Brendan Rodgers Has Managed Steven Gerrard’s Decline Perfectly

Few of this season’s stories will run and run like that of Steven Gerrard’s decline. It’s obvious to even his most fervent defenders that age has caught up with him and the 4-2-3-1 formation Brendan Rodgers is using at the moment makes his captain a liability. Gerrard’s contract runs out at the end of the season, and while Rodgers has confirmed that talks regarding an extension are already underway, this is the first time that a sizeable number of Liverpool fans would argue against prolonging his stay.

In truth, many of the problems that have contributed to the club’s current malaise have been unrelated to Gerrard – the losses of Luis Suárez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury have had a bigger effect than anything else, while the fact remains that almost all of Rodgers’ signings have been laughably bad – but it’s undeniable that this season Liverpool’s midfield has looked impotent, porous and incapable of competing against sides that look much weaker on paper.

It’s one thing getting outplayed by Real Madrid or Chelsea – that will happen to almost every side those two face this season – but quite another when the likes of West Ham and Aston Villa are taking the points and looking incredibly comfortable while they do so. Every team Liverpool play pinpoints Gerrard as the weak link, focusing on drawing him up the pitch whenever possible and then overloading his zone with runners, knowing that he can’t make it back. Chelsea did it to brilliant effect at the weekend and they won’t be the last to succeed with this idea.

Anyone can see that Liverpool’s midfield would be better – or at least more structurally sound – if they went back to the diamond system with Lucas at the back, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson further ahead and Raheem Sterling in the hole behind Sturridge and Mario Balotelli. Despite lacking the mobility to be anything but a passenger in the increasingly physical upper echelons of football, however, Gerrard remains the first name on the teamsheet.

Every week that passes with Gerrard playing in a midfield two brings another bad performance and with it more questions over Rodgers’ reluctance to take Gerrard out of the line of fire. Results have been so bad that we’re getting to the point where any criticism of the Liverpool manager is accepted as valid: his loyalty to a dog that’s had its day is just one more example of his naivety or his incompetence, depending on how fed up of him the speaker is.

I would argue that far from mismanaging the situation, Rodgers has handled it perfectly. While he hasn’t exactly succeeded, he’s kept himself in the job – and even for elite-level managers, self-preservation is the priority. He’s probably had this scenario in mind from the start: it simply had to get to this point before he could take Gerrard out of the team without making a rod for his own back. There was no other way forward.

Rodgers knows that he’s only the manager of Liverpool, whereas Gerrard is Liverpool. Without Gerrard, they’re just another Tottenham or Newcastle or Everton: another once-great club with massive support struggling to keep up with the oligarchs and the Glazers by filling the squad with hired guns from all over the world. Gerrard represents a genuine link to the fans – he’s half the reason people go to watch Liverpool in the first place. Unless success is absolutely guaranteed by his absence, he has to play, regardless of his usefulness, until it’s painfully clear that he just can’t hack it any longer.

Examples abound of managers who failed to realise the sanctity of iconic players when working at a big club. Ask André Villas-Boas what happened at Chelsea when he dropped Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole and the team’s performance levels went through the floor. Ask Luis Enrique what happened at Roma when he decided Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi weren’t automatic starters and didn’t serve up a Scudetto. Ask José Mourinho what happened at Real Madrid when he benched Iker Casillas and ended the season trophyless.

If a manager as young and inexperienced as Rodgers had taken Gerrard out of the team a year or two ago, he’d have gone down in history as the man who sacrificed Liverpool’s identity in order to impose his own. Given that Liverpool would never have been able to beat Man City or Chelsea to domestic success having done so – and could conceivably have fallen apart, Moyes-at-United style – it would’ve been easy for the fans and the media to turn on Rodgers and hound him out of his job.

Rodgers didn’t keep Gerrard in the side for this long because he really believed Liverpool’s ageing talisman had something to offer. He did it because to do otherwise was to commit professional suicide. Now the time has come for Gerrard to be eased out of the team, and over the course of the rest of the season he probably will be. Rodgers has got a lot of things wrong in his short spell at Anfield, but he’s got this one exactly right.

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“Why Are There No World-Class Centre-Backs These Days?”

This question gets asked every so often and although I’ve answered it a few times – and Gary Neville gave a very similar view in a recent column for the Telegraph – it’s probably worth putting a short post up that explains why it appears there aren’t as many top-class defenders around today as there were in eras past.

