A look. A lot of things begin with a look. A friend had an Aussie named Jazz, and if another dog looked at Jazz and held eye contact, it was on.
An award-winning portrait captured Lionel Messi during the World Cup final ceremonies, looking at the championship Cup trophy. In his face you can see longing, a bit of anger and more than a bit of determination. Fast-forward to the current Barça season, when people who observed Messi early on, said that he was “connected.” It’s not all that difficult to wonder if a season as the ultimate team leader and undisputed best player in football was born from that moment of global failure.
As with the famed “Messi es un perro” article, like my friend’s Aussie, if you cross Messi, it’s on. Foul him, and you can expect a dribble. Attack Neymar, and watch him rush to his teammate’s defense. He is as likely to eviscerate you with a header pass as a mazy slalom solo goal, and he has mastered the diagonal rainbow to a rushing Jordi Alba or Neymar. Messi’s focus this season has been preternatural and complete. He’s an indispensable part of Barça, and an immense ingredient to the team’s success, even as you can and should take issue with those who lay it all at his feet.
Messi is disarming. You watch him score goals such as the one that he did against Athletic, and you can’t process it. He does things that ordinary players don’t even have the ability to consider. In thinking about Lionel Messi, when contemplating he and what he does, you have to think of the many great athletes who came before him, players who defined a game in ways that leave it forever changed. Those greats weren’t just great because of performance. They were great because their regard for boundaries was meaningless because their skill set gave them a different set of restrictions. When Tiger Woods hit some of the shots that he tried, in his prime. When Michael Jordan drove to the basket against the Lakers in the NBA championship, switched hands in mid-air to avoid the defense, then made the layup. Great players have a different set of tools.
When Messi was making the move that made Jerome Boateng fall over, or dancing around the Athletic defense as though they were stationary training pylons, he isn’t thinking, “I’m doing something great.” He’s thinking, “The goal is that way.”
In the wake of moments such as the Messi goal, people ask great players what they were thinking, what was the rationale for the move. Inevitably, those players are almost struck dumb and the world is amazed by the simplicity of the response. Jordan didn’t do that move for posterity, he did it because he had to score that basket and the first path was blocked. Messi took advantage of Boateng expecting him to go left. Woods had to get to the green in one stroke. It’s simple, when you think about it. “Well, this has to happen.” It’s just that the brains of great players work differently.
At an Indianapolis Formula One race I had the pleasure of watching Michael Schumacher, who had to run a series of laps at qualifying effort to consolidate a strategy. To watch him hit the same corner apex at the same spot, so flawlessly that a sheet piece of white paper would have been perfectly blackened by the end of that stint, was a marvel. A friend who races cars turned to me and said, after about the seventh or eighth lap, “That’s impossible.” The greats have extra stuff. They see their world differently. It isn’t that other players can’t see the passes or runs that come so naturally to Messi. They don’t even have the same kind of eyes.
Messi, therefore, dominates discussion in a way that is correct, with caveats. When Jose Mourinho waxed rhapsodic about Messi, saying that he is the eternal difference maker, the response to that is “Well, duh!” Having a player like that changes everything. Messi is like a nuclear deterrent, except the other nation has only conventional weapons. All you can do is hope that he isn’t all THAT interested in your destruction. You gaze carefully, cautiously at his visage as you shake hands pre-match, hoping that you don’t see Messi murderface. If you do, just turn around and walk back to the locker room, first asking the ref if you really have to go through the full 90 minutes.
His influence is so outsized, so astonishing that it’s easy to forget what Barça is like without Messi, in part because Messi always plays. Every match, every big match, every borderline meaningless match, Messi plays. He’s like a utility, really, a wonderful everyday service that you take for granted. Think about opening the tap and having fresh, clean, drinkable water come out. Are you KIDDING me? That’s Messi, an astounding thing that has become almost commonplace. It takes goals like the Athletic effort to make people remember. “Oh, yeah. He isn’t from this planet.” But his omnipresent brilliance can also tend to make people overrate him and underrate his team. Jose Mourinho said that Arsenal could win a Champions League with Messi, an assertion that is absurd even as you can agree with his belief that Messi is the ultimate difference maker. Plop Messi into that Arsenal XI and he’s still playing with players who aren’t at that absolute level.
In 2014, Messi tore his hamstring on 10 November in a 4-1 win over Betis. He returned to action on 8 January as a sub in a Copa match vs Getafe. During that period, Barça didn’t exactly suck. If you look at this season, the Messi-less XI would be Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar, Pedro. That team would beat most teams on the planet. What Messi does for a side is add a level of the capricious, the impossible, the pass or run that come out of nowhere to facilitate a goal scoring foray. He also freaks everyone the hell out. He gets the ball, and defenders just think, “!!!!!!!!!”
