I’ve had the pleasure of watching Lionel Messi play just twice. In both matches, he’s failed to score, which, considering both matches were after his explosion into the greatest player of his generation (circa 2009) is a surely a statistical improbability.
Both times, the general reaction to his display was muted; I’m unquestionably yet to witness a Messi masterclass. However, on both occasions he was quite evidently Barcelona’s best and, most important player. If he were any other person on the planet, his performance would be described as exceptional. From Messi, we expect genius every week.
When Simon Burnton of the Guardian interviewed Billy Beane and asked who the most underrated footballer was, the Moneyball mastermind had a fine answer. “You know, I’d actually say Lionel Messi,” Beane declared. “He’s so remarkable, watching him play, he’s probably still undervalued. When you’re scoring five goals in one Champions League match, there’s no value that’s too high.”
For the majority of top footballers, take away their main asset and they’d become an average player. You can basically do three things when you get the ball: dribble, pass, or shoot. Messi can do each to an astoundingly high level.
Messi the Dribbler
Taking on opponents remains a key feature of his game, yet his role as an exclusive dribbler is in the past. When Messi broke through into the Barcelona side, beating defenders was his primary quality; he caught the eye because of his speed, his upper-body strength, and his sheer directness.
His reputation soared when he scored his Diego Maradona-esque goal against Getafe, running from the halfway line to goal. It probably wasn’t his best goal, it certainly wasn’t his most important. Nevertheless, it became the first defining Messi moment because it summarized his game beautifully—he picked up the ball on the right then dribbled infield towards goal. Simple.
Barcelona are a side based around passing ability, probably to a greater extent than any side in history. That’s what made Messi’s directness so thrilling. In tandem with Dani Alves, Barcelona’s right-hand side during Pep Guardiola’s first season as coach was fearsome. Messi would pick up the ball and attract two opponents, while Alves would speed down the outside.
Messi’s re-deployment as a central player makes his dribbling less pivotal. One associates dribblers with playing on the flanks, and with good reason: the centre of the pitch is more crowded, the obstacles are more frequent, more unpredictable and more immediate.
Yet Messi continues to be a fantastic dribbler, and the key is the manner in which he receives the ball from teammates. Out wide, it is simple: you get a sideways pass, let the ball come across your body slightly, then take on the full-back. In the centre you have to be on the half-turn, you have to drift away from your marker until the final second. It sounds like a cliché, but Messi starts his dribble before the opponent has even realised he’s in possession of the ball. He’s always on the move, always thinking one step ahead.
Messi the Finisher
Messi is not as pure a poacher as, say, Falcao, but he’s every bit as assured. Granted, his all-round game is hugely beneficial to his goals record—a significant proportion are scored following dribbles, even when beating a single opponent. Some follow one-twos; his precise passing and his incredible acceleration are key attributes in that respect.
Besides, being a great poacher isn’t simply about the physical act of finishing. It’s about movement in the box, and the ability to take split-second decisions about where to run, how to position yourself. Watch Pippo Inzaghi for a season, and it was amazing how many fortunate tap-ins he scored. Watch him over five seasons, and it happened so regularly, you realized it wasn’t luck.
Messi has that knack. He also has an incredible ability to stop moving, which might seem like a questionable virtue, but it’s wonderfully handy—he can charge towards goal, force an opponent up to their maximum speed, and then stop. Just like that. It forces opponents and teammates to continue their momentum while he is standing still, poised to strike. Maybe it’s simply great reactions, but it seems more of a physical thing.
Finally, of course, there’s the finishing itself, which barely needs any explanation or discussion other than to say that his goalscoring record hasn’t yet been fully appreciated. Ronaldo’s 34 in 37 for Barcelona in 1996/97 was legendary; Messi scored 50 in 37 last year. Yes, that’s with the benefit of a fantastic team behind him, plus a wildly imbalanced league, but it’s still an outstanding record that may not be surpassed for decades.
Messi the Passer
This is Messi’s most underrated quality. It’s natural, of course, to highlight his other areas. It’s more spectacular to beat an opponent, and it’s more meaningful to score. If you want to admire Barcelona’s passing, you go to Xavi Hernandez for short, reliable distribution that sets the tempo of the game You pinpoint Andres Iniesta for a perfectly-weighted through-ball.
But Messi’s passing quality—or, specifically, his ability to play penetrative passes—is equally as impressive. It’s part of the reason he ended up in the ‘false nine’ role, and why Barcelona were so successful under Guardiola with that system. Messi’s ability to squeeze passes between opposition full-back and centre-back, into the path of Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa, was crucial to Barca’s success.
When Sergio Batista attempted to replicate Barcelona’s style for Argentina’s 2011 Copa America campaign, the key instruction was for the wide forwards to make those same runs, in order to get the best from Messi’s passing. The focus wasn’t on his dribbling, or even his finishing, but his distribution. Messi often came extraordinarily deep to receive the ball, deeper than the two opposition holding players. He simply became a creative midfielder. His passes were generally excellent, but the only player who understood the wide role in a positional sense, Ezequiel Lavezzi, finished poorly. If only Messi was on the end of the passes, too.
This only takes into consideration the passes he plays within his specific role. Watch Messi warming up before matches, punting 50-yard balls to Alves, and it’s clear his long-range passing is exquisite; every time, the ball drops perfectly at the Brazilian’s feet. Even more impressively, he’s tremendously accurate with his weaker right foot. He’s left-footed, but he’s not purely left-footed.
As a teenager I played football with a classmate named Steven, who went onto play at a decent standard in the English football pyramid. He was so superior to everybody else involved in our Friday afternoon matches that we were forced to restrict his movement. He played as a holding midfielder, and so he wasn’t allowed outside his own half. Bizarrely, he and his side accepted the request, safe in the knowledge he remained the best player on the pitch, and the game was more balanced.
Messi won’t encounter such constraints, but I’d love to restrict his movement for three separate matches. First, I’d let him operate only in the final third, to showcase his shooting. Second, he’d have to stick to one flank, to highlight his dribbling. Third, I’d restrict him to the centre of midfield. to demonstrate his passing.
In three completely different roles, I’m confident he’d remain Barcelona’s key player. And that, in a roundabout way, shows why Messi is so devastating: he is three world-class players combined.