While many pine for defenders like Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Sol Campbell and Carles Puyol, the reality is that none of those players would look as good playing elite-level football in 2014 as they did in their respective eras. The job they had to do was relatively easy compared to the one defenders have today.

Football has evolved a lot in a short space of time and the way in which teams attack has changed almost entirely. Given that defending is essentially reacting to attacks and preventing their success, if the method of attack changes then the method of defending has to as well.

When the universal method of attack goes one further and changes into something totally new almost overnight – and the players who are carrying out these attacks are better than ever – then defenders are left at a significant disadvantage. For a few years even the best will be made to look stupid on a relatively routine basis. This is why we have seen such a rise in the number of ridiculous scorelines in big matches in recent years.

For centre-backs who grew up playing in a deep, rigid back four, always having a full-back alongside them and occasionally a holding midfielder in front, modern systems – in which the line is positioned much higher up the pitch, the full-backs play as wingers, holding midfielders don’t exist and most box-to-box midfielders neglect their defensive duties – more or less leave them high and dry. There’s simply too much space to cover and most attacks they face are just too fast and, crucially, well-structured.

Whereas coaches used to take their teams through hours and hours of defensive coaching, drilling them on collective positioning and running through scenarios they were likely to face on the pitch, this majority of time tends nowadays to be devoted to organising surgically precise Dortmund-style attacks or working on rotational movement to enable pass-and-move combinations to dominate possession.

The basic quality of the centre-back hasn’t changed. The likes of Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Thiago Silva aren’t significantly worse than the defensive demigods of yesteryear. It’s just that the game has changed, and the world’s centre-backs are still in the process of catching up.

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Why Argentina’s Primera Is The Perfect Antidote To The Premier League

This article originally appeared on The False Nine.

Although the subject is hotly debated, it’s generally accepted that the English Premier League is now the best division in the world. Its unmatched wealth, rich history and aggressive marketing make it hard for any other division to keep up. Crucially, the league is well-organised and located in a country with no possibility of political or social upheaval that could lay waste to its schedule. It’s a well-oiled machine and now generates nearly £2bn in TV money per year.

The Premier League is fast becoming the world’s first and only global league – football’s version of basketball’s NBA. Of course, most of the money and the media attention go to a small minority of teams and those are the giants that players all over the world now dream of representing, but the Premier League’s rapid growth means that even the smallest clubs have entered something of a golden age, pulling off expensive transfers that take the breath away.

Eduardo Vargas’ reward for scoring a World Cup winner against holders Spain was a loan move to newly promoted QPR. Jefferson Montero, one of the most exciting prospects in South American football, chose Swansea as the place to take his career to the next level. Esteban Cambiasso, a bona fide legend, is winding down his career with Leicester.

As any long-time match-goer will tell you, this economic growth has come at a high cultural cost. English clubs have never cared less about their fans in traditional heartlands of support and spend most of their time trying to attract the attention (read: money) of fans (read: potential customers) in North America and Asia. Even the cheapest match tickets are now beyond the reach of most locals and most of the time the atmosphere inside grounds is funereal.

Without wanting to get too misty-eyed and nostalgic, it’s hard to deny that the Premier League’s big clubs have traded their souls for cash. While attendances remain at record highs, the average age of paying supporters is rising in check with attendance and enthusiasm among the young seems to be going down with every passing week.

Those of us under thirty have grown up seeing the Premier League prioritising the needs of Sky TV over those of the fans, clubs referring to supporters as ‘customers’ and talking about expanding their brands, and squads full of mercenaries who couldn’t point to the club they represent on a map before they signed.

The quality of play and the occasional high-profile meltdown keep it watchable, but with such cynical, Randian (a)morality in the boardroom and increasingly predictable outcomes on the pitch, it’s getting harder to sustain real interest. The number of fans walking away from clubs they’ve supported for their entire lives to watch lower or non-league football is on the rise.

