Questions for 2017 and Messi’s hips

As Barça prepares to undertake the second half of the 2016-17 season, it’s a safe bet that the team will be focusing on two months, January and February as a season-defining stretch. Let’s look at the run:

1/5: Away to Athletic Bilbao in Copa
1/8: Away to Villarreal
1/11: Athletic Bilbao in Copa
1/14: Las Palmas
1/18: Copa (if advances to next round)
1/22: Away to Eibar
1/25: Copa return leg (potential)
1/29: Away to Betis
2/4: Athletic Bilbao
2/12: Away to Alaves
2/14: Away to PSG
2/19: Leganes
2/26: Away to Atleti

Yikes. Note that January brings a match every 3-4 days for the team. The biggest danger, as with last year, will be fatigue. The luck of this thing is that the next international break is at the end of March, with Champions League QFs (if Barça get there) not starting until an April 12 first leg. Recall the zombies walking around against Atleti in last season’s Champions League decider and breathe a sigh of relief.

That doesn’t mean that this fixture congestion over the coming weeks doesn’t present a number of dilemmas, thanks to transfer complexities. In the “for want of a nail” category, because Aleix Vidal didn’t work out to full satisfaction, Sergi Roberto is now the starting RB. Becuase of this, the ideal performer in as the Busquets sub is otherwise occupied. Meanwhile, Paco Alcacer is still working away at the process of assimilation, but because of that process, there is no effective sub for Luis Suarez. Key players still have no real sub, which is in part a consequence of their exceptionally high quality. That quality is scant consolation when stars are being worn down to a nubbin.

Andre Gomes can do some subbing for Busquets, as his assimilation is much farther along than Alcacer’s. Another up side is that Arda Turan has been exceptional on the left side when Neymar is absent. These two things give Luis Enrique a number of tactical flexibilities, something helped by having, for the first time in a long time, a mostly fit squad of outfield players now that Mathieu has returned to training with the group. (Only Cillessen, the Renegade Jogger, is absent.) Every body will be needed, because the only thing that has beaten Barça this year has been physical flatness. We saw it against Alaves, and again against Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad.

Schedules such as this are the reason that big clubs hoard players. Luis Enrique, potentially, has a pair of (almost) completely different XIs at his disposal:

Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar, Messi
Cillessen/Masip, Vidal, Mascherano, Mathieu, Digne, Gomes, Rafinha, Suarez Minor, Turan, Alcacer, ???

The rotation won’t be as complete but Luis Enrique is going to have to somehow buy time for his key players, assuming no respite provided by a dead rubber Copa return leg, which is about as likely as Milan Pique sleeping with a Real Madrid binky. So smart rotation and a coach fully in charge of his club will be essential. In other words, superstars will have to understand when to sit and when to self manage. Subs will have to understand their role and, frankly, step the hell up. There would be no better time than now for Alcacer, the hard-luck man of the squad who could with more luck have as many goals as Neymar, to start banging in goals instead of seeing yet another spectacular series of stops from yet another keeper. Any deep, serious struggle with an opponent has the potential for a knock-on effect later in that brutal period.

Only a maniac would believe that Barça could run the table during such an intense string of fixtures. Danger matches are Villarreal and Eibar away as well as that first Copa quarterfinal, the first match back from holiday away to a savage San Mames. And don’t forget Alaves, which comes a mere two days before the PSG Champions League away leg.


There are a great many questions about the Barça team, a group that divides opinion. In the treble season it was clear that there was a meanness instilled in the group, a holdover from its coach’s psychology. Is that savagery still there, or does success extinguish a flame? We have seen evidence of the latter this season against Alaves, La Real, Manchester City in the second half of the away Champions League tie.

But we have also seen that fire burning bright in the Celta Vigo fightback, at Valencia and at Sevilla. More importantly, we have seen it at home against Real Madrid, in a match that Barça should have won. We can talk about tactics and midfields until we are blue in the face, but the players will have to get it done, pretty or not. Eight weeks isn’t that long. A genius can rehab his knee in that time. But also, a team can establish how the rest of its season is going to go.

Bonus Messi

The Barça break has been good because in lieu of new Barça to watch, the man cave has been ringing with old Barça, hour after hour, minutes galore of Messi and asking myself, along with the rest of the world, “How does he do it?”

