The Complexities of Lionel Messi, aka “Can there be too much of a good thing?”


“Jordan dominava o basquete assim como Messi domina o futebol. São passíveis de comparação.” Pep Guardiola.

Yep. Michael Jordan dominated basketball as Messi dominates football, indeed. And just as with Jordan, Messi comes with his own set of complexities that, if a coach isn’t careful, have the potential to become actual problems. And as with Jordan, there can be no doubt that Messi is the best player that any of us will ever see, to hell with those who say that he needs a World Cup. They’re wrong.

Sure, there might be some kid kicking a ball around somewhere who will make us say “Messi who,” but I doubt it, in the same way that, lo these many years hence, there has never been another Michael Jordan. But let’s put it another way:

You have this puppy, and it’s reallyreallyreallyreally cute. It does tricks that everybody loves, trick after trick after trick. He sits on your lap, you play in the yard and everything is groovy. You and that puppy are inseparable.

Then the puppy grows into an 80-pound lap dog that is still doing what it wants. It isn’t the cute little puppy any longer, and the tricks don’t quite come off in the same way that they did when your little guy was …. well …. a little guy.

So now what?

And to be clear, no, there isn’t a problem yet …. sort of. Or even a hint of any problem.

I remember Messi roaring onto the pitch in his Barca debut, wearing the No. 30, looking like a squat Energizer bunny ricocheting off of everyone and everything. I wondered if the promise was going to be realized as he subbed for Deco against Espanyol. This was Ronaldinho’s team, after all. Against Albacete he scored his premiere first-team goal from a typically amazing assist from Ronaldinho that Messi finished with flair, via deft rainbow into the far corner, struck almost off the dead run. It was a remarkable debut goal and it’s safe to say that, hype aside, NOBODY would have predicted the astonishing stats this player, who many consider to already be the best of all time, would deliver.

But in addition to the goals, there have been the “What the hell did I just see” moments, the almost-magics that make even opposing defenders give him a consoling pat as if to say, “Dang, dude. Sorry that shot didn’t go in. Even I wanted to see that goal.” Like Michael Jordan (with whom comparisons abound), Messi works to improve his game. He has added passing to his arsenal of tricks, perfect passes that find teammates in stride and in perfect position, as with Jordan developing a fadeaway jumper. When you think of his eventual integration with Alexis Sanchez, this is one of the most appealing things. And imagine, if we keep Villa and Fabregas rounds into form, the feast potential.

So again, what’s the problem? Good question.

Let’s remember that this is all hypothetical. Absolutely none of this stuff could transpire, or it all could. Because who ever thought, when I first began talking about selling Ronaldinho, that I and others would be so right, so quickly. You just never know.

And as glorious as his season was, chronicled here with love by nzm, There is also a part of me that would rather see him with 40 goals and 30 assists than 70+ goals, flanked by a couple of players with 20+ goals, as I think that makes us a more dangerous and diverse team. But that’s another story, as I think that as Messi ages, he has the potential to develop into a Ronaldinhoesque player in his “second career,” if you will. But that’s another future. For this one, let’s have a look at a few of potential Messi complexities, via bullet points:

Too much of a good thing is dangerous

The greater Messi’s personal glory and gaudy statistics, the worse the team has done. This makes sense, actually, when you consider that one-player teams are more difficult to stop. The Chicago Bulls faced the “Jordan Rules,” in which opponents did everything possible to stop Jordan from scoring, believing that other guys couldn’t beat them. It wasn’t until the Bulls got other guys who could beat those other teams, that they began to win championships. But is it a coincidence that Messi’s lowest scoring tally of the past 4 years has also seen the most success?

It must be said that injuries forced The Messi Show upon us. I don’t believe, had Villa been healthy and Pedro not taken so long to come fully back to form, that Messi would have had 73 goals. I also think that we would have had 6 trophies, not 4.

It also means that people need to temper expectations. I think that even Guardiola or Vilanova would say that Messi scoring 73 goals isn’t the best thing for the club. It too easily becomes “Stop the little dude. What do you mean which little dude?!”