At the other end of the food chain is the Argentine Primera División. As one would expect, the contrast is stark. In 2010, Argentina overtook Brazil as the world’s largest exporter of footballers, with 1,716 professional players leaving the country to earn their living elsewhere in a twelve-month period. It’s now readily accepted that if an Argentine shows any promise whatsoever between the ages of 15 and 21, he will be sold on as soon as possible to anyone who offers good money.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important are firstly that Argentine players tend to be very good and secondly that Argentine clubs exist in perpetual bankruptcy. There’s little the clubs can do to improve their situation: even if they were well-run – and they’re anything but – the local economy is permanently on the verge of total collapse. The peso loses value daily, so the salaries on offer in almost any other country’s currency equate to several times what’s on offer at home.

Given that anyone with talent leaves before they reach adulthood and generally returns after Europe’s clubs have laid waste to their bodies, it’s no surprise that the standard of Argentine football has fallen considerably in recent years. While the conveyor belt of talent keeps churning out saleable prospects, they vanish before they can make a real impact. There’s little to admire in the average Primera match in terms of quality play, clever management or tactical intrigue.

Despite this, Argentines are as passionate about their football as ever. The atmosphere in almost every ground is routinely brilliant and genuinely inspiring to an English observer. It’s true that attendances have fallen in the last few decades, but this is less because fans are falling out of love with their clubs and more because of shoddy match organisation on the part of the Argentine Football Association, valid concerns about gang-related violence in stadia and the ever-worsening economic squeeze.

The major plus in favour of the Argentine model is that their clubs are fan-owned, democratic multi-sport community epicentres and not fat-cat-owned, profit-hungry businesses. Rather than looking to exploit their fans, Argentine clubs exist to serve their members. Almost all have centres in which a member can practice nearly any activity they like, from competitive team sports to martial arts. Some even offer childcare services to parents and have regular programmes as esoteric as literary workshops and acting classes.

Monthly membership fees are variable depending on age and club, and while it’s true that most big match tickets are probably unaffordable to the Argentine working class, the benefits of membership seem scarcely believable when compared to the privileges ‘enjoyed’ by English fans.

At most clubs, if one presents a membership card at the stadium they can enter the stand behind the goal free of charge. A fee is charged for entry to the stands either the side of the pitch, presumably for the right to a good view. Non-members must pay a considerably bigger price to enter either stand, but any trip to any Argentine ground will show that a healthy cross-section of society is in attendance.

Indeed, rather than making it harder for the less well-off to watch their teams, as the Premier League has through skyrocketing ticket prices and the rise and rise of Sky TV, the Argentine Primera has made it easier. After eighteen years of pay-per-view broadcasting, a complex and highly political stand-off in 2009 saw the creation of the Fútbol para todos (‘Football for all’, following in the tradition of left-wing slogans like ‘Bread for all!’, ‘Freedom for all!’ etc) programme, which now beams live football at all levels of the pyramid into every Argentine home for free.

Instead of teams full of millionaires who know nothing of their clubs’ traditions, Argentine football is full of cult heroes, local legends and wonderkids taking their first steps in the game. As in days gone by in England, one can bump into most of them in the street, on the metro or in a nightclub and have a chat, and these bonds matter. Where a neutral might watch a match and find no redeeming feature, a die-hard supporter will look out onto the field of play and see eleven heroes, many of whom they feel like they know on a personal basis.

There are numerous examples of such cult figures that come to mind, but perhaps the best is Walter Kannemann, a left-sided centre-back for current Copa Libertadores champions San Lorenzo. An unspectacular and quite honestly limited footballer, he has risen to cult hero status due to the combination of his indomitable passion on the pitch and his unassuming boy-next-door personality.

A home-grown player and die-hard fan, Kannemann has forged a career that resembles the plot of a Hollywood movie. In 2012, before he’d even signed a professional contract with the club, he scored the goal that saved San Lorenzo from relegation. Just eighteen months later, he won the 2013 Torneo Inicial league title as a first-team regular. In August 2014, he was part of the team that won the club’s first ever Copa Libertadores title. He was one of the first to receive the trophy and for a while it seemed unlikely that he would ever give it up.

As well as being incredibly successful, Kannemann’s exploits have added to San Lorenzo folklore and given the fans an untouchable on-pitch idol. The archetypal Kannemann moment came before the Torneo Inicial title decider against Estudiantes. The club’s then-manager Juan Antonio Pizzi arranged for a motivational video to be shown to the squad the day before the game, in the hope that it would focus the players and give them the additional desire to get over the finish line.

