Unai Emery has a problem. Or, well, sort of. There are damning statistics to back it up, which makes it look especially bad. Well it seems that way anyway when it’s splashed across a newspaper’s front page and then dissected in an article that contains an awful lot of numbers and incredulously arched eyebrows. The stats don’t lie! the article proclaims, before confirming the saying by twisting a few things to fit a narrative. It’s not that the article is wrong—by no means is Messi pedestrian against Unai’s teams—but it sort of fails to make the point that has to be made ad nauseam about Lionel Messi: it is not that Unai has a Messi problem, it is that all of football outside of FC Barcelona has a Messi problem.
I hate writing about Messi, but when it is time to write about a new season, his name pops up everywhere and rightfully so. He has wings for feet and he’s discovered not quite the Fountain of Youth, but certainly some sort of goalscoring god that requires additional tattoos as homage. I’m sure he raises endangered species in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. He has, uh, interesting suits. And also one time he scored 4 goals against Unai Emery’s Valencia in a league match.
That same year where he scored the “poker” against Valencia, Messi scored 73 goals in 60 official appearances. He may scored dramatically large numbers against Unai Emery teams—22 goals in 18 appearances!—but some years it’s like what the narrator in Fight Club said, “On a long enough timeline, Messi scores a hat trick against everyone.” His overall stats against Emery mirror his stats from that 2011-12 season when he knocked in 1.22 goals per match. Since 2008-09 he has scored a goal per match (370 goals in 372 appearances). No one in world football has scored more goals than Messi since then. No one has really come that close, with even Cristiano Ronaldo incredible statistics leaving him nearly 40 goals behind.
So Lionel Messi isn’t particularly nightmarish for Unai, but he is certainly capable of unleashing torrents of goals. He’s scored 4 goals in at least 2 other matches off the top of my head. It is not that Unai Emery has a problem. It is that the world cannot handle how insanely great Lionel Messi is. It is that there are simply no more ways to hype a Barcelona match because we’re all kind of hyped out through sheer constant brilliance of a small Argentine man. So then sportswriters throw out these absurd stats—22 goals in 18 appearances!—when Messi is beyond stats.
Messi is not the soft vapor covering a grassy field, the stalks heavy with morning dew as the sun rises slowly from behind the trees. It’s comforting to think he could be as mundane as that. If he’s anything in that scene, he’s the sun itself. Don’t look directly at him, he’ll make a Boateng out of you. I’m not the first to say it, but Messi defies description. He defies previews. He defies language itself. Sometimes I’ll find myself comparing an action in some non Barcelona game to Messi—“that goal was Messi-esque!”—but then immediately qualifying it—“except, you know, less smooth”—because Messi makes it all seem like he’s just floating a few feet above the grass. Everyone else has to work to score from 25 yards. Messi just turns you into a quivering pile giddiness unsure of what you just saw.
Coutinho scored a screamer to open Liverpool’s season with a bang and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Ibrahima Traore launched a left-footed banana shot into the corner in their cup match against St. Pauli, but while both were incredible and jaw-dropping, neither were actually the effortless moves that Messi regularly displays. And that’s sort of the whole point: Messi is beyond all of the regular awesomeness that we celebrate and he’s well beyond the worldly statistical garble—22 goals in 18 appearances!—that we create around him. What I like to think about Messi is that there’s actually some humanity left in him, something that can still go awry.
And here’s the thing: Messi can set fire to the world, turn an opponent into exasperated spectators, score blindly large numbers of goals, and most people will recognize that he’s having a pretty decent day at the office. So when you hear absurd stats—22 goals in 18 appearances!—you can look for the strange dark edges around that magnificence. Maybe Emery likes to look at that number and smile ruefully because he knows that 4 of those goals came in a single match, 3 others in another against Valencia, 4 in 2 matches when he was managing Spartak Moscow in the Champions League, and another hat trick on the day Messi overtook Zarra for most league goals of all time. That’s 14 goals in 5 matches, which means Unai can hang his hat, shredded as it may be by Messi, on the fact that in 13 other matches against Messi, the little Argie that could, did, and will, only scored 8 times. That’s something, I suppose, if you’re the guy tasked with trying to be the one who got 5 scoreless matches out of Lionel Messi.
You did it, Unai! Now let’s see if you can do it again.
Image: (Nov. 21, 2014 – Source: David Ramos/Getty Images Europe)