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Messi and Iniesta set the tempo against Espanyol

Messi spent quite a bit of time in central areas. Earlier in the season he has played a lot wider, but lately his movement towards the center of the midfield has become more frequent

Messi and Iniesta set the tempo against Espanyol
Messi and Iniesta set the tempo against Espanyol

Messi spent quite a bit of time in central areas. Earlier in the season he has played a lot wider, but lately his movement towards the center of the midfield has become more frequent

Messi Iniesta
© Getty Images

Barcelona’s superb first half performance was enough to give them the three points in the Catalan derby against Espanyol. Messi was in the center of events and once more showed his versatility as a player, as Barcelona again looked like a sharper, more balanced version of the side we saw earlier in the season.

Messi spent quite a bit of time in central areas. Earlier in the season he has played a lot wider, but lately his movement towards the center of the midfield has become more frequent. Below is Messi’s heatmap [via Squawka], which shows the same thing: he rarely looked for one on ones on the right, and rather, dropped deep to a midfield position to pull the strings.

It goes to show that a player with Messi’s ability could play practically anywhere and make a difference: on the right, his dribbling abilities become evident, whereas his playmaking genius takes over in the center. During the first 16 minutes of the match, Messi made three through balls to the left-hand side, two to Neymar and one to Alba. Only one of them lead to a goal, but the pattern was clear. Below is an example of what happens when Messi has space and is facing the opponent’s goal – Neymar (or Alba) always makes a move behind the line.

Unlike against Celta some weeks ago, Rafinha showed good understanding of Messi’s movement and managed to create passing lanes to the Argentine and the rest of his teammates. The role of an ‘interior’ – especially on Messi’s side – is not easy in this Barcelona, and earlier in the season Rafinha had had difficulties adapting to it. 

On the other side of the midfield, Iniesta had another great performance. The Spaniard stayed deeper, contributing to the midfield base and orchestrating play. In the very beginning of the season Iniesta seemed to struggle under Luis Enrique: he was often playing uncomfortably wide, which resulted in numerical disadvantages in the middle. Adjustments have been made, however, and the ‘interiors’ don’t play quite as wide anymore, making the side more balanced. This has also helped Iniesta contribute more.

Together with Messi and Sergio Busquets, Iniesta was the one setting the tempo of the game, deciding when to move forward and when to keep things calm. Up front, Neymar and Luis Suárez’s movement was once more excellent. Especially the Uruguayan’s performances should be highlighted: few thought that he would adapt as quickly, but he already brings nothing but great things to Barcelona’s game. He knows when to move wide to allow Messi to roam, he knows when to ask for the ball deeper, he knows when to make a run behind the line and most importantly, he is quickly learning to connect with his teammates in a lethal manner. Ahead of the second goal, he brilliantly identifies the space on the right and makes a run, then links up intelligently with Iniesta to set up Messi’s goal.

In the second half, Barcelona took their foot off the gas and simply calmed things down. Jordi Alba’s red card meant that Espanyol got a bit more possession, but Barcelona never seemed to be in big trouble in what was possibly the most difficult league match left this season ahead of the big test at the Vicente Calderon. All things considered, it was a solid, intelligent performance from Luis Enrique’s men who are enjoying a great run of form.