The Lead

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.

Messi's gane dashboard vs. PSG, courtesy the FourFourTwo Statszone app.

Messi’s gane dashboard vs. PSG, courtesy the FourFourTwo Statszone app.

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.

Comments (6)

  1. It’s not an oversimplification, it’s true. If Messi didn’t play, Barca wouldn’t have won. I saw the game, PSG were hands down the better team before Messi’s arrival. The best Barca chance was Xavi’s free kick; other than that, they never really looked like scoring. Their front three was out of its depth when asked to go it alone; however, they looked much more sprightly and confident once he came on.

    If Messi doesn’t play in the semi-finals, Barcelona will lose, regardless of who their opponent will be.

    Guardiola and Vilanova made Barcelona a one man team. The non-Messi players are talented, no doubt, but Messi dominates that team by design. Rather than utilizing everyone’s strength, Messi dominates and the other players have to feed off his scraps (I think he leads the team in assists too. It’s just all about him.) Like, I have no idea why they bought Ibrahimovic if they were set on this strategy. Did they think he would accept it? I’m pretty sure they didn’t tell him the true nature of the team’s set up, else he wouldn’t have signed on.

    I can understand the rationale behind implementing this strategy (why wouldn’t you meximise your greatest asset?), but it ignores physiological reality. No one should willfully create a one man team, because if he goes down, you’re screwed. Barca have played a dangerous game by not utilizing their vast array of talent; we’ll see if they pay for it.

    Barca is lucky that Dan Smith, Ryan Shawcross, or any other British thug aren’t cosmopolitan enough to play for a small Spanish side. It just takes one malicious tackle to ruin a tactical system/career.

    • Completely agree. I didn’t believe that Barcelona with all the domestic/ european/ international winners they had were a one man team. Until a Messi came on the pitch it could have easily been a blow out. The effect similar to when the Bulls were without Jordan. The mentality of the players (PSG included), the bench, and the entire stadium was so different. it was like watching a different game. Wanted PSG to win. :(

      Hopefully Messi doesn’t become another Van Basten, Ronaldo or Rafael Nadal (Yes, Tennis). They weren’t the same players anymore after their injury. Barca best start looking for another two-to-three players that can collectively fill Messi’s role. One bad tackle and its over.

      • I read an article on ESPNFC that has made me change my mind about Messi, or at least the public perception of him. I don’t see him as the selfless, happy go lucky type anymore, much more of a ruthless individualist.

        His stats are even more outlandish than Ronaldo’s, so why do we assume that one is a preening, self-obsessed jerk (Ronaldo is a self-obsessed jerk btw) and the other is a footballing Butters Stotch? More importantly, why does it matter?

        Because it does matter. I’m willing to wager that a lot of Messi’s fans admire him and deride Ronaldo for the former’s low profile, his perceived humility, his focus on the game over his image over the latter’s perceived selfishness. Messi is perceived as “one of us”, while Ronaldo the fashion model is obviously not and doesn’t try to be. To put it philosophically, Ronaldo embodies Nietchze’s Ubermensch, a superhuman entity who lives by a moral code created by and for himself (and so we puny mortals hate him), while Messi fits tidily with the rest of the herd. (I could have this slightly wrong; I should leave the philosophizing to Richard).

        Or we thought he did. One the one hand, you could view Messi’s coming off the bench to save his team as another instance in the long list of sporting heroes who have played through injury to ensure their team’s success: Jordan and the flu, Willis Reed hopping around on one foot, Kirk Gibson hobbling around the base paths, seemingly every hockey player who has ever lived…

        On the other hand, you could see it as Messi’s lack of faith in his teammates and lack of respect for his coaches. His performance made everyone associated with that team look really bad, Iniesta aside (loved his little spin move). The rest of the core of arguably the greatest national team in football history looked like hopeless nobodies, waiting for their Messiah to rescue them. Whither Fabregas?

        Moreover, Messi’s brilliance overrides everyone’s accomplishments, coaches included. Pretty sure that Messi started warming up without Vilanova’s knowledge, not that Tito would have stopped him. We shouldn’t even know who Vilanova is. He’s a non-entity who does not merit special praise; maybe Guardiola too. It takes little courage or genius to construct a team with nearly limitless funds and have them deploy the footballing equivalent of the “Pass it to Will” strategy from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

        • you state “(I think he leads the team in assists too. It’s just all about him.”

          and then you state

          “Messi’s lack of faith in his teammates”

          sorry mate but if he had no faith he wouldn’t pass. he has more goals and more assists because he is just that good. He can see and make a pass better than anyone on the planet……’s one of the things that puts him over the top at Ballon Dor time…. you are making a massive stretch with this “logic”.

          did you see this or is this just some strange theory you pulled out of the air?
          “Pretty sure that Messi started warming up without Vilanova’s knowledge, not that Tito would have stopped him. ”
          If you saw this happen that would be kind of interesting but he wouldn’t have been on the bench if Vilanova didn’t want him to play at all…. And Tito is the mastermind of the team strategy even from the Pep days……he’s not a figurehead. There is a reason they were trampled by Real while he was away getting treatment.

          Richard, what have you started!? people actually writing posts that have content and aren’t just rants. good stuff.

      • Cannot disagree more. If PSG had just a tiny bit more finishing quality, Messi can’t save them with that late sub. Even after Messi was on the field, PSG had chances to make it count and upset the favourites.

  2. Definitely didn’t read these essays. Messi good. Nuff said

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