Every great has a physical advantage. Not many people know that Michael Jordan had the second-biggest hands in NBA history, bettered only with Wilt Chamberlain. At 7-foot-1, Chamberlain had 11.5 inch hands. At 6-foot-6, Jordan had 11.4 inch hands. That’s crazy. What that meant is that he always had control of the basketball because of those paws.

It is often stated that Ronaldo is more physically gifted than Messi because he runs like a gazelle and can jump higher. What people aren’t considering is the biggest advantage that Messi has, the thing that as near as I can tell, makes him unplayable (entering the realm of speculation now, so stand back):

Hips don’t lie.

The hip is a silly thing when you really think about it. It’s a ball, resting in a cup, balanced atop this flimsy latticework of bones. If you stop to consider it, it’s a wonder we can walk erect past the age of 19. But more than the hips, at issue here is a collection of muscles and tendons, about 17 of them. Even more specifically in this case, look at the adductor group and its party of five as of most interest. With Messi and Ronaldo, you have a V versus a tree — that is, the classic physical shape with broad shoulders tapering to the slim lower body, and someone built a lot like a mailing tube, at pretty much the same circumference all the way down. Further, look at the length of their strides and how open Ronaldo’s hips are compared to Messi.

Hips provide the base for an athlete. It’s the reason Right Ronaldo was such an exceptional scorer and space maker. Same for Luis Suarez. It’s the reason Neymar has to rely upon guile instead of strength, because of that comparative lack of a base. In sport, particularly power sports, coaches always talk about a “base.” This is what they mean. And the way Messi plays football makes it a power sport for him. In that vein, which should be prefaced by saying it’s nothing more than speculation as nobody has done a scientific analysis of this — I would bet my house that Messi has the strongest hips in the game, maybe even in the history of the game, even in the context of most athletes having weak hips. I would bet that Messi’s hips are also tight, and that part of his preparation focuses on keeping his hips loose and open.

The biggest advantage hip power gives Messi is the ability to do anything he wants with no lift. If you look at the goal from distance that he scored against Manchester City in Champions League at Camp Nou, he just strode through the ball. To be able to generate that kind of pace from no backlift is astonishing — verging on freakish. His passes are the same, as are most of his goals. It’s like he is running and the ball catapults off his foot while in stride. Compare that to Ronaldo, who does the more classic windup where the stride lengthens to provide a base for the force necessary to explode through the ball.

When a defender watches an attacker the shooter winds up, so there is a tell — a hitch in the stride, a lengthening of the stride, a pause to plant the foot — that lets the defender know a shot or a pass is coming. Messi shoots in the same motion, passes in the sme motion as he runs, which makes it impossible to know what he is going to do. The goal he scored against AC Milan in the famed Camp Nou remuntada in Champions League again, was struck with no backlift. He was surrounded by four players, but they were all essentially frozen because nobody knew if he was going to shoot or keep running, until … bang.

Messi has a history of hip and groin problems, which makes sense. His hips are a fulcrum, a lever, a battering ram and a base for propulsion. If you watch him run, he doesn’t stride as much as roll from the hips, with short, choppy strides that always keep him balanced. But it’s also easy to see how that running style can result in hip and groin injuries if the athlete isn’t careful. We always think that Messi runs less to preserve his energy, and keep his fast-twitch muscles from getting injured more often. But what if he’s protecting his hips?

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Happy New Year, Kevin.
    I was chuckling to myself while reading this, because I was watching the goal against Espanyol last night (once again), and I kept thinking, “it’s the hips, man!” Indeed, the hips. Here’s hoping they remain protected!

  2. Wow, this is a new year gift Kevin. Dont know if there is any sports blog in the world which can publish such a piece on such a technical aspect.. Brilliant it was, Congrats and thank you.
    I always have disagreements mostly with you, but this could be your magnum opus post.

  3. Watching RM at the Copa is an exercise in frustration. It’s not only that they are doing very well at dominating the game, it’s also the clear foul not given just before their second goal, as well as Sevilla players unable to hit an empty goal from a short distance. Which bargain with dark powers did Zidane make?

