Injuries are part of athletics. The capriciousness of the human body, ergonomics, a way of movement that is just fine a million times but is NOT fine a million and one times … it’s all part of the deal. There’s never a good time for them, particularly when they involve the best player alive, Lionel Messi. But essentially, stuff happens.
And as people natter, speculate and finger point about what might or might not have been, why a great player is suddenly being let down by a stupid body part, it’s hard not to wonder, once again, what is going on with Lionel Messi.
He hasn’t really been right since pulling up lame on a Paris cow pasture, but it has always been “two weeks.” Two weeks here, two weeks there and pretty soon you’re not only talking about real time, but unavoidably, you start to wonder … what if it should be more than two weeks? And then you don’t wonder, because what supporter, what devotee of the Beautiful Game isn’t selfish? Messi does the absurd. All the time. Goals that would make a mortal player pose, rip off his shirt and retire from the game, Messi knocks off, points to the sky to say “That’s another one for you, Grandma,” and gets set to do it again.
Who doesn’t want to see that? Who doesn’t want to still the thought that maybe, just maybe, people are conspiring to kill the golden goose. Ssssh! Just give No. 10 the ball and let him play when he wants.
Only lately, it hasn’t been that easy. Only Messi could have the stats that he has, spectacular for any mortal player, and have people wondering what’s wrong. This is what it’s come to, and you wonder if in some ways it doesn’t hurt as much as his wounded hamstring. Great players are immortal. We think they are going to go on forever and ever, because why wouldn’t they? It’s easy to ignore the changes that happen in plain view as the life of a player goes from talented Masia graduate to killer talent to star to superstar to megastar to diminutive deity. But this time, let’s not.
What fascinates me more about Hamstringgate is that to my view, narratives are lagging behind sporting reality. So culers fret and worry, “We don’t have Messi, what will we do,” or “It’s going to be difficult.” And they don’t look at the fixture list, so let’s start with that:
Granada, H: A Liga gimme. And at home.
Ajax, A: A Champions League tie in a group from which Barça has already qualified.
Athletic, A: A daunting task, but this would be more troubling two seasons ago.
Cartagena, A: A Copa del Reig tie that the team should walk.
Celtic, H: Home cooking in a Champions League group stage finale.
Villarreal, H: The one worrying fixture, but Villarreal have climbed to 4th place by playing open, flowing football. Bring that open game to the Camp and see what happens.
Getafe, A: For sure, anything can happen. But this resolute Barça don’t worry me at Getafe.
Elche, H: A newly promoted side, at the Camp. It’s not in the cards for them.
That is the next eight ties. If Barça ran the table in that list, nobody would be surprised. I don’t expect that they will, but that would have been true even with Messi at the ready. But the club, barring any more injuries, is in excellent shape for what is to come.
But it’s in even better shape because despite statistics that would be gaudy for any player not named Messi, he hasn’t really been himself since the end run of last season. People can have all sorts of speculation about why, but why bother? It’s all foolishness until we hear something definitive from the player, aside from a press release that raises more questions than it answers. So the team has kinda gotten used to having a diminished Messi, strange as that sounds. And the way that Neymar, Sanchez and Fabregas are playing, coupled with the way that Martino is coaching, you have to like our chances.
The team is also riding some luck in that Sanchez is in his salad days, and we shouldn’t be facing as many parked buses set up to stop Messi, which will open up the pitch for a player like Pedro. And Cuenca probably couldn’t have picked a better time to be fit, training with the group and clamoring for a shot at being in the rotation as a right-sided can opener. Expect to see him in a CL tie and some Copa action. Any way you look at it, this team is ready.
Now, for some blasphemy
ZubiZa and the board have mostly made the right decisions in having this club ready to deal with two Messiless months. I say mostly, because Thiago would have been rather useful right now, and the physio situation was clearly boneheaded. But that is history. Present is that the Neymar purchase was immense. In signing off on the acquisition of Neymar, Pep Guardiola already understood that his tactical bandage of having Messi carry the team wasn’t a viable long-term solution. The Ibrahimovic gamble failed. Time for the next move. Then Guardiola left, and things got loopy. But Neymar has demonstrated that he is ready to step up. He has been the man for Santos, and is the man for Brazil. Barça is a step up that he’s already ready for.
Then there was the appointment of Martino, a coach who seems to have transformed this club. But more notable than his tactical changes are the psychological ones. This club isn’t really interested in even considering the notion of losing. It’s steel.
Speaking of blasphemy …
If you get a failing grade in a class, who’s fault is that? An overzealous parent might say that the teacher failed the student. The teacher might say that the home environment for the student was such that doing the work was impossible. But at the end of it all, the kid didn’t do the work.
Likewise in the rush to assign blame for the Messi injury, don’t neglect a look at the player. There is homework necessary to stay fit. I have written this before, but it’s easy to slack off when demands increase. I can’t imagine what being Messi AND being a new dad must be like. But I would bet my house that unavoidably, things weren’t done that should have been. No blame. It’s just what life does.
