On Sunday, Barcelona fans face something approaching their worst nightmare. Sworn enemies Real Madrid are in town and Lionel Messi is sidelined, nursing a broken arm.
Julen Lopetegui’s side are struggling but Messi’s absence would offer understandable encouragement to any team, let alone one often on the receiving end of his most remarkable deeds.
Across all competitions, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has scored 26 goals in 38 matches versus Los Blancos, with 18 in 24 LaLiga encounters. Both hauls stand as records in the fixture’s rich history.
From not long after Messi flowered into a generation-defining talent under Pep Guardiola a decade ago, the phenomenon dubbed “Messidependencia” has been regularly discussed.
Under current boss Ernesto Valverde, and with long-time midfield schemers Xavi and Andres Iniesta no longer at Camp Nou, the suspicion is Barca depend on Messi more than they ever have.
But do his LaLiga numbers back that up? With the help of our friends at Opta, we had a dig around to try and find out.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 25, 2018
Guardiola and greatness
Messi already had a stunning Clasico hat-trick to his name as a teenager, serving notice of his boundless potential in 2007. It was when Guardiola arrived the following year that he began to enter unchartered footballing territory.
Guardiola famously switched Messi to a ‘false nine’ role during the early stages of the May 2009 Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu. His star forward scored twice in a 6-2 demolition and would come to redefine his new position for the modern era.
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in the Spanish capital as Madrid responded to Barca’s treble in Guardiola’s maiden season, igniting an enduring debate over which man is the best player in the world.
At the time, Ronaldo disciples would argue their man could win games on his own, while Messi predominantly thrived as the member of Barcelona’s slick machine.
Nevertheless, he established a remarkably consistent record of being responsible for around half of his team’s goals. Messi’s 138 strikes and 55 assists represented 46.84 per cent of Barca’s LaLiga goals under Guardiola, while their win percentage dropped from 77.9 per cent to 62.5 per cent when he did not play.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) 23 September 2018
Mixed returns post-Pep
The late Tito Vilanova succeeded Guardiola and would spend only one year in charge of Barcelona due to illness.
It was a campaign that showcased a 25-year-old Messi at arguably his career peak. The personnel and team ethos of Guardiola’s tenure remained but the number 10 was involved in 50.43 per cent of Barcelona’s LaLiga goals in 2012-13.
Of their 115 goals, Messi scored a scarcely credible 46 in 32 appearances, with 12 more assists. However, as the Blaugrana romped to the title, his six absences barely registered. Barca won each time Messi did not take to the field.
A follower of the Marcelo Bielsa school that influenced Guardiola so heavily, Messi’s fellow Rosario native Gerardo Martino looked an ideal candidate to take charge in 2013-14 but he failed to win the league and ended up out of a job.
That a return of 28 goals in 31 LaLiga games represented a disappointing season showed the height at which Messi’s bar was set. His overall goal involvement, including 11 assists, was down to 39 per cent, while Barca fared better without him.
Six wins and a defeat with Messi sidelined amounted to a win percentage of 85.7 per cent, compared to their 67.7 per cent when he played.
Luis Enrique and the MSN explosion
Bolstered by new arrival Luis Suarez, Luis Enrique unleashed the MSN forward line completed by Messi and Neymar on the world and emulated Guardiola’s treble in 2014-15.
Barca’s superstar forward line accelerated changes first hinted at under Vilanova and Martino, with a more direct style servicing the MSN’s insatiable appetite for goals.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) 13 September 2018
One man still stood out in the all-star trio. In 105 LaLiga games under Luis Enrique, Messi scored 106 times and laid on 43 for team-mates – an overall goal involvement of 44.08 per cent. Barcelona’s 77.1 per cent win ratio fell to 66.7 per cent when he was not around.
A man for all seasons under Valverde
Luis Enrique gave plenty of notice over his 2017 departure but Neymar stunned the footballing world by jumping ship to Paris Saint-Germain.
A more pragmatic Blaugrana has emerged under Ernesto Valverde that seems to hark back to the Guardiola era in one notable way.
“I was his coach and we were planning and I thought that – we will get the ball to Messi and that’s that, we will score.” Guardiola told Radio Catalunya, underplaying the majesty of his overall ensemble with a touch of self-deprecation.
Under Valverde, with Messi granted a free reign to come deep and fetch possession when he sees fit, this increasingly appears to be the reality.
As a measure of Messidependencia, his overall goal involvement is back up beyond Guardiola-era levels. Since the start of last season, 41 goals and 17 assists account for 47.54 per cent of Barca’s total.
Ousmane Dembele and Malcom were unused substitutes as a Messi-less Barca beat Inter 2-0 in midweek, with Valverde’s apparent conclusion being the burden of his absence is one for the collective and not an understudy attacker.
The plan might lack imagination but it should be enough to see off a woefully out-of-sorts Madrid.
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