At some point, it had to happen. In order for Neymar and later Luis Suarez to succeed as scoring forwards in the Barcelona front, Lionel Messi had to start changing the way he plays. It might mean we’ll see him score less, but for such an incredible passer and intelligent player, suddenly playing in a different role isn’t that much of a problem.
Messi isn’t the new Xavi or Andres Iniesta, He’s still quite often found near the penalty box, finishing plays instead of building them. However, for the second straight league match, Messi’s assists open up everything for Barcelona as they struggle against defensive teams – at home against Athletic Bilbao and away against Levante.
Now that Neymar isn’t a newcomer and Suarez is also going to find himself playing very soon, the option of playing all three of them in the same attacking line isn’t feasible. Someone has to be the one to fall back and provide a different option. While Neymar has shown in the World Cup he can play in more than one way and Suarez is one of the more versatile forwards on the planet, Messi fits the new role like a glove.
With Xavi more and more a bench player, Messi gets more minutes playing behind the strikers and more time to build up play instead of being the target man as the false nine. He might not have the ability or patience to slow down things and spread the ball in order to improve the possession statistics, but like Iniesta, only with better vision and a much more accomplished finishing skill, Messi touching the ball is always about trying to create a chance for himself or others.
Maybe that’s the evolution, live, in front of us. At 27 years of age, Messi might not longer be as quick on his feet as he was before a number of injuries that hit him in the last 18 months. Putting himself in a position where it’s less about the one on one and more about where he can thread the ball to might be the best use of his talent at the moment, although after the World Cup, Messi seems fresh and light on his feet again, making quite a few breathtaking dribbles to disintegrate defenses all on his own.
Four matches, four wins, no conceded goals. Despite not looking great all the time, Barcelona are doing a very good job under a new manager, their third in three seasons. With all of the new names and changes, it’s probably a comfort to see that one thing doesn’t change, even if Messi himself isn’t playing in the same way as he got us all used to.