His presence enabled Messi to receive the ball closer to the box, and Xavi knew exactly when and how to slow things down and take a couple of extra touches to give Barcelona time to move up the field as a unit
Barcelona got a difficult, yet important win away to Celta, in a match that once more showed two different sides of the team in each half. The first half was especially painful for Barcelona, but the second half provided a much-needed improvement.
The idea was clear from early on: Messi, Suárez and Neymar stayed rather high up the pitch whereas Iniesta and Rafinha’s job was to break the first line of pressing via a dribble or a quick combination, and then get the ball up to the forwards. This didn’t work quite as it should have: Iniesta and Rafinha both failed to protect the ball (or draw fouls to push Celta back and gain control), which forced Barcelona to rush the ball forward too often. As a result, the front three were alone, far from each other, and frequently lost the ball. Below is an image from the first minutes when the pattern was already clear: the front three up front with little to no support from the rest. Playing like this is extremely difficult for the forwards – as great as they are individually – because the distances between the players are just too big.
The Barcelona midfield struggled to get things going. This was partly because of Celta’s brilliance: they managed to close down spaces in the midfield [image below] and Iniesta, Busquets and Rafinha never quite looked comfortable.
Barcelona couldn’t get the ball where they want it – wide to Messi or Neymar – and reacting to this, Messi soon started to position himself in the central areas. He usually drifts from one position to another anyway, but this time it already happened just after the 10-minute mark, perhaps due to frustration, perhaps because he identified the problem in the midfield as he couldn’t get the ball wide.
Messi did, every now and again, get things going with his sharp runs and passes from the midfield, and his presence in the center was what gave Barcelona all control they had in the first 45 minutes, although it wasn’t much anyway. But either way, Barcelona’s best (although unspectacular) spell of dominance in the first half was between the 18th and 30th minute, when Messi was playing mostly centrally and, on occasion, very deep. This, however, meant that Barcelona lost their most important wide creator and Rafinha looked utterly confused about where he should be to accommodate Messi’s movement. The right-hand side of the attack was completely unutilized: Alves was also hesitant to occupy the space because Celta was targeting his side of the defense.