Within the span of about six weeks, Barcelona will acquire three valuable pieces that can (and should) reshape how the entire XI goes about its business. The team will see Messi return to the pitch from injury around 21 November and then the Catalan Giants should see Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan join the club around the turn of the calendar. While Barcelona have always had Messi when he's healthy and Arda will provide much needed depth in the midfield, the addition of Aleix Vidal should transform the squad into something never before seen in the Catalan capital.
With the return of Messi, the club can expect to see some sort of return to "normal" - with their front line returning to a terrific trio rather than a dynamic duo. The addition will see Barcelona add their awe-inspiring general providing passes to Neymar and Suarez once more, and the group that saw the club on to a treble last year will be reunited.
What if I told you that "normal" isn't what Barcelona need reach their heights, though? What if I told you that the key to Barcelona find their potential and moving forward wasn't just seeing Messi become fit, but adding Aleix Vidal?
You see, as it currently stands, Barcelona still use two rather central players in Messi and Neymar to provide width for the club in attack. Occasionally Alba will join the attack, as well, but Alves has all but been pushed back into the midfield. With Vidal, that requirement shifts - and so too do the dynamics of the squad.
Vidal is a winger turned wing-back, very much in the same mold of Dani Alves. Unlike Alves in the present moment, though, the Spaniard still possesses the ability to provide quality width in the final third while combining that width with intelligent decision making. Our buddies over at Sports Matrix were generous enough to whip up a few graphs of Barcelona fullbacks' crossing from last season, and the quality of those crosses - which you can see below.
The numbers are pretty clear that Alves likes to cross a lot (6.4 times per match, well over two times the rate of the average fullback in La Liga) but he doesn't do very much with those crosses when he makes them - providing higher quality crosses than only Jeremy Mathieu and Martin Montoya in the Barcelona squad.
Vidal, on-the-other-hand, crossed far fewer times ("just" 4.1 times per match), but with the highest rate of good crosses among the starters. Vidal's decision making with his crosses allows him to provide dangerous width while remaining intelligent and helping to maintain possession.
With Vidal and Alba in the fold, Barcelona reshape their front line, putting all three players in ideal position to move centrally. With Neymar and Messi, Barcelona have two elite chance creators in the front line. With Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, Barcelona have three forwards that put the ball on target at elite rates. The combination of those two facts gives Barcelona a huge advantage over their opponents, but only if they properly utilize it.
Last season they utilized the fact that they had three elite finishers and an elite creator, with Neymar connecting on the end of diagonal balls from Messi but not generally creating many chances for others. In order to allow him to be creative and dangerous, it might be best for Barcelona to look at what the most dominant team of the 2000s did - and how they did it.
AC Milan, under Carlo Ancelotti, ran into similar circumstances. They had two great creators in Kaka and Seedorf, and a great striker in Inzaghi. The problem for their club is that all three players were primarily central players and the team needed to find a way to stretch the opposition - and they found that width by using attacking fullbacks.
While teams that utilize wingers do prove to be a problem for any formation that features attacking fullbacks, AC Milan found themselves in a game that didn't feature very many wingers - so they were able to utilize two attacking fullbacks. At first they used Cafu, but eventually moved to Massimo Oddo and Marek Jankulovski.
Barcelona find themselves in a similar position. As it currently stands, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are the biggest threats to Barcelona's La Liga title. Real, running a 4-2-3-1, lack any wide players in the final third, and Atleti - switching between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 - often employ similar strategies to the Catalan club - which leaves the flanks unmanned by the opposition.
In Europe, it's increasingly looking as though the main rivals in the Round of 16 will come down to PSG, Manchester United, PSV, Wolfsburg, Juventus, Olympiakos, or Chelsea. While PSV do utilize two wingers in attack, no other club does. United run a 4-2-3-1, as do Chelsea and Olympiakos. Juventus have been changing formations, but keep a consistent front two, and PSG often use one winger in a 4-3-3. After that round, the only team that looks to pose any threat with wide players is Bayern Munich - which themselves don't always utilize wingers.
I say all of this to make one point: the wings will be wide open moving forward, and it will be necessary for Barcelona to utilize them and spread the defense apart to open holes for the triumvirate.
Without the need to constantly cover players on the wings in defense, fullbacks can afford to venture forward and spread the attack. In Milan in the 2000s, the shift allowed Milan's trio to run rampant on their opponents, as they went from 63 goals scored to 85 in the span of a single year under the new tactics. A similar shift could benefit FC Barcelona, similarly.
With Vidal and Alba both providing intelligent play on the wings, the club should be able to utilize both players in the attack - and leave Messi, Suarez, and Neymar in the center of the pitch. This change would give the ultimate flexibility and chaos necessary to stave off stagnation. With Neymar being pushed slightly further forward than Messi, playing almost as a second striker, room would exist for Iniesta to push forward in the attack - allowing Busquets to sit deep as a regista and Rakitic to provide a physical presence and defensive coverage.
During the attack, the back-line presses high giving the fullbacks free reign to move forward without concern. When possession is lost, the formation condenses down into a 4-4-2 - with Iniesta acting as the left midfielder and Messi operating on the right side.
With the addition of the new players, new formations and tactics become increasingly available to Luis Enrique - which gives Barcelona more flexibility and gives them greater opportunities in the attack. For now, Barcelona will continue using Alves as a pseudo fourth midfielder, but the flexibility, intelligence, and ability Vidal brings gives the club endless opportunities to be creative, innovative, and deadly.