  4. Long time reading, first time poster. As a movement specialist with a focus on dynamic neuromusclar stabilization. I would agree and disagree with regards to Messi’s Hip being his distinguishing psychical characteristic. Yes, he has good hips in regards to his stability and mobility but its his core that allows his hips to move the way they do. He has a well developed core. what I mean by “well developed” is that he doesn’t have bulging six pack abs like CR7 but his core is well balanced. His core forms a cylinder that allows him create ideal intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize his torso and allow his limbs to move in the most balanced and efficient manner. If you compare his core to CR7’s, There are clear differences; Messi does have a six pack buts its not overly muscular, mostly likely from having a low body fat %. The sides of his core are filled in and not “hour-glass shaped”. CR7 sides almost form a sideways V, which disrupts his diaphragm from moving in a downwards direction. Comparing their physiques, Messi’s is actually more optimal because he doesnt have excessively toned and bulky musculature. Some of the most important muscle in the body are the deep stabilizer that are not visible. The deep stabilizer keep joints in the proper positions to generate efficient movement and power. If you pay attention to his superficial musculature (muscles you can see) you notice that they are not excessively big or toned like a bodybuilder (CR7). To me when I see an athlete that has a physique like CR7 I see muscles that are over worked and not functioning optimally. If you look the greats of every sport you notice that they don’t have bodies like body builders but they well balanced, Roger Ferder, Leborn, Aton Eaton and Messi all have musculature that looks quite balanced.

    Besides his core Messi has a efficient running patterns. His triple flexion and triple extension patterns are excellent, Most notably his triple flexion pattern(hip, knee, and ankle in 90 degrees) when his swing leg is driving forward. Notice what when he strikes that ground his ankle is in dorsiflexion (ankle pointing up) as he accelerates. Many football players and athletes in general have been taught to run on there toes meaning that they dont have a triple flexion pattern because when they strike the ground their ankle is planterflexed(foot pointing down) leading to loss in force and potentially leading to injury, CR7 does this ( scaring thing is he could be faster if he had a better triple flexion pattern). Furthermore, what makes Messi great is that he able to keep this triple flexion pattern as he dribbles and he does it in stride. Many footballers have to break stride when dribbling thus slowing them down. He is stride dictates his dribbling not the other way around. This is an incredible complex skill.

    Anyways, I just wanted to throw in my 2 cents in the discussion. Let me know if anyone has any questions on the topics that i discussed. Thanks

    1. First of all, welcome to becoming a speaking family member. Second of all, thanks for that super informative post. I had to learn a lot about my body, kinesiology and musculature as a result of being an aging athlete who wants to keep performing at a high level. So in thinking about Messi I brought a lot of that into the frame, but not the depth and knowledgeable extent that you have with this fabulous comment.

      Thanks so much and again, welcome officially.

    2. Wonderful and fascinating :). Great to have you here.

      There’s a lot of great information there to parse through, but I just wanted to ask you about something you mention with regards to ‘triple flexion’. I am getting the idea that we are talking about heel strike vs toe strike while running? If that’s the case, then indeed as a runner I am always told that heel striking is the thing to avoid in order to protect your knees among other things. But you seem to suggest otherwise. I may be wrongly interpreting here of course. My perennial runners knee issues have had me searching for answers for a while now. Thanks a bunch.

    3. Wow.. Thank you Flores.. what a comment. May be you should write a post here with more information on this topic, with some sketches too to help us understand better. Was a pleasure to read.

  5. Fantastic post and a fantastic first comment by @ Flores. You can feel the juices flowing. As for Messi aah well there is so much to ask that we marvel at but cant really fathom properly.

    Dennis Bergkamp was a technical footballer capable of the absurd technical highs. But he was also able to present/tell in great detail how he went about his business on the pitch. To read him accounting his moments of genius is breathtaking is surreal.

    I wish/dream Messi had the same ability to invite us in his processes because he is INCREDIBLE.

    Aaaa. Longings for understanding of genius.

  6. Great explanations from Kxevin and Flores! But – despite being a scientist – when it comes to football and especially Messi, I think I prefer myth and “it is not possible what he is doing” to science ; )

  7. Really cool to have a movement specialist reading, and now commenting! I came across another blog (in German, unfortunately for most of the readers here) a couple of years ago that did an indepth analysis of Messi, and it spent quite a bit of time on the mechanics of his body and movement, though not at the specialist level as Flores’. I found their analysis (and the entire site, actually) so interesting that I offered to translate it into English for them so it could get a wider readership, but I never finished it, alas.
    On the topic of musculature and the popular conception of what is ‘strong’ or ‘ideal’, I’ve done both yoga and aikido for 30+ years, and advanced practitioners of both have 1) strangely powerful cores and 2) not a one of them have ‘six-pack abs’. In fact that body configuration (six pack) is generally seen to be an oddity, and a sign that the person is excessively self-absorbed and does not understand where power is actually generated from.

