Messi falling into the ‘Jordan Rules’ trap due to Barcelona incompetence
Messi falling into the ‘Jordan Rules’ trap due to Barcelona incompetence
What the Argentine would not give for a Pippen or Rodman-like figure by his side as this uninspiring Blaugrana team meekly surrenders La Liga
The fourth installment of ESPN’s acclaimed documentary series The Last Dance , which chronicled the highs and lows of Michael Jordan’s all-conquering Chicago Bulls during the 1990s, focuses on a particular problem faced by the franchise prior to its first NBA Championship triumph.
While Jordan and the Bulls’ prodigious talents were in no doubt, with the legendary shooting guard leading the league in scoring from 1987-90, the team continued to fall short when it really counted; never progressing past the Eastern Conference finals, where the Detroit Pistons and their infamous ‘Jordan Rules’ – the explicit targeting and harrying of the star to put him off his game – invariably turned up to spoil the show.
In 1991, however, and under the stewardship of coach Phil Jackson, they came upon the solution: keep the ball moving.
Chicago’s No. 23 continued to smash records but, despite his initial doubts over Jackson’s triangle offense strategy – “There’s no I in team, but there’s an I in win,” as he told ESPN of his first reaction – he eventually took the new plan to heart.
The Bulls never looked back.
Three consecutive NBA titles followed, as did Hall of Fame places not just for Jordan but also for coach Jackson and the Bulls’ brilliant small forward, Scottie Pippen.
Fast forward to 2020 and Lionel Messi finds himself in a similar quandary to the basketball great.
The Argentine, like Jordan, is the type of talent that comes along once in a generation; the greatest of his era and arguably in the history of his chosen sport. He can barely take a step on the field without the close attentions of two or even three markers, making it ever more difficult – but, being Messi, far from impossible – to break through.
Unlike the Bulls hero, however, Leo has never shied away from being a team player; his problem, to put it bluntly, is that his team-mates are simply not up to scratch.
Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at home to Atletico Madrid which, barring a late collapse from Real Madrid, all but guarantees the Liga crown will be heading to Santiago Bernabeu this month perfectly illustrated Messi’s dilemma.
The Barca captain led his team on shots taken and on target, dribbles and in key passes, as well as scoring his 700th career goal from the penalty spot and forcing both the corner which led to Diego Costa’s own goal and the forward’s blunder itself.
Messi, though, was far from his best throughout the 90 minutes.
Michael Jordan Phil Jackson Chicago Bulls GFX
A deft flick over the lunging Renan Lodi in the first half that instantly went viral across the world obscures the terrific marking job that the young Brazilian carried out, while midfield pair Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey were always on hand to close down when Lodi needed reinforcements.
Atletico had the measure of their opponents from start to finish, and goalkeeper Jan Oblak was forced to make just one save in the entire second half from open play, an indicator as telling as any other of Barca’s toothlessness in the final third.
The Atletico clash was far from a one-off. Never before in the last five seasons has Messi attempted more dribbles (just shy of 10 per 90 minutes) or lost possession more frequently (22.1 times/90) than in this immensely frustrating 2019-20 campaign.
The change of coach in January, so dearly desired by a certain sector of Cules, has only heightened the crisis: from the uninspiring but effective pragmatism of Ernesto Valverde, Barca have passed without a halt to Quique Setien’s incoherent, inconsequential possession play without the players either behind or alongside Leo to make it work on anything like a regular basis.
Even worse for the Catalans, their captain himself seems to be growing tired of the malaise.
Lionel Messi Barcelona Atletico Madrid 2019-20 GFX
Saturday’s draw against Celta, where both Barca goals came courtesy of Messi assists, was overshadowed a damning scene on the touchlines, with Messi seemingly snubbing Setien’s second in command Eder Sarabia while the assistant attempted to give instructions during a water break.
Factor in president Josep Bartomeu’s catastrophic handling of the club in recent seasons, which in 2019-20 has descended at times to farcical levels (remember that ridiculous spy scandal and the scramble to sign Martin Braithwaite?) and it is not hard to imagine how Messi, entering his final years as a star, must despair at how his beloved Barca have been mismanaged from top to bottom.
Whatever the Blaugrana might be right now, they are most definitely not a healthy football club.
Such images are too often blown out of all proportion in terms of their significance, but Tuesday’s tie threw up another telling contrast. On the one side stood Atletico, famed for their collective spirit, to a man huddled around Diego Simeone and hanging on the coach’s every word.
The hosts, meanwhile, were dispersed across the Camp Nou pitch with no direction and little interaction. A sterling advertisement for social distancing measures, perhaps, but hardly the actions of a team hoping to at least project the notion that they stand together against adversity.
“[Jackson] said: I’m not worried about you, but we’ve got to find a way to make everybody else better. We’ve got to create other threats,” Jordan recalled in the Last Dance .
True to the coach’s word, in taking down Detroit and then the Los Angeles Lakers to win the title, less heralded players came to the fore. Horace Grant came up with 14 first-half points in Game Two to outscore even Jordan; Pippen was crucial in marking Lakers great Magic Johnson and led his team by scoring 32 points in the decisive Game Five of the finals.
In that same game, Jackson ordered his No. 23 to seek out John Paxson, who had been left open by the Lakers defence. The guard averaged just 7.2 points per game over his career, but obliged with 20, 10 of which came in the second half of the fourth quarter, to see Chicago over the line.
“Everybody in the world is expecting Jordan to force something during a double team, He doesn’t do it, he draws and dishes,” renowned basketball journalist David Aldridge pointed out in The Last Dance .
“He trusts his team-mate to make the shot.” Jordan added: “Once Pax hits that first shot, ‘Oh OK fine, I can do this again, penetrate [and] find Pax’ he just kept hitting them, kept hitting them.”
Messi too used to be able to count on his team-mates to produce moments of magic, whether it was Xavi’s passing, the ability of Andres Iniesta or Dani Alves to break the line and create chances, David Villa’s unique sense of sacrifice for the team or Neymar and Luis Suarez’s prodigious touch in front of goal.
Those flashes of inspiration have become almost non-existent at Camp Nou, however, as Messi’s partners-in-crime have moved on or, in Suarez’s case, become only intermittent threats. Shackle Messi, and you hobble Barca, is the message across La Liga, one that rivals have readily taken to heart.
The Argentine continues to delight fans, leave observers with their jaws wide open and break records on a regular basis; but if he cannot find, or Barca cannot provide, a team to complement his scintillating abilities, at 33 he risks finding that his own last dance turns out to be as upbeat and inspiring as a funeral dirge.