He limits players you can sign

Lionel Messi does what he wants, when and where he wants. Everyone gets him the ball, everyone waits to see if he wants the ball. When he gets the ball, you have to be ready, because sometimes you will get it back. No telling when, because his otherworldly skills mean that it can come at an absurd time, from an equally absurd angle. The complexity there is that this is now Lionel Messi’s team. Perhaps, as with Michael Jordan, a team really can only have one superstar (no, Scottie Pippen wasn’t, despite what his mom will tell you). This isn’t to say that a team with a bona-fide superstar can’t have world-class players. We do. (Whether Villa is a superstar is another argument for another time.)

But if you look at the list of people who have had difficulties playing with the new, dominant Messi, every time a marquee attacking name comes up as a potential signatory, you think to yourself, “Can he play with Messi,” rather than the other way around. “This is as it should be,” most would argue. Not me. I’d ask “Can they play together?”

Let’s forget for a moment the “what if Ibrahimovic wasn’t an asshat big enough to cover the Antarctic”, and ask ourselves about the complexities that precipitated his departure. Plain and simple, he was another guy used to doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He had about zero interest in learning to play with Messi, to his detriment, it must be added. It’s the “too many chefs” theory that we often see with Dream Teams, or Galacticos. Who defers? Ibrahimovic had to, and that didn’t fill his big, stupid heart with song.

As Messi grew increasingly dominant in the offense, Samuel Eto’o began to have difficulties finding space and his usual operating room, sometimes gravitating to the wing. “What’s that little guy doing there, and why won’t he give me the ball?” No, this wasn’t the reason that Eto’o left us. Had he stayed, would the complexity have become an actual problem? Impossible to say.

David Villa and Thierry Henry, both used to being The Man for their respective teams, had to eke out space on the left wing to work within a Messi-dominated system. The newest additions are Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas. With the latter, no problem. With the former, now that he is acquiring the confidence sufficient to play his game, you are beginning to see those “Hey, I was going there” moments. How the dynamic between the two develops will be interesting to see, particularly as to whether Messi in any way limits the full capabilities of Sanchez. At present, the telepathy they are developing brings to mind intriguing/terrifying for opponents possibilities that should make us all smile. But we haven’t seen the fullest flower of Sanchez yet.

Isaiah says ….

“Your best player gets the ball, you big dummy! What’s the matter with you?!”

I’ll buy that, except that match in and match out, Messi isn’t always the best player on the pitch. Further, if your best player always has the ball, you become pretty easy to defend, don’t you?

Euler says ….

I don’t know if I’d frame it as a case for why he’s “bad” for the club per se. The issue to me seems closer to what are some of the trade offs of having Messi. No player is perfect. Not even the best of all time. For example it’s ironic when people discuss Maradona as the greatest of all time. There were large trade offs teams had to make to build around him. First and foremost was the he was largely undependable and, as large as his accomplishments were, he squandered enormous amounts of talent through his behavior.

Cruijff was a genius. But his mercurial nature destroyed an Ajax project far sooner than needed when he left the team in a fit….For example, one of Messi’s best and most endearing qualities is his love for the game. But this is also a major reason why he never rests….Compared to most of the other greats the negatives with Messi on the whole are likely more minor. Especially compared to Maradona and Cruijff.

Which brings me to my next point ….

Exhibiting tyrannical tendencies as regards rest and playing time

Is Messi a tyrant? Look at the first definition of the word, from Webster’s:
1a: an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution

I kinda love this one, because Messi is like a perfect piece of luggage, when you think about it. Every time you go somewhere, you use the same suitcase. You know how much it will hold, how much you can pack. There is a comfortable familiarity with it, and you take it everywhere. Rest it? Retire it? Why? It’s a perfect suitcase, and always does the job.

But what if that piece of luggage is a trunk and you only need a weekend bag? Put another way, is there ever a time when the club doesn’t need Messi on the pitch? Are you better off putting aside the nuclear deterrent, or leaving it out to brandish? Messi is such a danger that even when he is on the pitch, sleepwalking through a match, he might get it together for one run, The Run That Will Kill Your Team. The danger is when that run never materializes.