  8. How the ref can not call a penalty for Neymar is astounding. Absolutely rubbish. Would be totally different game going into half. It’s as stone cold a penalty shout if there ever was one.

  9. I’ve a nasty feeling about this game (both in terms of score and injuries to come).

    All credit to Bilbao’s ferocious high pressing, they’ve outplayed us for much of the second half, but hitting another player hard in the throat? And how was that foul on Neymar in the box not the clearest of penalties?

  10. Well at least it’s great to have Barca back again!
    Don’t like all the bookings though. We’ll be lucky to finish with eleven. I’d rather they left it to Iniesta to put the case. Ref is quite right to book them ( although completely wrong on the call).

    We’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves by playing it backwards so much. We need more options around the man with the ball. Nobody can move it quicker in tight situations than us. Watching on a poor connection so not exactly sure what happened for the second. We were focussing on the stands at the time.
    Not over yet but we want to finish with eleven. LE has a big job to do from here in.

    1. I was thinking exactly the same about playing backwards. The team at times did brilliantly at playing out the back – then the ball arrives in midfield and gets played back again, ready to be run at by Bilbao players, until someone has to take a bad decision and the counterattack from Bilbao is on.

    2. I don’t know why they keep doing it – either there are no passing lanes due to lack of movement from others, or they play it overly safe. Quite often it’s Rakitic doing it, and it might be that Athletic (and others) are “allowing” him the ball due to this. He is a useful player but no passing dynamo. Oftentimes, Iniesta, or Messi, came running but Raki focused on maintaining possession. The problem, of course, is that we lose it often when ter Stegen has to hoof it (often after keeping it for ages)… Don’t know if I have ever seen a Barca game where this has happened as often. Not a good fit for this team.

      Either way, this was a really poor display overall, but let’s not get carried away. Athletic did well and we were obviously rusty. Still, this safety game has been a bit too prevalent for my taste.

      Neymar had a pretty good game, though, for stretches. But the team is weird at times, like it’s losing its structure.

  11. Btw, Flores, welcome ! Always good to see new contributors and what a first post.
    I was about to post that for me it’s the small steps and so many of them that make him so hard to handle. I was always taught that the dribbler’s vulnerable time is just after he touches it but with Messi they come do fast. However, I read your post and crawled away into a corner. 🙂

  12. This team playing the Messi system.I mean come on what was that right side today?Roberto Rakitic was a invisible attacking duo.Yes people can blame Suarez and how poor he was but really what is the point?What system that was?Give the ball to Neymar or Leo?Almost all our attacks from the Left and how many players in the box?And in defense again the same story.Our fullbacks nowhere.Roberto was by far the worst today.Alba sometimes plays like a friendly.Busquets well nothing new.We know it.Rakitic passing backward all time.If lucho wants to help the team he must fast change it to 3-5-2.We cant play 4-3-3 like that.We dont have right side.

  13. First goal was SO frustrating and 2nd a joke.Where was Alba?Why Roberto was not in his position?Why Alba clearance was so stupid?Why and i ask WHY we always concede so stupid goals?With 2 passes the opponent is in our box alone.Thats unbelieavable.From Pep years the same story.When someone will fix that defense?No i dont buy that “if we scored our chances and blah blah”.No i want my team to dont give so easy goals.

  14. Take Jesus and put him as number 9.If people believe that this is our problem ok.There are deep problems in whole team and system.

  15. Well i cant understand what Rakitic did in the game today.Did anyone can tell me?I said that Roberto was the worst but i change my mind.Did they really want to extend his contract?We need a new R side thats the truth.Cancelo and a new RW that can dribble.Leo must play more central and Gomes must start in big games.We need players that can dribble,play fast.No more safe plays.enough.

  16. I’m actually not too upset after last night about the result. I’m less sanguine about the issues I see with the team as a whole but more about that later.

    First though, the goals. I watched it on my laptop so couldn’t get the number of rewatches I would have liked on the game in general so I’ll stick to the goals at the moment.