But as tantalizing as it is to think of Messi as essential, and credit Barça’s success to Messi, both worldviews are erroneous, assertions rooted in his omnipresence. It’s easy to say that Barça wouldn’t be in the Champions League final without Messi because the notion doesn’t enter the realm of the possible. He’s there. He’s always there. He had a hand in all the goals that built the insurmountable lead. It’s Messi, always Messi, a player whose durability and endurance is as amazing as his output.
People who coach him have the same problem that Phil Jackson had when he had Michael Jordan. “You have Jordan. Duh.” Then Jackson went to the Lakers, and it was “You have Kobe and Shaq. Duh.” There is no answer for the superstar, nor is there consideration for the difficulty of properly utilizing the superstar. Like Messi, Jordan wanted to play all the time. Pickup games, practice games, street ball, Jordan always wanted to play, and win. He got angry when subbed just as Messi does. And just like Messi, he was capable of taking over a game on both ends of the pitch. Defend, make the steal, lead the break, feed the guard, dunk the ball. And like Messi, when Jordan wasn’t there, during his baseball foray, the Bulls didn’t win, which proves that he is essential, right? Well, maybe.
Of Messi, Enrique said, “Messi is the best in the world, probably in history, but his environment is extremely beneficial for him.”
It’s easy to pooh-pooh that as a coach sticking up for himself and his team, both of which are buttressed by the best player in history. But it’s a fair ask to wonder how many defenders Messi would be running at if the forwards were Pedro and Munir instead of Neymar and Suarez.
Pedro plays on the left wing, like Neymar, but that’s where the similarities end. Munir moves constantly and intelligently, just like Suarez. That is where the similarities end. Pedro and/or Munir aren’t going to kill you by themselves, like Neymar or Suarez will if given a sliver of space. Because defenses have to account for their presence, Messi gets space, more space than when he was playing in a more tactically limited system, with Pedro and Sanchez. Teams reacted differently to the Neymar/Sanchez combo, the preferred duo when Messi was out because there wasn’t one man to key on. Sanchez thrived as did Neymar, because defenses relaxed. There was more playing space, and the goals still came. With the return of Messi the middle got congested again as opponents set up to stop him and only him, again as with Jordan, where Chicago Bulls opponents said, “If John Paxson and Scottie Pippen can beat us, go right ahead.”
What is unlike Jordan is that Messi has never played on a mediocre team. He didn’t have to prop up any Granville Waiters, Luc Longleys or Bobby Hansens. Messi’s trophyless seasons were more attributable to underachievement by top players than low-quality teammates. Messi made his debut in a side with Ronaldinho, and was there when Guardiola’s Barca hit its imperious stride. Put Messi on, say, Levante and feel free to speculate about what might happen.
None of this means that Enrique’s comment or this post intends to diminish Messi. That is impossible. Nor is it the equivalent of “Well, let’s see him do it on a rainy winter night in Stoke.” That’s stupid, because a swan doesn’t have to wallow in the mud to prove that it is a swan. Beauty is its own standard. So is sporting excellence. And in a weird way, just as the effect of Messi is overrated by some, the effect of his presence is in a strange way, underrated. Put Messi on the pitch with his leg in a cast, and he will still occupy defenders. Because you never know. That’s what genius does. So Barça can win matches even when Messi isn’t fully present or off form, because he’s there. He is that anomaly that makes everything around him better, more glittery, like a human disco ball.
Chiellini has said that Messi wouldn’t score goals like his Copa goal vs Athletic in Serie A, which is an absurd statement by a player who should know better, not because of the potential for winding up, but because unless Serie A is being played by non-humans, the statement is invalid. Messi didn’t score that goal because of crap defending or poor keeping. Messi scored that goal because he became a living, breathing cheat code. He made Jerome Boateng fell over, THEN beat the best keeper in the world. There is a video of Messi owning great players. And while you can certainly quibble about the ultimate “great” qualities of some of the players in the video, you can’t argue with the fact that Messi is facing off against the best players in world football, and making them resemble pub league dilettantes.
As this Champions League final winds up and the match progresses all eyes will be on Messi, awaiting magic, that next moment that will suck the breath out of a stadium. But what makes Messi great is what he does in between those moments, the way he makes his teammates better — in the way, this season, he is doing everything better. Is it a consequence of Messi that we are seeing the best Messi ever, or is Enrique right in giving his surroundings some of the credit? Give Sandro a pass that Suarez controls easily, and what happens? Without Neymar making space or having the skill to play at the same hyper-speed as Messi, what happens?
But even beyond all that, this is a leaner, meaner, more complete Messi who, at 27 years of age, can still improve. He is more determined, more captain-like, more willing to do anything to help his team achieve the ultimate success. And after what seems an eternity ago, as the best player in the world stared at the ultimate prize in football, don’t you wonder if the genesis for this season, for This Messi, took shape right then and there.