But at that time, when everybody in the stadium is marking him, he should be making his teammates more free in their movements and aggression, right? In theory, yes. In practice, it’s another matter because they, too, think that this possession could be The One. The roots of Messidependencia are deep. And he keeps getting the ball. And chance after chance is squandered until suddenly the match is over, the magic hasn’t happened and this seemingly sullen little dude just walks off the pitch. And I say “seemingly sullen” because we understand how much Messi wants to win, all the time. We have seen the tears in unguarded moments, the 1000-yard stares that say “You will die next time.” He cares. Deeply. It’s that caring that makes him want to be on the pitch, all the time.

Guardiola wouldn’t rest him. Will Vilanova? Why wouldn’t you find a way to have your best player on the pitch all the time? It makes him happy, makes the team better and it’s the easiest solution. Ah, happy. That’s all you need is an unhappy superstar, right? And all it takes is something so simple: playing time, with a player for whom football is like oxygen. So you give your best player, who is coincidentally just about the greatest ever, playing time. What can it hurt?

The player, as fatigued muscles are more easily injured. Or the team (more on this later). Or let’s say the player has learned how to take care of himself, and takes “rest breaks” during a match, marshaling his energies for a few big pushes, rather than being a constant danger. What then, and what of the team that at times almost looks as if it doesn’t know what to do with itself. The club has played without Messi, and been fine. It needs to learn that lesson. And I won’t even get into the notion of it being fine for one player to not give 100 percent all of the time. Because for me, yonder lies madness. We all read the newspaper that it was part of the Messi plan to not play the entire pitch, to not run and use as much energy as he usually does. But after seeing the all-pitch Messi in the Copa Final, it’s hard not to get woozy with rapture.

Something else worth thinking about, even as it is unthinkable — what happens when Messi, like Ronaldinho, faces a time when those magical first 10 steps become a not-so-magical 6 steps? Dunno. Good question.

Potential headache for Tito Vilanova

Tito Vilanova, I believe, was very carefully chosen. Whoever Guardiola’s successor was going to be, is inheriting an exceptionally talented dog who has been allowed free rein as a puppy. And he will have some decisions to make that risk damaging that dog’s psyche.

Guardiola came in after two trophyless seasons under Frank Rijkaard. He had nowhere to go but up. That he did so in a rocket to the moon way was not only exemplary, but impossible to argue with. How can you question a coach who came in, said “Do it my way and we win,” then led you to unprecedented success, and 14 of 18 trophies in all competitions, including two Champions League wins and a pair of Ligas? You can’t. Period.

The problem is when that next dude comes in. What can he say, after all that success? “Um, do what I say and uh …. you’ve already won everything, haven’t you?” Does the possibility exist for player rebellion? Depends, mostly on what the club’s best player does. Vilanova is an excellent, perfectly chosen selection precisely because of that continuity. The question remains, what will he do with his best player?

I need to stress right now that Messi has heretofore evinced absolutely zero tendencies in any rebellious regard. He has even had to put up with a blithering-yet-sainted idiot of a coach in Diego Maradona as his national team coach and still, he has been the perfect team player. The possibility of a Messi-sparked rebellion is exceedingly remote/verging on impossible, based on the player’s history. But questioning can be enough sometimes, to inhibit an athlete’s giving that 1000% necessary, that full commitment that is essential for success. Messi runs headlong into packs of defenders because he wants the team that saved his career to have as much success as it can. Individual accolades are, for a player who has a million of them, a distant second to team glory.

Now what happens when that player thinks that a coach isn’t the one to continue that glory? We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it, which will, hopefully, be never. With Maradumber, it wasn’t a problem, but that glory was never really there, right? Even then, however, Messi never, ever said a word. He just wanted the ball.

He changes the way the team plays

The battles over my contention that Messi doesn’t give 100% are well-documented. People posted a piece from Sport, laying out that his seeming laggardly play is in fact part of the grand design to keep him healthy and on the pitch, with “Ah-HA, you dumbass!” zeal. Just know that I am unconvinced that this is the best policy

As a neutral sees it, or somebody who isn’t clued in to the grand design, everybody else on the club runs around, playing defense, attacking, pressing in the midfield and killing themselves, while that No. 10 stands around looking bored, until he gets the ball. When he loses the ball, he doesn’t make much effort to get it back, never mind that the player who loses the ball usually has the best immediate opportunity to regain possession. Grand design. Further, it makes not giving 100% acceptable. “Messi doesn’t track back. What if I dog it a little bit?”