Kannemann was so intensely moved that he punched through a window, badly gashing his arm and almost ruling himself out of the biggest match of his fledgling career. While Pizzi went crazy with anger at his player’s recklessness, the fans saw only Kannemann’s raw passion and fell even more in love with him. There’s quite simply nothing like that in the Premier League any more.

It’s quite common even today for an English fan to say that the club they support forms part of their identity, when events post-1992 mean that it’s more or less impossible for that to be true. In 2014 our clubs are all the same: faceless, heartless corporations that only differ in terms of location and wealth. Their links to local communities are minimal – the idea that a Manchester United fan might after work go to a complex next to Old Trafford and learn about acting from a club-appointed teacher is patently ludicrous.

What we have is high-quality football that we can barely afford to watch either live or on TV, clubs which treat fans with gleeful contempt and a league full of unknowable players that could barely care less about the institutions they represent. Maybe it’s just that the grass looks greener in the other field, but life at the bottom of the food chain seems far preferable to this writer.

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Why Sam Allardyce Will Be The Next England Manager

On Saturday I went to the West Ham vs Manchester City game. As you’re no doubt aware, the home side ran rings around the champions for an hour and deservedly took the three points after surviving a late City onslaught. It was a good, hard-fought match and it told us a lot about both sides.

Like most neutrals, I spent most of the game looking at City and wondering how Sheikh Mansour could possibly have spent so many hundreds of millions of pounds and ended up with only three super-talented players. A couple of days after the event, however, I’m thinking only about West Ham and Sam Allardyce and the latter’s seemingly inevitable ascent to the England job in 2016. It may seem improbable but the wheels are already in motion and if all goes to plan then there’s little anyone can do to stop it.

The most important factor in Allardyce’s favour is that the tabloid press has it in for Roy Hodgson. It’s always going to be hard to win the hearts of the hacks that spend their working lives filling the red tops with hateful half-truths when you’re a courteous, avuncular and slightly odd-looking middle-aged journeyman. It’s next to impossible when you’re all of those things and also a hate figure for the one of the two Premier League clubs which drives most traffic to all major football news sites.

It doesn’t matter that Hodgson is in the process of helping a talented new generation into international football, that he’s got them playing attractive, incisive and possession-heavy football and that he’s won every Euro 2016 qualifier so far. It doesn’t matter that the only reasons England went out of the 2014 World Cup at the first hurdle are that they got stuck in by far the hardest group and that Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge forgot to pack their shooting boots.

What matters is that Hodgson looks a bit funny, gives journalists unexciting, modest quotes and did a bad job at Liverpool once. Short of winning Euro 2016 – spoiler: England don’t win Euro 2016 – there’s nothing Hodgson can do to save himself.

Allardyce knows that he has two years to build his case to be the next England manager. His name has been in the mix for about a decade now – since the latter days of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tenure, at least – and the biggest objection to him getting the job has always been the style of football he favours, it being obvious that it only works if you’re an underdog looking to punch above your weight.

Like Hodgson, Allardyce failed at the only big English club he’d ever been trusted to work at because he managed them as though they were the minnows he’d just left behind. Overly wedded to a style of training that improved less-talented players basically by taking all on-pitch agency away from them, he reduced good, creative players to predictably programmed robots and a team that should have been proactive, inventive and potent to one that was exactly the opposite.

The difference between Allardyce and Hodgson is that while everyone remembers that Big Sam did a bad job at Newcastle, the fact remains that no major national newspaper, magazine or website attempts to curry favour on a daily basis by consciously pandering to Newcastle fans. Few journalists outside the North East will view Allardyce’s England reign through the red mist that inevitably colours most coverage of Hodgson.

It’s true that Allardyce became and remains seen as a firefighter – the guy your club hires if its low-budget squad lands itself in a relegation scrap and leaves the fans relishing the distant prospect of perpetual mid-table security. The job he did at Blackburn did little to change that perception and, until now, it’s been the same story at West Ham.

Indeed, the main reason Big Sam’s England candidacy seems so outlandish is that for most of the summer he was on the brink of being sacked by the Hammers. Most Irons fans have always vocally opposed his trademark route-one hoofball and the results that would in Allardyce’s mind have justified the means rarely arrived, which inevitably put him at loggerheads with Davids Gold and Sullivan.

