomiting on the pitch, so maybe Martino's hand was forced a little more. We will see if that was his plan all along, regardless of Messi's state.

"Messi is very intelligent," Martino said, praising a player who, despite being praised almost nonstop, is not often referred to as "intelligent."

"He understood it was a good time to rest up," Martino explained.

Anyone who knows Messi's reputation will find it hard to believe that Messi wanted to come off, even if he was tired or even vomiting, He'd play on one leg if the coach allowed him to. (Some would say that last year Tito Vilanova did allow that in the match against PSG.)

It's quite possible Martino cleverly praised Messi for being so smart as to do exactly as he told him.

Who is the boss? On current evidence, the coach still is. And that's the way it should be.

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