One of the biggest debates that has resurfaced due to Argentina's sub-par start to Copa America has been whether Lionel Messi will ever be able to replicate his FC Barcelona form for his country. The focus of the debate has always been threefold and centers around these three arguments:
Is Messi really a good player in a bad team? Is he underperforming because his teammates are not of his caliber?
Is Messi simply a club player, a someone who's a no-show on the international level and therefore useless to a team like Argentina?
The blame is always on Messi, but why? And why must he always be compared to past legends?
A defense of Lionel Messi must therefore begin by addressing each question, giving a fair voice to a man that, in this writer's opinion, is the most gifted player of his generation, but has grown up in a school of football whose technical superiority is so extreme that is has both helped the player grow and caused him to suffer when not in such an environment. Let's begin.
Is Messi really a good player in a bad team? Are his teammates sub-par?
When looking at the roster of the Argentinian national team a lack of talent seems out of the question. Argentina boasts some of the best players on the planet, yet it suffered greatly when faced with a footballing powerhouse like Germany, and now struggles against average sides like Colombia and Bolivia. The answer here is that Messi is a good player, in a good team that uses him the wrong way.The tactics Argentina use are plain wrong and as a group they are inferior to FC Barcelona's talent in midfield.
Messi in Barcelona is pampered, and he always has been. Since 16 we've seen that he's the jewel of the team, the best of everything from passing to shooting to dribbling. You name it he can do it. However, Barcelona is built around maximizing it's most lethal weapon (i.e Messi), meaning that he is most dangerous when employed as a striker and when the ball comes to him. In Barcelona the two men that really make Messi tick are Andres Iniesta and Xavi with their endless supply of passes. However, Messi is also employed in a front three in which he either feeds the other strikers (David Villa & Pedro) or they try and feed him.
In Barcelona he is the fulcrum of the attack; in Argentina, he is the workhorse. Argentina has stars, but lacks players in the mold of Messi's Barcelona teammates Xavi and Iniesta. They lack midfield generals, people that dictate how a team will play. In terms of this type of player, Argentina are one of the worst teams. Messi is a great player, the best in the world. Instead of looking at Messi's imagined shortcomings, the focus should be on Argentina's inability to find players which can feed Messi when he is in dangerous positions and thus use him as effectively his club does. Any Argentine midfielder, at this time, attempting to be Messi's Iniesta or Xavi will be subpar, so it would be better to try a different approach rather than waste Messi's talent.
So is Messi strictly a club player then, not capable of international acclaim?
In Argentina, Messi is mismanaged and used in the most inefficient way that will always prevent Messi from showing his true potential. Looking at the Argentinian roster one thing is blatantly clear, they lack actual playmakers. Javier Pastore, the only other man capable of such a task, is never used. Angel di Maria, who is a winger that can support strikers, is also rarely used. Finding someone who can do the actual work of an attacking midfielder, an issue that seems insignificant for a team like Barcelona, is a huge problem for Argentina.
Messi will never shine for Argentina because he's left to be the attacking midfielder, the feeder, the sacrifice, the man who does the work of trying to make things run well. Realistically, Messi is a man than is better finishing chances than creating them. He can be a playmaker, he can give excellent passes, but if he is constantly made to do this, he will never become the scoring machine he is for his club.
A drought of attacking midfielders means a drought of goals for Messi, because as good as he is, he is not as efficient if he is not the fulcrum of a team. Unless the task of creating passes and plays is left up to another, or Messi is helped, Argentina will bow out of Copa America and Messi will never shine. The fact that Argentina's Batista is obsessed with always fielding three defensive midfielders (Banega, Cambiasso, Mascherano) in a 4-3-3 formation simply reaffirms their belief that Messi is their workhorse, that he will create magic for them to score goals. Thus far they've missed everything he's created for them. Messi as the lone attacking midfielder is just that, a player playing alone while his teammates rest and wait for him to include them in his game. Messi is a good international player, he has heart and will, but his efforts are not recognized because he is sacrificed to perform a task which he simply cannot shine doing.
The expectations are for Messi to be the scorer, the hero, but for that to happen then Messi must be the striker and not the playmaker. Messi must be allowed to be carefree, to not worry about giving passes to his teammates but instead to be expecting passes from them. If Argentina would rid themselves of Messi, they would simply demonstrate their actual abysmal level of technical knowledge which is now blamed on their best player. Was any great player ever able to win anything for his nation without the help of his teammates?. It is doubtful any one individual could, but Messi is always used as the fall guy to explain why Argentina perform poorly. It is never the team that takes the blame; it is always Messi who's the problem. Yet Argentina won't get rid of him because it is convenient to have a scapegoat.
This brings us to the final point, why is the blame always on Messi?
Primarily, it's because Messi is the Ballon d'Or holder, the best player in the world, and must therefore bear the burden of the hype that goes with his lofty repuation. No one blames, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, or any of the other hot shots on the team - it's always Messi's fault. It is a witch hunt that is unjustified and which always leads to comparisons with Maradona and Messi's inferiority to the legend. Well then, it's time to set the record straight. Maradona was the best player at the 1986 World Cup, but he wasn't alone, he was in a team that is more complete than the current team Argentina has. Maradona did not win the final alone, in fact, he didn't score a goal in that victory, he provided assists and his teammates finished. Messi does the same today, but his teammates don't score, Messi is blamed, and this debate starts over.
Something is clearly not right in Argentina and the world's best player is performing like an average one. Everyone seems to have a different reason as to why this is.
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