He survived for two reasons. Firstly because although West Ham were unspeakably awful on a regular basis last season, injuries to their strikers and the disappointing form of big money signings like Matt Jarvis and Stewart Downing meant that having a good season was nigh-on impossible. This year, all of his signings have hit the ground running.

The second reason is that Gold and Sullivan, showing the kind of restraint that we don’t often see from owners, kept in mind that despite everything that had gone wrong, Allardyce is still a talented manager. He has a good eye for talent, understands how football works and leaves no stone unturned when trying to improve his side. The chairmen told Allardyce his job was safe on the proviso that the style of play became more attractive.

To Allardyce’s credit, he listened and accepted their criticism as constructive. They weren’t asking him to change any more than they were challenging him to improve. To play more expansively would be mutually beneficial: not only could he improve West Ham’s fortunes, if he was successful with a new style then he could rehabilitate his image as a tactical dinosaur, thereby giving him a good chance of getting the dream job he must surely have given up on.

Watching West Ham on Saturday, it was hard to believe that they were coached by the same man who had failed so miserably at Newcastle, let alone one who declared that “pretty football has never won anything” while Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were hoovering up trophies with play that was as elegant as it was effective, and while the same core of players were European champions and newly crowned World Cup winners with Spain.

The Hammers were everything the Allardyce’s Newcastle should have been. Their diamond midfield was simultaneously fluid and structured, the attacking combinations were imaginative and productive and both of their goals were the result of intelligent passing moves and composed finishes. Most encouragingly, it wasn’t a surprise that they played so well: they have been excellent in all of their games since Allardyce switched to the diamond and Alex Song, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia came into the side. The importance of the new arrivals can’t be overstated.

On Sunday morning, the Allardyce For England bandwagon began moving as Fleet Street’s best and brightest (ahem) debated his suitability as a successor to Hodgson on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement. They were testing the water, putting the idea out there, seeing how the public responded. Judging from Twitter (ahem #2), the popular answer seems to be “he couldn’t be any worse than Roy”, which is exactly the kind of answer the Sunday Supplement chaps like: it shows that their organised campaign against Hodgson is doing the trick.

If a week is a long time in politics then two years is an eternity in football, but with Harry Redknapp’s stock falling further with every passing week, Gary Neville still wet behind the ears and every other English manager barely worthy of discussion, Big Sam must know that if he can keep this unexpected surge of momentum going on the pitch and rely on the media to beatify him off it – as they did Redknapp in the last days of the Fabio Capello era – then the job is his to lose.

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Rayo Vallecano 0-2 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review

http://www.barcablaugranes.com/2014/10/10/6956661/rayo-vallecano-0-2-fc-barcelona-tactical-review

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Paris Saint-Germain 3-2 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review

http://www.barcablaugranes.com/2014/10/1/6877571/psg-3-2-barcelona-tactical-review

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Lionel Messi: A Superhero In Flux

This article originally appeared on BarcaBlaugranes.com.

Every superhero story follows the same basic pattern: we meet the protagonist when he or she is young and witness them discover and experiment with their powers, before a tragedy imbues them with a sense purpose and spurs them on to change the world.

Later, we see what happens as they come to terms with being effortlessly more capable than everyone else. Invariably, the world changes and so does the protagonist. Things get nastier and being a superhero stops being fun. The protagonist has heartfelt conversations with their friends and family about whether or not they should give up, disappear and try to live a normal existence elsewhere.

It turns out that the choice isn’t really theirs: the world needs them to be superheroes whether they want to or not. This realisation is usually the final piece in the jigsaw and once the protagonist has come to terms with it, they put the cape back on and start enjoying their powers again.

They never quite recapture the youthful joy which made the initial phases of discovery and growth so exciting, but they learn to refine their abilities and use them as efficiently and effectively as possible. They usually do this by teaming up with others to form all-conquering partnerships or teams which maximise the abilities of all involved.

Lionel Messi is probably the closest thing that has ever existed to a superhero. No-one who was there when the five-year-old Messi first played for Grandoli FC in the Rosario barrio of General Las Heras will ever forget it. He might as well have lifted a parked car above his head or jumped over one of the tower blocks around the corner from the small, mosquito-covered pitch. It was instantly obvious that little Leo was destined for greatness.

Over the years that followed, Messi lived in the shadow of his incredible ability. He hadn’t yet fully mastered it, but he knew that he was special and could easily do things that other people could only dream of. Football remained a passion more than a profession, but he knew that one day the secret would get out and his natural ability would make him famous.

