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Barcelona and their ‘Main Man' Complex

Lionel Messi deserves to be the club's star player but does it hamper others' success?

David Ramos/Getty Images

It's difficult to pinpoint why but some players just tend to flourish with the added responsibility of being their club's star player, in particular attackers. Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Agüero are all examples of this and their clubs benefit from having that one player who can change a game at any given moment.

Barcelona's case is an unusual one because the level at which Messi is the star man is so much higher than any other player at another club. Even Ronaldo can't claim to have such a huge influence at Madrid as Messi does at Barcelona. The past six years have been defined by Messi and Barcelona's golden age was defined by Messi and this generation of football will be defined by Messi.

To begin with, this tactic was a very productive one for Barcelona. Pep Guardiola moved Messi into the centre of the field and he acted as a funnel for Barça's play, everything went through him. The goals came and so did the trophies but lately it seems Barcelona have become too dependant on the Argentine and go through games just waiting for Messi to produce some magic and win them the game.

Of course, Barcelona have attempted to rectify this and bring in support for Messi. As the Argentine developed, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who at the time was a global superstar, found himself having to change his game to suit Messi's. Zlatan wasn't happy and left the club shortly after.

Then when the Barça number 10 was reaching the peak of his powers, David Villa was brought in. Signed as a recognised elite goalscorer, Villa slowly made the transition to an attacking winger that cut inside. Villa's attitude and acceptance towards this helped make him a very useful player for Barcelona and his time at the Catalan club was a good one.

Next came Alexis Sánchez, more of a naturally wide player than Villa was, he started his Barça career well. Alternating from both the left and right flank helped him maintain a regular spot in the starting eleven. But his performances wavered and fans began making jokes about his place in the team, jokes which now look incredibly silly.

Cesc Fàbregas is also another example of a player who naturally played in similar spaces as Messi and he found his influence limited.

These players have all moved to, or come from, clubs where they become the main man and their performances show for it.

We've seen it with Sánchez's move to Arsenal, his new role as club saviour has led to a dramatic increase in his overall dictation of the game. His goals and assists have saved the London club or more than one occasion this season.

Cesc Fàbregas has become one of, if not the, star players at Chelsea and he has become more effective than he ever was at Barça.

Even Luis Suárez is an example of this. Despite being in his early Barça career, his goalscoring record is nowhere near that of when he was at Liverpool. In the league last season, the Uruguayan scored 31 goals in 33 appearances. This season he has scored just once in nine appearances. Now, you can argue that his assist rate has risen since making the summer switch but he was hired as a man who could score goals, a talent he hasn't demonstrated consistently yet.

You could make the valid argument that it is just the difference between La Liga and the Premier League. But Villa's time at Valencia, scoring 108 goals in 166 appearances and Ibrahimovic with PSG, 64 goals in 78 appearances prove as counter-evidence to that argument.

The question you begin to ask yourself is "is Messi good enough to merit obstructing others?". For the majority of the time, the answer is a resounding yes. Messi's talents far outweigh that of his teammates and you'd be stupid not to attempt to get the best out of him, even if it does mean sacrificing others. But if teams began to latch onto this, they can effectively stop Barcelona by stopping just one player. Nullify Messi and you have a far greater chance of getting a result.

It makes you wonder whether Barcelona should consider reducing Messi's influence. But this approach is likely to yield unproductive results. We've seen glimpses of this during Luis Enrique's reign, with Messi dropping deeper in order to feed the likes of Suárez and Neymar and it hasn't replicated the kind of success Barça had when Messi was the pinpoint of the attack.

However a main argument against reducing Messi's influence is that some Barça players thrive on having a main man take the spotlight. Andrés Iniesta and Xavi produced the finest football of their careers while Messi was taking the headlines. The Argentine seemed to lift the pressure of them and allow them to play their natural game.

So it seems Barcelona is stuck between a rock in a hard place. Play everything through Messi and hope he changes the game or increase other's influence and hope it doesn't stop the four time Ballon d'Or winner from doing his thing.

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