Messi is a grown man who knows what he has to do. When the club promoted Juanjo Brau and jettisoned Emeli Ricart, no player or person associated with the club had more weight as regards making sure the right thing was done than Messi. Is he supposed to be demanding? When his ass is on the line, yes. You bet.
Think about the last time you went on vacation and changed time zones. You stagger off the plane, find some food and go to bed. Imagine getting off the plane, dealing with promotional events, maybe snagging a nap and then running around on a pitch for 90 minutes. Then some post-match stuff before heading to a hotel if you’re lucky, back on the plane to the next destination if you’re not. Now do it again. And again. Stuff that you were supposed to do, well and truly meant to do, is going to fall by the wayside. Impossible for it not to.
There’s also another factor – first-time fathers. Messi, Cesc, Pique. All going through some sort of slump after their first kids are born. Extra duties, new focus, their own needs are de-prioritised which is bad enough if you’re a normal 9-5er, let alone a top-performance anything. And these guys look like hands-on fathers to me, as much as they can be.
I’m suspecting that a lack of recovery process has a lot to do with it but, more importantly, his dietary regime must have slipped. The blame is being channeled to Brau who has been THE consistent factor throughout this whole period. But, according to LaTDP, Brau recommended that Messi see a dietician and he’s lost 2kg since summer, so something is definitely amiss in that area.
It’s Messi. Plain and simple. He hasn’t taken care of himself and hasn’t learned to say no. Plus his obsession with playing, playing, playing and no one standing up to him hasn’t helped.
His summer program was redonkulous. Time to give the charity thing a miss and concentrate on relaxing. Saw your comment about only one who could understand what he’s going through is Cristiano. Well, even Cristiano knows that the summer is for chilling, having a good time and recharging the body. Have never known him to go off on such stupid worldwide junkets as Messi went through.
I don’t care whether anyone else thinks the team was set up for Xavi – it was set up for Messi. We could function without Xavi when he was injured, but not without Messi. The whole team shape and performance went awry when Messi wasn’t on the pitch. It didn’t when Xavi couldn’t play and was replaced by Keita or Yaya. The tactics may have changed to suit Keita or Yaya, but the threat never went away. It did when Messi wasn’t on the pitch in the years after Henry & Eto’o.
I also wonder about his psyche. I think that the attention that Neymar and Alexis are now getting is playing on him, somehow. He’s not feeling as if he’s kingpin. Especially if he can’t play with an injury. And perhaps that’s also driving him to come back early because he feels the need to prove himself.
Plus, Tata now is forming teams to do without Messi – mainly to help him, but maybe he doesn’t see it that way? Perhaps he’s feeling less important?
It’s silly – we all know that. But he’s a 26yo kid who has hardly had a normal upbringing. The best thing they can do for him is have him work with a motivational coach like Bartra is doing.”
Can’t think of anything that I would change, or disagree with there.
And then …
Let’s not forget the show pony traveling cluster of a preseason that left the team in frankly, shitty shape. That’s on the board. Is the Messi injury also in part because of the evil moneygrubber running the club? You bet. All in all, a crap situation.
And anyone thinking this wouldn’t have happened if Guardiola was here, should reconsider. He set the table for Messidependencia. The board then screwed up by not realizing that the Messi reliance was a tactical reaction, not the way things are. The burden was too big. Take all of that, put it in a giant pot and it conspires to break the best player alive. And if it doesn’t change, he will break again and again.
Put another way, during the Guardiola years, Messi was durable. He was one of the team’s best defenders, and a demon on the press. As goals dried up and Messi became essentially the sole source of them, in Guardiola’s last year the Messi Rules came up as discussed by Sport and MD, in which the player was released from full-pitch duty so that he would be able to score goals. So he walked, or stood around until the ball came to him, then swung into action.
And it worked. He scored gobs of goals, even as the damage to the team on the defensive and pressing end was clear for anyone to see. “I’d rather have Messi scoring goals than pressing,” so many said. A few disagreed, but something more significant happened, for me.
When a player is said to be match fit, he has done the running in match conditions, where he has the speed and quickness, the match savvy necessary to function at the highest level, for a full match. When a player stops running, stops pressing and being a full part of the team, it will inevitably take a toll on his overall match fitness.
Stationary Messi worked for a while, but then — this is my opinion alone — match fitness started to diminish, coupled with the fact that Messi’s style is a series of abrupt, violent starts, stops and cuts. A player warms up to come into a match. If a player who was about to enter a match stood around, walked about then entered the pitch, people would think that player was crazy.
But pre-match warmup aside, that’s how Messi plays. Walk, trot, stand, explode into life, walk, trot, stand. Initially, when Messi would lose a ball, he would sprint after the player and fight to get it back. Recent Messi stands there and watches his teammates deal with it. He has a different job. But just as you warm up a car, you warm up a player. If he stands around, then suddenly sprints and makes a bunch of hard cuts, he isn’t going to stay healthy for very long.
Nerdy doctor stuff
I went nosing around to see what exercise physios have to say about recurrent hamstring injuries, and it’s interesting. One says:
“Sprinting subjects these muscles to high tension loads and sudden tears can occur.