The tragic event that changed everything came when he was 13, when he left his family and friends and moved halfway across the world to enter FC Barcelona’s academy. It might not sound so bad in retrospect, but for a painfully shy boy who struggled badly with anxiety and depended on his immediate relatives for almost everything, it was a hammer blow. Like every superhero, however, Messi harnessed his pain and used it as fuel for the fire that burned inside him, driving him on to succeed while others fell by the wayside.

By the time Messi was promoted to the Barcelona first team, he was as dedicated as he was gifted and there was no stopping him. Even though he had achieved virtually nothing in the game, his teammates respected him. They knew they were in the presence of a supernatural talent. “This award says I’m the best player in the world,” Ronaldinho said when accepting the 2005 Ballon d’Or, “But I’m not even the best player at Barcelona.”

Everyone knows what happens next. Messi became the best player in the world and arguably the best ever to have kicked a ball. At 27, he has won everything there is to win at club level on several occasions. He was a couple of missed chances away from winning the 2014 World Cup, a tournament in which he dragged a drab Argentina side to the final almost single-handedly. On Saturday he scored his 400th career goal.

Despite this, there is a sense that all is not well with Messi. Having started so young, he now has a disproportionate number of miles on the clock for a player of his age. His last season was disrupted by injuries and off-field problems. After years of spectacular success the wheels came off at Barça, where Tata Martino, Messi’s own handpicked manager, failed to motivate and maintain him and the rest of the team.

The malaise continued into the World Cup. Although he scored four of Argentina’s goals at the World Cup and set up another two – eventually winning the Golden Ball as FIFA’s player of the tournament – his performances were underwhelming. He looked short of breath, lacking in acceleration and unable to dribble past whole teams at will in the manner which his fans have come to expect. The impression was that he wasn’t having fun on the pitch any more.

The truth is that the world had changed – and so had he.

When Messi first broke into Barcelona’s first team, football was much more anarchic than it is today. Even though clubs as big as Barça held a huge advantage over other domestic rivals, most teams still came to places like the Nou Camp and played for a win. There was no such thing as ‘parking the bus’. Teams occasionally placed all eleven men behind the ball to protect a result, but to do so for entire matches, with painstaking organisation and limitless defensive resolve, was unheard of.

It helped that Messi, the new kid on the block, had world-renowned attackers to work with and learn from. Ronaldinho famously took Messi under his wing both on and off the pitch, while the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and David Villa occupied defenders and the openness of the opposition gave Messi space and time in which to maximise his unbelievable ability.

Messi became the best inside-forward in the world, then the best striker, and eventually the best playmaker. Barça’s fluidity meant that he could often move between each of those roles in a single game, dropping into pockets of space and driving at defences from different angles, playing perfect passes to teammates in goalscoring positions or arriving in them himself.

Although he was always Pep Guardiola’s Barça’s best player, the team wasn’t really his. The strings were pulled by Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and either Yaya Touré or Sergio Busquets in midfield and by Guardiola from the dugout. Messi, the best attacker in the world, was the icing on the cake: the gift from the gods that turned the best team in the world into the best team in history.

After a while, football became so easy for Messi that he stopped celebrating goals. He had responded to his early strikes with instinctive glee and slight disbelief, as if totally overwhelmed by the happiness he felt in those moments. By 2012, when he was regularly scoring a couple of goals in every game, he was often unmoved, barely mustering a smile when the ball hit the back of the net.

He started chipping goalkeepers whenever he was one-on-one, as though he was tired of simply rolling the ball past them and into the bottom corner. Never one for unnecessary flair, he started trying backheels and roulettes, seemingly because he wanted to know if whatever he tried would work automatically. He was in the form of his life, breaking scoring records left, right and centre, but at times he just looked bored.

Inevitably, things began to unravel. Barça’s opponents became increasingly solid defensively and learned how to exploit a well-documented vulnerability to counter-attacks. Guardiola walked away, exhausted. Tito Vilanova, a huge influence on Messi, succeeded Pep, but he was soon gone, taken from his job by the illness that would eventually take his life. Martino followed, but he couldn’t stop the ravages of time turning key players like Xavi, Iniesta, Carles Puyoland Dani Alves into passengers.