People will say “Yeah, when whoever scores goals like Messi, they can …. ” and there’s the problem. Guardiola went from “Run, you bastards, run,” to “Run, you bastards, except for you.” And that creates problems, because Messi makes a run, loses the ball and the other team runs off, pell-mell, at our frantically backpedaling defense, in a system heretofore predicated on attackers, ALL being defenders and defenders being attackers.

But when he was playing a whole match, as he did in the treble season, his first 10 steps were used to devastating effect in ball recovery. He’d lose the ball and barely before the opponent could get full control, there was a demon nipping at his heels, demanding the ball back. “That’s mine, dammit. Gimme.” We saw it very recently in the Copa final, in which he was dispossessed, and closed on the defender who stole the ball as if he were in hyperspace, disrupting the attack and prying the ball loose.

The question is if the latter player is worth having for part of the time, or the seemingly disinterested until he gets the ball genius all of the time is preferable. Valid question, and one that I don’t really have an answer to. I do know that to my view, based on how much I have watched over the years, during the various coaches, that the 08-09 Barca was one of the most amazing football clubs that I have ever seen, one that was unstoppable. Yes, it had the extraordinary luck of not having the same rash of injuries to key players at terrible times, but people forget that there were many, many injuries that season, that our Champions League lineup was this makeshift, rickety thing that nonetheless got the job done.

For me, I would rather have a rested, fully committed, 100% Messi 80% of the time, than a guy standing around waiting for the ball before he comes to life. The other benefit would be that the club would learn to play without him, against the clubs that we shouldn’t really need him for.

Dependence on a player who can be stopped isn’t good for a club

At the end of this season, Messi had 73 goals in all competitions. The next-closest playe(s) on the squad had 15. In the treble season, Messi had 38 goals, and Eto’o had 34. That’s what you like to see. Henry was third, with 25 goals.

The following season Eto’o was gone, Henry was on paid sabbatical and Messi had 45 goals. Pedro had 22, Ibrahimovic 21 and the club left a big trophy on the table. You could already see the signs of the gap becoming too large, even as a pair of 20-goal scorers helped immensely. Because teams were setting up to stop Messi. There wasn’t really anyone else on the club who could, on their own, hurt them.

The following season again saw a pair of 20+goal scorers, Pedro and David Villa, backing Messi’s gaudy tally of 50 goals. Was the gap too large? The club won the Liga and Champions League, leaving the Copa on the table, at the feet of a team that decided to stop our best player by any means necessary.

But the signs are worrying. Is the lack of the team’s acquiring a scorer Messi’s fault? No. But it is a complexity of his existence that he becomes the player to stop. Full stop. As of right now, one man makes us go. And that is an untenable situation, because that one man also wants the ball a lot. If 3 defenders are tasked with controlling him, in theory that should free up other players. But who? 15 goals from the second-top scorer, in a world in which everyone is devoted to stopping Messi, speaks to an anemic level of finishing that verges on laughable, were I a neutral. But I’m not. So it’s worrisome.

“A-HA, you dumbass, EE has almost the same broad disparity between its top scorer and its No. 2.” And you’d be right. But Benzema and Higuain each have 20+ goals. Which explains a lot. It also frustrates, because you realize, even with all those goals, how just a few plays would have us top of table. But that is still yet another story.

Have we had a perfect storm this season? Absolutely. Who knew that Pedro would lose form, Villa would break his leg and Sanchez would turn out to be exactly the player that he is, a facilitator rather than a goal scorer? So again, seemingly everything rests on the shoulders of a diminutive genius. But when the “genius” light doesn’t come on, we have problems creating and scoring. Only time will tell whether that complexity proves to be fatal. But it is interesting that in Messi’s most productive season, we have been shut out of major silver.

In a Puyol and Xavi-less future, is he a team leader?

