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El Clasico: Should FC Barcelona Bench Lionel Messi?

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Of course not, but let's look at some numbers anyway

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Here we go again, another hot take delivered by an inept blogger without a modicum of respect for the game, or for the team he follows. Or: a thought-provoking editorial focusing on some statistical analysis of Barcelona’s performances this season with and without their star player, depending on whether you bother to read past this prologue.

To all those who have realised that there’s generally more to an article on this site than a headline, thank you – you might remember that back in October, I posted a similar piece to ask a similar question. Of course, at that stage we were yet to witness the full extent of Neymar’s ascension to truly transcendent greatness in a Blaugrana jersey, and in general, our squad was faltering. Our form was mediocre at best and generally, expectations for the following 4 weeks were quite low.

Ah, where would we be without that traditional Culé pessimism?

As it turned out, our fears were largely unfounded; Barcelona would find their feet even without their mercurial Argentine leader and as our confidence picked up, so did our form. So much so that we’re actually entering El Clasico with a three-point cushion over our eternal rivals. Big wins against the likes of Eibar, BATE Borisov and Villarreal have punctuated the past few weeks, serving as a timely reminder of the Blaugrana’s undoubted pedigree.

Keen to assume greater responsibility in Messi’s absence, Neymar has been utterly mesmerising, producing some of the highlights of the season with his penchant for the spectacular. An emasculating dribble through the legs of an opposing player to win a penalty? Flicking the ball over the head of a defender before deftly burying a volley into the corner of the net? Guapa! These are moments that will live on long in the memory, but they are also moments that have served a higher purpose than mere entertainment; they have literally won us points.

While occasionally frustrating this writer at least, Luis Suarez has also thrived under the added pressure – the Uruguayan has always been prolific, but his record of 8 goals in the past 8 games represents one of the purplest patches of his Barça career.

Watching Barcelona in recent weeks has been an absolute joy, and as such, there are some who are debating whether, given the unique circumstances regarding Lionel Messi’s fitness and lack of match practice, the Blaugrana might actually be better off without their talismanic striker starting on the right-wing at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.

The very notion is ridiculous… right?

As usual, a hat-tip to the kind folks over at Sportsmatrix who were kind enough to crunch the numbers and update their infographic for me; the results were interesting to say the least. With a greater sample size on which to base the analysis, we’re getting a clearer picture on individual and collective performances with and without the little man, and it’s true that some of the stats reflect badly on Messi.

The overall number of chances created per game, clear-cut scoring chances per match and even chances allowed per game; all these three statistics suggest that maybe, just maybe, Barça function more efficiently without Messi. At face value, it is relatively simple to draw that conclusion when you look at the stats, but to do so would be doing a disservice to both Messi and the numbers themselves.

Instead, one should ask why – why are these numbers so different – as to ignore the context is to ignore the relevance of the statistics themselves. Barcelona haven’t necessarily improved without Messi, they have simply adapted and overcome his absence, a feat that should bestow credit onto Luis Enrique and his tactical prowess. A club and a system that is quite literally built around the strengths of one player has been altered to survive his unfortunate absence.

Messidependencia?

In Enrique’s world, this is but a mere myth, an urban legend created to provide an excuse to a lesser manager, and an underperforming squad.

In the past 6 or 7 weeks, the squad have learned some valuable lessons; that they need to be more clinical, how they should all assume greater responsibility at both ends of the field and perhaps most pertinently of all – that they can succeed on their own. While it helps to have Messi on the field, players like Neymar and Suarez can still score on a weekly basis without him; we can still welcome the best teams in La Liga and beat them.

Our form has been reaffirming and now, with Messi back in training and ready to return to action, the confidence that we can push on and replicate the successes of last season must be greater than ever before.

In other words, watch out Real Madrid; we’re just getting warmed up…