At the Guardian, Sid Lowe wrote today of Lionel Messi, that the “half-fit forward came off the substitutes’ bench to inspire the team to victory over Paris St-Germain and a place in the Champions League semi-finals.”
Francesc Tomas wrote for ESPNFC that “[Messi's] impact was instant. Only a few seconds after substituting for the unimpressive Cesc Fabregas, La Pulga began beating rivals, weaving plays across the park, combining with others and rotating in the mesmerising way the Camp Nou has been lucky to witness so often in recent times.”
Obviously Messi is an integral player to Barcelona (behold, the understatement of the year). He certainly played an important role in creating the above chance that Pedro finished. Much of that impact involved dragging defensive players out of position; note in the above GIF how some of the PSG players tracking back pull toward Messi who makes a darting run into the area, leaving space for Pedro to receive David Villa’s clever backpass.
But there is a hell of a lot going on with this goal that cannot simply be attributed to Messi’s apparently supernatural effect in coming on the pitch. Several Barcelona players including David Villa and Iniesta received the ball in similar space as Pedro during the first half for example, only to sky the ball over the net. Pedro’s finish here is meticulous, pinpoint even. David Villa meanwhile does incredibly well to take Messi’s precision pass at his fee in front of two PSG defenders in close proximity, and maintains the vision to keep Pedro in his line of sight in time for a lightening fast back pass that catches Salvatore Sirigu in just enough time to fail to dive to stop the shot.
Did Messi cause all this simply by his towering footballing genius? Maybe. Perhaps the confidence Messi inspired by coming on powered Barca’s forward line to perform feats they may not have previously considered. Perhaps Messi managed to see beyond sight and used his pace and sense of space to draw PSG’s back-line and tracking back midfield out of position to open up the scoring chance.
But to simply ascribe Messi’s appearance as the “cause” of Barcelona’s progress past PSG on a limp 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou strikes me as an oversimplification. Here above are his game statistics since coming on for the final third of the match. These are impressive stats. Eight of nine passes completed, two fouls suffered, two successful and one failed take on.
This will never capture the essence of a player performance, but they indicate too that Messi’s “impact” in the second half, while impressive, doesn’t seem supernatural. Still, pushing the Messidependencia makes sense for all the parties involved. It makes sense for Barca to distract from some problems within the side, it makes sense for Barca’s opponents to excuse their own failure to execute chances created, and it serves a media who know that readers love a bit of Messi romance now and again. But it may not be the actual truth of the matter.