There was an interesting debate on Twitter recently, about whether Messi should be captain for Argentina, instead of Mascherano. Some said it should be Messi. Others (like me) pointed to those attributes that Mascherano has that Messi doesn’t, in the same say Puyol has attributes that make him a better captain for FCB than Messi. Is he our best player? Hard to answer. In terms of goals, etc, yes. But contextually it’s hard to answer. In a game that puts emphasis on goals scored, defenders rarely get “best player” consideration. But for a time there, had you asked me who the consistently best player was on Barca irrespective of position, I would have answered Eric Abidal. And yet, he would NEVER be captain.

This is Messi’s team (yes, even though Puyol is captain). So what next? Puyol has one more season at the most and, depending on what happens this summer transfer season, one that might not be as an automatic starter. Xavi has two more, and what then? A Messi episode of lashing out at Tello for doing the wrong thing, and the rumor that he let his teammates have it during the home Clasic, makes you realize two things:

1) He has leadership qualities, in that he demands the best from everyone, all the time. And that includes himself. Those are the beginning of captain qualities.

2) You don’t want your leader yelling at someone for not giving them the ball in the right spot. Puyol gets into Pique’s grille for defensive matters, for not doing all that he can to help the team. Now certainly, by helping Messi that is indeed helping the team. But semantics will dictate to us that “Mark your man, dammit,” is different, as a matter of perception, than “Give me the ball so I can score, dammit!” Both help the team, both win or lose matches. But perception is key, even as we acknowledge that there isn’t a sane person on the planet who wouldn’t rather have the ball at Messi’s feet with a goal on the line, than any other player in the game right now.

But …. there are ways to coach and instruct, and Messi will learn those as his leadership skills blossom. What you don’t want is for his demands, and the way that they are phrased in the heat of battle, to make a player tentative. Tello should learn to make the right decisions with the ball, i.e. when to shoot and when to pass. But when your leader doesn’t always demonstrate those qualities, how fair is the demand of the same from others? Xavi probably would have been the best person to say “Hey, dude, you should have played it to the little guy. The chicks will still love you.” This will be, again, where a strong coach comes in.

The brutality of pressure

Finally, the killer. Messi has been lucky, in that he has always had a grownup around, so to speak. Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Henry, Xavi, Puyol. There will come a time when those players will all be gone, and Messi will be the grownup, as he is with Argentina. What then? Good question. But having grown folks around removes a degree of pressure from a player that allows him to focus on being his best. Xavi, Iniesta or Mascherano can do the press conferences. No worries. Just practice and play.

As a player becomes the grownup, pressure builds. Messi has demonstrated that he can handle immense amounts of pressure. That he hasn’t retired to a desert island when anyone mentions the Argentina NT is proof positive of that. As for the future, we will just have to see.

To wrap this beast up, my fondest hope, because it will also be the best thing for the club, is that Lionel Messi continues to develop, wins a World Cup, continues grabbing trophies, Golden Boots and Ballons d’Or with Barca, and blossoms into the mature, world-beating, versatile, unplayable monster that he not only has the potential to become, but that all signs point to his becoming. Nonetheless, I wanted to ask some questions and inspire some debate.

Thanks for reading.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

123 Comments

  1. June 9, 2012

    I Put up a Euros comments post as requested.

  2. Bill
    June 9, 2012

    Sorry Kxevin, but this article seems to have lot’s of “truthiness” to it. Truthiness, according to Steven Colbert, are facts derived from the “gut”, regardless of what the real facts,evidence, logic or stats are. It seems as if this piece is about that, because the numbers don’t add up.

    The numbers do suggest Messi covers more ground than most other forwards with almost half his production levels, assists more, completes almost twice as many passes and assists more than even the best midfielders in the world who happen to be his teammates! This last one is particularly astounding, given that he scored 73 goals, which means someone has to be getting lots of assist credits in his team.

    I don’t get your premise that because Messi got 73 goals, that means someone else had to get less. WHAT? I didnt know there is a quota of how many goals the team could score in a game. Because thats the only way that concept makes sense. Thats Truthiness. Because if you look at the evidence, Messi was playing with forwards called Cuenca, Tello, Alexis, an off form Pedro, and an injured (and unsuited for the system) Villa. The former 3 can never be considered great strikers. They are good ball handlers who also happen to score goals. Eto’o and Henry were good strikers who also happened to pass the ball. It is not Messi’s fault if he passes to people who can’t complete the move.

