FC Barcelona is Messi’s team.
For years, such things have been intimated, really since Pep Guardiola decided to unleash Messi as a false 9, but they have always felt premature. Scoring the most goals and influencing matches with brilliance doesn’t mean that it’s your team, nor does being the most talented among the captains.
This season is the very first season in which it can be truly and fully said that this is Messi’s team, as the boy genius who has seemed perpetually young even in his mid-20s, became a man. It isn’t just the hardness around his face, that chiseled edge that speaks as much to maturity as fitness. From this chair, four things happened that made the adulthood of Lionel Messi as clear as can be, and truly stamped his authority on Barça:
The right wing
When Messi exploded into vibrant, fantasy football life, it was from the right. This was of necessity as much as anything else, because Barça had Eto’o and Henry running around. But from false 9 days on, Messi became a beast of the center of the pitch, able to make his runs and score his goals from a space that gave him full access to both angles. Coaches tried to play Messi on the right before, once the false 9 goal blizzards began, and it didn’t go well. This season, there he was on the right, and he gave everything. No pouting, no sulking, match after match. Media types and supporters called Enrique a fool for doing this, for taking his best player away from where he could do the most damage, and neither he nor Messi cared, because they understood what was going on.
When it first started, some called it a launch pad rather than a prison, but Messi playing on the right and happily doing so was more than that. It was an important step in the full and complete maturation of a footballer. It was important that Messi play on the right because that was what the team needed. It shifted the attack, opened up the pitch for the likes of Neymar, Sandro, Munir and eventually Suarez, it created a positional fluidity that found all three attackers popping up anywhere. People considered Messi position on the right and suggested that he would be able to score more goals from the right, having only a fullback to beat, etc, etc. But it wasn’t about goals – it was about influencing the match in a decisive way.
It has always been considered that scoring goals is the most effective way that Messi can help Barca. His dynamic, match-changing play from the right wing put the lie to that notion. Messi embraced the right because he knew. He wasn’t ready to embrace it when Martino tried it, but he also knew that the team didn’t have the pieces for him to thrive on the right. Enrique did. But even more than that, it was the first sign that Barça’s best player was interested in being a full and complete team player.
Giving Neymar some
Barça was playing Sevilla, and won a free kick. It was automatic, the presumption that Messi was going to take the ensuing free kick because aside from the occasional moment of deference to Xavi. Messi takes all of the Barça free kicks and penalties. He and Neymar chatted briefly, then Messi stepped back. Neymar hoofed it, and golazo. Logically as a left-footed player, it made sense for Messi to let a right-footer take that shot. It opened up the option for the curler into the near corner, thus enhancing the possibility of a Barça goal. But Barca has gotten free kicks in similar positions before, and Neymar has never been allowed to take one, until now. Messi understands that if a group of attackers is going to truly and fully equal, small gestures are important. Neymar knows that he isn’t as good a free kick taker as Messi. So does Messi. But a leader does this.
Then in May, during a shellacking of Cordoba in which Neymar was having one of those “ass over teakettle” matches, in which he just couldn’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn. And then, PENALTY! Everybody knew, once again, that Messi was going to take it. But again, Messi and Neymar chatted briefly, and Neymar stepped to the spot. Goal! Neymar got a goal, got a very positive feeling from what could have been a psychological mess of a match for him, and quite possibly got the mental boost that made him the player who helped put Bayern to the sword.
The free kick and the penalty kick being handed over by Messi were huge. Only the Sevilla free kick mattered for the final scoreline, and whether you want to call it deference or benevolence, the effect was massive.
Those Atleti goals
Atletico rolled into the Camp Nou, the team that Barça had not, in try after try the previous season, been able to beat. They attacked with a flooded midfield, and the answer was really a simple one even as it was one that ran counter to everything that culers had come to believe in: bypass the midfield. It made perfect sense, because if an opponent creates a danger zone, why not just go around or over it? But years of institutional arrogance, for lack of a better descriptive, demanded that Barça work its magic, set up triangles of sprites and work its way toward a logical, lovely goal. But when Messi charged at Atleti, they didn’t know what hit them. He was in the box so quickly, faked that defender out of his boots so adroitly that panic set in. In past years, Messi would have taken that shot. Atleti was playing him to take the shot. So when he slid that ball across the box to Suarez that eventually became a tap-in for Neymar, Atleti was stunned and on the back heels.
But it was the second goal that was all the more stunning, because it had been some time since any of us had seen Messi with the kind of determination and pace that seemed almost violent. He chested the ball down on the dead run so that it landed in front of him, in stride. What you see in Messi’s wake is four Atleti players all running in from the midfield that had been abandoned by Barça, a futile chase in an effort to stop what was inevitable. Messi ran at the defense and cut toward the center, his usual stomping ground. The defense played Messi for the shot, because what else would you do. It’s Messi, in the box. But without even breaking stride Messi slotted a lovely diagonal for Suarez, who bashed home.
Both of those goals were essentially created by Messi. In the past, those might have been “Oooooh!” runs that sparked the “So close” posts in social media as Messi tried some shot from a crazy angle that was parried by the keeper. But by making that extra pass, chances became sure things. Messi was more interested in putting the knife in. More importantly, he had the trust and confidence to know that Neymar wasn’t going to miss.
Messi the protector
Late in the championship-cliinching match, Atleti, and in particular Diego Godin, had gotten just about enough of Neymar, who had been winding them up as usual in the match, gamesmanship for him but personal for them. Godin snapped, and wanted to have at Neymar. Who was it that got in Godin’s face and pushed him away from Neymar? Messi. In the past during rows such as this, Messi was always standing off in midfield somewhere, looking at the fools who want to do stuff other than score goals and make magic. Even when Messi was fouled as the catalyst for such a scrum, he was always at a dignified reserve. Not today, not this year, not against his team. He took Godin away, then took Neymar aside to keep him from doing something that could potentially create an opportunity for Atleti. And subsequently, he stood, face-to-face with another Atleti player, jawing and not even considering backing down.
Badass Messi has always been the player on the pitch, on the attack, who does magical things to beat a team. Badass Messi has never before been the player who sticks his chest in to defend his team, in their house. At the end of a season that cemented this Barca as Messi’s team, those actions from the smallest player on the pitch made clear what so many had been saying for years: this is Messi’s team.