Competition Focus

Lamine Yamal and the Lionel Messi debate at Barcelona: Play him or protect him?

Wednesday evening sees Barcelona visit Porto’s Estadio do Dragao for the first time in 20 years.

Their last trip was a friendly match that marked the official opening of the ground on November 16, 2003. At Barca, that date is remembered for a quite different reason: Lionel Messi made his first-team debut.

Messi, at the age of 16 years, four months and 23 days, came on in the 75th minute against Jose Mourinho’s Porto — who would end that season as Champions League winners. As the two teams meet in the competition this week, Barca now have another 16-year-old in the spotlight.

Lamine Yamal has made a very impressive impact at Barca since his remarkable emergence at the end of last season, when he became the club’s youngest player in La Liga history at 15 years and 290 days old.



Lamine Yamal: Barcelona’s 15-year-old talent ‘who can define an era’

Before the start of this campaign, the expectation was that Yamal would continue playing for Barcelona Atletic, the club’s reserve side made up mostly of youth players. Instead, he has reached a total of 10 full appearances for Barca; four of them as a starter. Tonight, he could make his first start in the Champions League, in what looks like Barca’s most difficult trip of the group stage.

This Monday, his three-year new contract was announced — something that was widely celebrated at Barca, as they had to fight off interest from multiple top European clubs to retain him.

Yamal’s breakthrough has been so successful that no one at the club would consider dropping the talented youngster back down to Barca Atletic now. Instead, Xavi is being asked why he isn’t starting every game.

On September 23, Yamal came off the bench at home to Celta Vigo, with Barcelona losing 1-0. He played a big role in the dramatic late comeback as Xavi’s side won 3-2.

Three days later at Mallorca, he was again brought on as an emergency substitute with Barca trailing, and his 27-minute cameo had every fan at the Iberostar Stadium on the edge of their seats. It was a flamboyant display of dribbling skill, dangerous crossing and big chances created from the wing.

Barca have always sought to prepare Yamal as much as possible for the pressures that come with first-team football, and they have also been wary of the dangers of him suffering too much physical strain. But his impact in recent La Liga matches has been too good to ignore.

Last weekend, Xavi had no other option than to start Yamal at home to Sevilla. Despite not having his best game, the winger was still involved in the most decisive moment: Sergio Ramos putting Yamal’s cross into the Sevilla net for an own goal that decided the three points.

“Yamal not playing every week is mainly due to a physical thing,” Xavi said this week. “He is just 16, and there are moments when you can notice his age.

“Football is not only played when you have the ball, there’s also the work without it; you have to track back (to help) your full-back if you’re a winger and there are a lot of physical efforts involved in the game.

“But when he plays, there’s no question about it: his talent is incredible. And I don’t see a bigger problem in the psychological aspect. He is a really quiet kid, very relaxed, and I see him dealing with everything very naturally.”

Xavi was himself an established member of Barca’s first team when Messi was making his breakthrough at Barcelona.

Despite having already appeared for the club in that friendly against Porto in 2003, the Argentinian did not truly force his way into the side until the 2005-06 campaign.

Messi was 18 when Barca manager Frank Rijkaard reached the point where he could no longer ignore his talent. The Dutchman had begun that season insisting on starting Ludovic Giuly as much as he could, with Messi given minutes off the bench in practically every game.

In his view, it made sense to help Messi get up to speed with the first team; to let his body adapt to elite standards and avoid any unnecessary physical load.

But after Messi started in the 3-0 Clasico victory away at Real Madrid that November, Giuly was relegated to the bench. Messi’s influence grew and grew… before he was ruled out with a thigh injury that saw him miss 18 matches in all competitions as the season culminated with a Champions League trophy.

How they compare after 10 Barca games

Lionel Messi Lamine Yamal





Games started











“If you remember that time, Messi picked up some muscular injuries because he was only 18 and was still growing,” added Xavi last week, when comparing his case to that of Yamal’s.

Of course, there are several differences between the two players. But the main one is that Yamal’s talent is probably more urgently required at Barca right now.

Over that 2005-06 campaign, Barcelona could still count on Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Andres Iniesta, Deco and Giuly in attack. This season, Yamal has already established himself as Barca’s most consistent performer on the right wing and, as the table below shows, he is dribbling past opponents on a more frequent basis than Raphinha and Ferran Torres, his competitors for that position. His ability to beat players is exactly what Barca need against teams that sit in a low block.

Yamal is fearless in attack



Minutes played


Attempted take-ons


Successful take-ons
































Apart from the seemingly unlimited range of skills he is showing, Yamal also excels in his decision-making — an area in which Barcelona often fell short last season through Ousmane Dembele and Raphinha.

So there is a dilemma now facing Xavi, who earlier this season described Yamal as “so clever it’s extraordinary”, while adding: “He makes the right choice, finds the right pass or does the best thing for the team almost every time.”

However, Barcelona’s manager is expected to proceed with caution and manage Yamal’s game time. This seems sensible following some recent (and painful) examples in the careers of two of the club’s brightest young talents: Pedri and Ansu Fati.

Fati and Pedri celebrating together last season (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Pedri, 20, is yet to return after tearing his hamstring during a training session at the start of the season, although the club hopes he will be back in time for the La Liga home match with Madrid on October 29. Since his breakthrough season (2021-22), he has missed 56 games for Barca and Spain through injury.

To explain this, sources at Barca always point back to Pedri’s first season at the club. He ended up playing 72 matches in a domestic and international campaign across La Liga, the Champions League, the Copa del Rey, the European Championship and the Olympic Games. All at the age of 18.

After barely two weeks of holiday prescribed by the club — a break that prevented him from doing pre-season — he picked up his first thigh muscle injury two games into 2021-22. It’s an injury that has recurred several times since.

Fati provides another example of how playing too much football at a young age might badly affect a player’s development.

After his debut with the Barca first team in August 2019 at the age of 16, Fati spent his first season operating mostly as a substitute. He began the following campaign under Ronald Koeman in a more prominent role, but in November 2020 suffered a ruptured meniscus in his left knee — a complicated injury which requires a long recovery time.



Ansu Fati, Barcelona’s brilliant record breaker, and the injury that changed everything

There is a lot more to unfold in Fati’s case, including surgeries that didn’t go to plan, a recovery process that ended up with setbacks and a loss of confidence on the player’s side. It all goes a lot further than the number of minutes he had with the first team.

But certainly, the pressure put on Fati back in the day — and Barca’s desperate need to find new idols at the club — didn’t work in his favour. This summer, he left on loan to Brighton & Hove Albion in search of quality minutes and a fresh start.

The hope and expectation is that these two examples will be kept in mind when managing Yamal, despite the unmeasured excitement that he is generating around the club.

Inevitably, he is already being compared to Messi. But that has so far not tended to help young Barca players — just ask Fati, who inherited his No 10 shirt.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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