    Again, if you look at the numbers, Ronaldo took almost 100 more shots at goal than Messi, to score 15 less goals(minus spot/free kicks). Great set ups by his teammates for what were essentially tap-ins really helped his stats(not deminishing his production, but it’s true most of his long distance shots were useless). Yet, all this did not stop Benzema and Higuain from getting their goals.

    Insinuating that we lost because of Messi’s great numbers is such a stretch, I almost invested in indiana plastics because of how much elastic you must have purchased from them to write that! Ok, I’ll give you the two missed penalties which were crucial, but that was more because of his penchance for going to the goalies left plus his determination to score pretty and slow penalties than because he scored soo many goals.

    I agree with the idea that Messi not resting as a problem. But that’s not Messi’s problem. It was Guardiola’s. As a coach, YOU WANT ALL PLAYERS TO WANT TO PLAY ALL THE TIME. Because a player that is content to sit on the bench or even offers not to play is the bigger concern. So players wanting to play is a great thing, it is then up to the coach to channel that energy and frustration of not playing in the right direction.

    If you werent a Barcelona fan, I would have considered this article a hatchet job of fox news magnitude, but because you are a fan, I think it’s a piece from someone trying to grasp the magnitude of what Messi is doing. It’s like the people who say “Messi scores alot, but he is not a complete player because he doesn’t use his right foot and head”, or that “he doesn’t win with Argentina.”

    My advice is to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Messi is doing things beyond comprehension. Beyond our wildest imaginations (In 2007, I predicted Messi would have to average 30 goals a season in his prime to become great!) If Barcelona ever fall back to earth, it won’t be because Messi is a problem.

    BTW, Messi shows frustrations because teammates didn’t make the right play and opted for a really bad option,and not because he wants them to only pass to him, which is completely ok. Messi usually makes two or three selfish runs a game, and if someone should try those, then it should be Messi. He is capable. If you think thats bad, watch Ronaldo, Sturridge, Robben, and a few others with half his talent.

    One more thing, Pippen and Wade were/are stars. What both have in common is that they tailored their games to suit their superstar teammates strengths in order for the team to function. Ironically, this is what you want Messi to do, yet you chastise these two for doing exactly that. To borrow from the vast vocabulary of many teenagers around here…WTF?!?!

    • garry
      June 9, 2012

      ^

    • garry
      June 9, 2012

      @kxevin: Great article.

      Reading ur piece again, it does seem that u believe that the team is to blame for Messidependicia ( and all the problems that arise out of it) rather than Messi himself.

      – But honestly, at the risk of sounding naive, i do believe that PepG is not pliable enough to be “pushed” by Messi into playing him all the time. Pep believes that Messi at 80% all-the-time is more dangerous than Messi at 100% some-of-the-time. And so, Messi starts every game.

      – Even though the scenario being discussed lies in the future and is hypothetical, but going by his past record, Messi rebelling is akin to Mou praising a ref.

      – As far as Messidependicia is concerned, it is a problem for the new coach to deal with and solve (maybe by ensuring team has other good enough scoring outlets etc) ,not Messi.

      And, as Euler said, if i have to pick a problem, i would gladly pick this one.
      Lets not forget that Wenger, SAF and rest of the world’s coaches would gladly part company with their right arm to have La Pulga on their team. ( Except MouMou, maybe.)

  3. garry
    June 9, 2012

    @bill

    I don’t get your premise that
    because Messi got 73 goals,
    that means someone else had
    to get less. WHAT? I didnt
    know there is a quota of how
    many goals the team could
    score in a game.

    Well, Messi scoring 73 goals DOES mean that others will score less because, it means that even if there are players in better position, most of the balls will go to Messi, esp. in when the team is in dire situations ( also known as Messidependicia)

  4. Messiah10
    June 9, 2012

    I just watched my DVR Argentina vs Brazil friendly. Omg!!! Messiiiiii! What a game. Absolutely no defense being played but 7 goals in toral and 3 from Messiah was out of this world. The GolTv American announcer was hilarious after Messi’s 3rd. “thank you God”, “thank you God for making Lionel Messi a footballer”. You have to listen to it. Lmao

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