As importantly, Martino couldn’t stop Messi deciding to become his own person. When Guardiola became Barça manager, he tasked physiotherapist Juanjo Brau with devising a personal programme for Messi that regulated almost every aspect of his life: what to eat, when to eat it; what to drink, when to drink it; what to stretch, when to stretch it; when to sleep, how to sleep. Brau followed him everywhere ensuring that he stuck to the regime. No lifestyle choice that could be left to Messi was his to take. He was more or less a robot.

Under Tata, Brau was ‘promoted’ and no longer worked with Messi. Although Messi said he stuck to the regime, there was no-one making sure that he did. Slowly but surely, the muscle injuries that had plagued his career before Brau began shadowing him came back. It was obvious that Messi wasn’t following his programme – but, at the same time, completely understandable.

Always a family man, he had become a father for the first time and was spending all of his available time with his son and his girlfriend. He was clearly very happy away from the pitch, probably for the first time since he left Rosario as a child. After years of giving everything to Barça, football was no longer his life; it was his livelihood, his passion and his superpower, but not his number one priority.

Despite this sea change, Messi found himself carrying Barça, scoring and making almost all of the side’s goals. David Villa had declined sharply and been sold; Pedro Rodríguez was horribly out of form; Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas were clearly talented but didn’t quite fit in, and their unreliability placed even more pressure on Messi’s shoulders.

As if that wasn’t stressful enough, the board were toying with the idea of selling him. The club had always been good to Messi, paying for the growth hormone injections that allowed him to make it as a footballer and ensuring that his status as the world’s best player was matched by his pay packet, but the board were intent on heading in another direction with Neymar as the team’s new symbol.

Suddenly, being a superhero was anything but fun. Messi always wanted to stay at Barça but he made his feelings clear: if Sandro Rosell and company wanted him gone, all they had to do was say and he would pack his bags and leave. For a while it seemed not only that Messi might be forced out, but that he might actually welcome a change of surroundings.

Everything has changed this season, however. Rosell’s departure, a new contract signed in May and the system devised by new manager Luis Enrique seem to have combined to make Messi realise that even if he wanted to walk away from Barça, it never really was up to him to decide whose superhero he was. Barça need him more than words can say. The club is where he belongs and where his ability is best served. Maybe the World Cup made him understand that to take his superpowers elsewhere would be to lessen them.

This happy realisation has arrived, as it usually does in superhero literature, with a timely replenishment in the supporting cast. Fresh impetus has been provided by Luis Enrique’s arrival and a host of new signings. Luis Suárez has yet to come into the team, but it’s easy to see where he will fit in when his ban ends. Neymar has stepped up to the plate, too. The Brazilian had a tough debut campaign in La Liga but has developed splendidly and is now a player worthy of sharing the limelight with Messi.

It’s not a surprise that the new Barça have looked like a work in progress in most of their matches at the start of this season, but it’s even less surprising that Messi has been brilliant regardless. He has started deeper, playing as a classic number ten more than as a false nine or an inside-forward, but despite being relatively far from the goal he has still scored five times and racked up eight assists in the opening seven games.

Messi’s understandings with Busquets and Neymar have come to the fore. The former knows when and where to give Messi the ball, while the latter knows when and where to run to receive his defence-splitting passes. The three have already combined for four goals this season. Messi’s unmatched intelligence has also made it easy for Munir and Sandro to come into the team as orthodox strikers.

Some observers have looked at Cristiano Ronaldo’s superior goalscoring figures and compared them to Messi’s to prove that the current holder of the Ballon d’Or has a clear advantage in their ongoing personal duel, but this is nonsense. Messi’s new role means that it would be wrong to judge him purely on goalscoring: when one looks at combined goals and assists numbers, Messi leads Ronaldo. As ever, the difference is that Messi doesn’t only contribute as an individual: he makes his teammates better too.

Another popular complaint from Messi’s critics is that he no longer scores goals as breathtaking as the classic solo slaloms against Getafe, Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid, to name just a few. There might be something in that, but if there is it’s not his fault: circumstances dictate that these days he spends more time picking the lock instead of blowing the door off its hinges. Regardless of his method, there’s no doubt that Messi is still capable of deciding any game in a second.

Perhaps Messi’s critics just haven’t seen enough superhero films. If they had, they’d know better than to write off the protagonist. In the end, he always comes out on top.

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