Lionel Messi's Return to Right Wing Bolsters Barcelona's Goal Count

Paul WilkesFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2014

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 07: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona with the match ball after scoring three goals during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on December 7, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

When Lionel Messi was making his way into the Barcelona first team, his now manager Luis Enrique was captain of the club.

In Frank Rijkaard's opening campaign at Camp Nou, the Argentine played for five different youth categories while also starting to train with the seniors, via Barcelona's official website.

He then made his competitive debut the next season in the October, as he came on as a substitute in a match with local rivals Espanyol.

The forward's talent was clear to see, and he quickly established himself on the right wing (with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o completing the attacking trio).

Ronaldinho and Messi both liked to cut inside onto their favoured foot. Meanwhile, the pace of Eto'o could either be utilised by a through ball or—when teams sat deeper to combat the Cameroon-born striker—to exploit the space in front of the defence.

When Rijkaard left the Catalans, Pep Guardiola continued to allow Messi this free-roaming role from the right-hand side.

In the 2010-11 season, David Villa joined the club from Valencia, and Guardiola decided to switch Messi to a more central position.

It was a bold move to make Messi occupy what's become known as a "false nine," especially when they had just spent a vast amount of money on a proven goalscorer.

Messi thrived on the responsibility and was able to score over 50 goals in the subsequent three seasons.

This year, Enrique initially used him as more of a No. 10 with two strikers (Neymar and Pedro) in front of him.

In 11 games in all competitions, Messi has scored nine goals and made nine assists—making him more of a provider than a finisher.

It appeared that this transition was to prepare for the return of Luis Suarez from suspension. However, when the Uruguayan did play against Real Madrid, he was pushed to the right flank.

Messi then went three league games without a goal, which is something of a drought for one of the best two players in the world.

In recent matches, it's more noticeable that Suarez is now operating as a striker with Messi more right-sided once again.

The two players (of course) interchange along with Neymar, but the Brazilian is certainly more fixed on the left wing.

For Suarez, the goals have yet to start flowing—although his sheer presence and movement off the ball allows room for his teammates to make an impact.

This applies to Messi more than most, as he has now netted three hat-tricks in his last four matches.

Enrique is giving him the freedom to move around the pitch. Some will argue that he's rarely in his starting berth on the right, as his average position against Espanyol illustrated, via FourFourTwo Stats Zone.

The positioning of the rest of the team is vital in order to ensure that Dani Alves doesn't get left isolated.

Alves is required to defend that little bit more, as he made three tackles and six ball recoveries in his own half in the Catalan derby, as noted by FourFourTwo Stats Zone.

It's then up to the right-sided central midfielder (Ivan Rakitic) and the right-sided centre-back (Gerard Pique) to provide further cover for Alves, as illustrated by FourFourTwo Stats Zone.

The team is benefiting as a whole from a Messi who's firing on all cylinders. It's now 19 goals in the last five matches for Barcelona in all competitions.

Whether or not Messi stays on the right for Enrique's side, we will have to wait and see, but for now it's working for both Messi and Barcelona.