Today, and just in time for El Clasico, Lionel Messi will return to the Barcelona squad for the first time since his injury in late September. The team he returns too, though, has been playing noticeably differently in his absence.
Looking at the team’s attacking zone entries with and without Messi, there is a clear difference in where the team has been focusing their attacks.
This makes complete sense – if you have Messi in your team, you’re probably going to try and pass to him in an attacking area more often than were it anyone else in that position.
But what is also interesting is just how much more Barcelona have been using Neymar, and how brilliantly he’s been emulating the responsibilities of Messi in the new inverted attack.
Neymar’s increased involvement is absurdly obvious in the plot above, which benefits from a roughly equal sample size with and without Messi. In the best player in the world’s absence, the Brazilian has has effectively been playing like Messi lite, getting a higher volume of quality shots off and noticeably having a lot less shots from the right side of the penalty area, where he presumably drifts to link up with Messi.
His partnership with Suarez has also become a consistent battering ram for Barcelona.
Messi will start the game vs Real Madrid on the bench, and it would be fascinating to see the tactical difference between when he plays and when he doesn’t within the space of one match.
It remains to be seen whether or not Neymar will be able to shine quite this brightly with the supernova that is the world’s best player back in the side, but there’s no doubt that Luis Enrique’s Barcelona side has a back-up plan.