FC Barcelona – Lionel Messi Pulls a Disappearing Act

You’re allowed to have bad matches, but when your teams is at its worst, you expect Lionel Messi, or any big star with the ability to make a difference, to change the momentum of a match through some stroke of brilliance. Nothing worked for Barcelona on the terrible San Siro pitch, with so much blame to share around the team it’s impossible to throw just one player under the bus.

The excuses, you’ve probably heard them – A) The pitch was in terrible condition, not fit for this kind of match, and it hurt Barcelona’s ability to play a fast version of their passing game. B) Christian Zapata used his hand. It doesn’t really matter if he tried to move away from the ball, he affected the play with his arm in such a way that should have been called for an infringement  It doesn’t really matter if it hit Jordi Alba’s elbow prior to his. Two wrongs don’t make a right. C) Milan parked the bus.

But after Barcelona players tell themselves these three things to feel better about losing by two goals for the first time in over two years (Since August 2010 in the Spanish Super Cup), they’ll have to take a good look at how they played and the system they played in, which resulted in one of their weakest performances anyone can remember.

There were 7 shots at goal, the stat sheet says, but besides one long range shot from Andres Iniesta in the second half, no one really remembers Barcelona being anywhere near the Abbiati goal. The possession numbers were high as usual, but as this heat map will show you, Barcelona only got 11 touches inside the Milan penalty box.

One of the mistakes Barcelona made in their formation was placing Andres Iniesta as the wide midfielder instead of Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas does a better job at more forward positions, but in the tightness of the middle brought on by the Milan squeeze through the midfield, Cesc isn’t as capable as Iniesta in handling tight situations. On the wing, Iniesta is far less effective than he is next to Xavi, and Barcelona lost one of their key pairings in a match they needed every little bit of extra-ability from their special players.

Lionel Messi was completely smothered in the middle by Philippe Mexes, but didn’t do what used to work a while back – moving to the right wing, instead of a non-existent Pedro. Shifting Pedro to the left and putting Fabregas in the position of the false ‘9’ might have changed up things for Barcelona a bit. Playing with a tad of a different tactic or putting on a player more adept on the left wing (Tello?) might have been helpful as well.

From time to time, even Barcelona fall too deeply in love with their perception, and fail to shift out of what clearly wasn’t working against a perfectly positioned group of Milan players. Not really believing in long range attempts, even if they aren’t the best of chances, didn’t help Barcelona breach the bunker. Scoring “only pretty” goals is a nice ideal to have, but when nothing works, a Leopard must change his spots.

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