On Sunday evening, Barcelona were once again indebted to the brilliance of Lionel Messi, as the Argentine genius scored another superlative winner in a 3-2 La Liga victory over Villarreal.
A thoroughly enjoyable game was notable for Villarreal’s rapidity while counter-attacking, Messi’s stunning right-foot finish, but also Luis Suarez’s ineffectiveness once again.
Suarez is struggling to adapt to the requirements expected of him, which is also directly effecting Messi’s positioning and influence on matches.
At the weekend, Luis Enrique started his superstar front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Despite all three scoring and communally celebrating in an elaborate PR stunt against Atletico Madrid a couple of weeks ago, the forward line has not functioned properly in tandem.
It would be facile to criticise Neymar, who has had a wonderful season, chipping in with 22 goals already. In the same vein, Messi has 32 goals plus ten assists.
The Messi/Neymar axis has evolved into just that, an actual partnership in which they score and assist each-other. There also appears to be an innate awareness and understanding of the others movement. With Suarez on the bench, Messi and Neymar tore through Deportivo, almost playing their own personal game together.
Suarez was reinstated for the arrival of the yellow submarine. Neymar was on the left, Suarez back through the middle and Messi deployed from the right. Villarreal congested the central areas, Ruiz, Musacchio and Bruno formed a shield around their penalty area.
It was simple for them to suppress Barca though, as Suarez was too easy to contain. Messi is more than capable of causing danger from a wide right berth, but when cut inside onto his left foot he was met with a swarm of defenders in yellow.
Too often Messi was faced with sheer numbers in his way. That was mainly because Suarez struggled to produce the runs required. Basically, his movement hinders Messi.
Some would argue that shifting Messi to wide right from his central false nine position takes away from his game, but Messi scored 38 goals largely from that wing in Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge. That was primarily because Barca’s forward system was a cohesive and intrinsic force. Thierry Henry occupied the left side, with Samuel Eto’o as the centre forward.
Eto’o’s contribution in that treble winning season is underplayed. His movement was exceptional and he picked the right areas to move into. When receiving the ball from either wide man or central midfielders, Eto’o shifted the ball quickly or darted in behind the opposing defenders. He did such a good job occupying centre backs, Messi had ample space to exploit.
The issue is Suarez, as the Uruguayan is a totally different proposition to Eto’o. While excellent in tight spaces, Suarez lacks the nimble control, or the ability to act as a decoy like Eto’o. The task handed to Suarez at Barca is at odds with his Liverpool role.
On Merseyside, the system was built to accentuate Suarez’s strengths. He essentially had the role Messi has at Barca. Suarez is certainly a much better player when allowed more attacking responsibility.
The freedom of expression and space to dribble into works for Suarez. Messi is just better though and the Barca system caters to him, understandably.
Messi is still in phenomenal goalscoring form, but his overall influence on matches is diminished. It remains to be seen if Luis Enrique persists with Suarez. The performances of Neymar and Messi as a duo only intensifies the pressure on Suarez.
Barcelona face some huge games in the coming weeks, including a Champions League tie with Manchester City. Will Enrique go with the South-American front three or would Pedro offer more balance?
It is up to Suarez to adapt or perish. He is finding that the bedding in process in La Liga is more of a difficult prospect than expected.