“Chronic hamstring injuries usually arise from an improperly rehabilitated acute injury, but may occur as the result of small amounts of trauma repeated over a long period (i.e., distance running). Poor hamstring flexibility increases the likelihood of small tears, which in turn cause the muscle to shorten and get tighter. A vicious circle can become established.”
Here’s another one:
“… they are typically caused by overstretching or overcontracting fatigued muscles, and are generally considered an overuse injury. The basic causes are the following:
1. Overtraining. If you push hard every day, there is no time for muscles to rest and recover. Sprint training causes micro-trauma to the muscle fibers and is as tough as leg exercises in the gym. If you train hard every day, or even every other day, then there may not be enough time for your muscles to recover. Give your muscles time to rest, recover, and grow.
What about the past?
Anyone who says “Messi didn’t get hurt under Guardiola” is extrapolating the worldview that they want from an existing conclusion — particularly as the conditions leading to Messi’s injury were sown under Guardiola. If Guardiola were still coaching this club and the same crap was going on with the team and its star player, Messi would be just as hurt as he is now. Absence doesn’t absolve one from probability of partial culpability, because the issue is wear and tear, in addition to who was driving the car when it broke down.
To be sure, some boneheaded stuff was done last season, particularly after Messi was broken the first time, which was the time to make sure that he was properly healed. But. Take a coach feeling pressure of the ghosts of his predecessor, take a player who plays when he wants and probably isn’t above convincing physios that he feels better than he does so that he can do the thing that he loves more than anything (well, not any more, says Thiago Messi), and you get a rush back to duty at a time when the player should have been healing.
At the start of Messi’s career, he was playing football. Who the hell knows what he was eating, doing for preventive maintenance or anything. Guariola came in with a plan, and Messi stopped getting hurt because the player was being treated with a wholistic approach. But the player was also getting rest in between, because he wasn’t yet the Greatest Player Ever™. As he began to score more and more goals, become the subject of more and more highlight reels, that all changed. Rest got shorter as the load also increased. And he broke. Duh.
Take a driving trip, and what do you do when you’re hungry? “Luckily, we have a cooler filled with things we’re supposed to eat that are good for us. Let’s picnic.” Maybe. More likely, it’s “I’m hungry. What’s open around here?” And you do some kind of fast food, or something that isn’t part of any dietary plan that you might have.
Now imagine you’re Messi. Easy to see how things can get all screwy.
So, is it Messi’s fault that he is injured? Not completely. But he as as much culpability as the people who took advantage of him, riding him like a rented mule, rushing him back from injuries, setting him up to shoulder a load that he couldn’t long-term and waiting too damn long to get him the help that he needed. If Neymar wasn’t coming last year, there should have been somebody laid in to make sure that Messi didn’t have to do the Don Quixote against windmill after windmill. Yes, he scored eleventy billion goals.
But right now, who wouldn’t give a pile of those goals back to see a hale, hearty, grinning Messi, slaloming around defenders and slamming yet another improbable goal home.
Instead, you have a player who has a recovery program devised that is almost certainly longer than it needs to be. You don’t need 8 weeks to heal a hamstring. But you do need 8 weeks, liberal doses of home cooking and familiar arms to heal a hamstring and a psyche. Let’s hope it works.
Iniesta and you
This board is nasty. We know it’s nasty because stories came out recently that Iniesta, in his ongoing contract renewals, has deemed 12 million per year insufficient. And people wonder what is going on with a situation that should have been resolved.
The player has said that he isn’t leaving, and that money isn’t the reason for the holdup. He has spoken of a feeling, a lack of something essential that many suspect lies at the hand of Sandro Rosell, the very man who has said that he is going to take over the negotiations, to get them done. And he will look a hero when a player who has already said that he isn’t ever voluntarily going to leave Barça, stays.
So. What if the stories in the press about moneygrubbing Iniesta are plants to deflect attention from what he really wants and needs from a club that has jettisoned his favorite trainer (Ricart also nursed Abidal back to fitness), and created conditions in which his best friend will leave on a free in the summer. (Before you say “Valdes just wants a new environment,” it’s worth noting that by all accounts, he still isn’t speaking to Rosell. Further, a player who loves a club renews THEN leaves, so that the club gets something for him. They don’t leave on a free. That’s spite.) That “feeling,” that nebulous something or other, is absent.
Another story broke today, speculation is that it’s from the Iniesta camp (to offset the moneygrubber stuff) that the player is demanding the return of Ricart, who was not renewed this summer, as the real stall in negotiations. I could see that as more likely than 12m per annum not being enough. But people start talking about what Iniesta is worth, instead of the situation that is in fact making him mopey. Could the player’s talk about it not being money-related be false? Sure. And that would go against everything that Iniesta would appear to stand for.
How likely is that?
The sale you didn’t know about
Boy, remember how we were caterwauling about how Rosell had better not sell naming rights to the Camp Nou, blablablabla. Too late. Package deal with the shirt, in a lovely two-fer.
Look for part two of Levon’s most excellent adventure with Phil Schoen/Ray Hudson on Saturday.