    1st. It all starts with Iniesta and your view on it will vary according to how you feel about us trying to create chances which have a possibility of losing the ball. He shapes to hit a sensible ball out to the right wing with little danger but then snaps his foot closed ( I’ve never been able to do that ! ) to hit one through their defence at pace. No question that at least partly it led to the loss of the goal. Should he have taken the easier but possibly less productive option ? Given our lack of possession at that time, probably and I say that as one of his biggest admirers. However, after that it becomes easier for me. It’s not hard to have a look at the video below to see what happened. On your first few frames pause it and look at the position of our defenders.

    Ini has lost the ball and is desperate to make amends but not quick enough.
    Pique and Umtiti are in decent position given the sudden loss .
    You can see SR and Rakitic on the far side well goalside of events at this moment.
    Alba ? He’s not even in the frame so it’s fair to say he’s out wide when the ball is lost.

    No real problems so far but let’s look at what happens when we realise we have lost the ball. In reverse order Alba can be seen steaming into the picture at full speed. Given where the goal is eventually scored from that’s about a fifty yard sprint. He nearly makes it but to be honest even if he did he’s coming from behind which is no use and he’s never winning an arial duel with Adurriz.! So I’m not sure what he could have done better. Perhaps those blaming him could enlighten me.
    As I’ve said in an ideal world Ini would have been able to get goalside so you pays your money there. Pique and Umtiti for me behave absolutely as they should. Umtiti hedges his bets beautifully as long as he can between the ball carrier and the guy obviously going to get it then goes once the pass is made. Hounds him to the byeline to make the angle impossible for a shot. Well done ! Pique, likewise has to go with the man coming across him to the front post. No option. No blame.
    SR and Rakitic ? Go back and keep your eyes on their response . They are both way closer to the incident than Alba yet neither even breaks into a trot until it’s too late. When SR looks at Pique getting drawn to the front post who did he think would cover the back ? And Rakitic is even closer.

    Final word to TS here. For me, his positioning is all wrong. Once the ball is out within a yard of his byeline a shot is impossible. When he sees this he should be moving two or three steps back off his front post not standing outside it ! If it’s a cutback ( unlikely given the marking of Pique) he’s within throwing distance of the post. But even a cursory glance would show him that all the trouble is likely to be at the back post. Not saying he would have been able to stop it but not clever.

    2. Again, Ini not particularly clever for me. I think further into the game he wouldn’t have passed back to Alba trapped at his corner flag, he would have just turned inside with the ball and we were out of it. Not blaming him but I think they’d got into our heads a little at that point. Once he does that, Alba is trapped with two AB players bearing down on him. He has no passes on and Ini’s ball is hit hard to his weaker foot which he has to take on first time. Not the best clearance but not sure what we would realistically expect there. You can see from his body shape he’s not in correct position to send it any distance. Neymar was also certainly no help at that point with his position.

    After that Umtiti was with the right man. Could he have been a little more aggressive ? Maybe but it was a great flick. My bigger problem is with Pique and Busi. Busi stood in the one spot the whole time and didn’t even look behind him at Williams standing on his own, open. Not clever. Pique had a great view of the whole thing and should have been across earlier. I can only think that he was thinking about how they drew him to the front post for the first goal and was trying to split the distance between the two options but for me the bigger danger was Williams and he should have been across earlier. It was close to TS but hit so hard it’s harsh to give him any blame. Only thing I would say is that he’s developing the habit of not even moving for some of these and that doesn’t sit well.

    What I would say in defence of the defence is that , as we said above, they were pressed into action too much from a midfield unable to hold onto the ball. For me, Pique and Umtiti already look comfortable with each other and I expect great things once they get a few games together.

    Anyway, have a look for yourself.

    1. Jim, I am with you on Iniesta’s risk taking. Too bad it did not come off. Happens. Also agree about Pique’s alarming choice to “when in doubt, do nothing, not even the wrong thing”. It was just unbearable to watch on the second goal.

      But I am unwillilng to let Alba off the hook for the first goal. He seemed to have picked to go to (somewhere around) the post, but seemed to have no idea about the movement of the player who was actually attacking the post from behind him! He was there before Aduriz came up behind him. He got caught ball watching. And I have to go all Italian on marking against an aerial ball. Does not matter if you can or cannot win the header, if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself next to a taller opponent, jump, IMPEDE! Lucas Vasquez can irritate the hell out of Pique to let Ramos get a header in, so it’s not useless. At least contest it! But Alba did not know where Aduriz was in the first place, so…….

  17. Not a bad game after all, considering is Bilbao away, always a tough place. Very reachable result in the second game and im sure we will destroy them, just that in the quarters is RM and i dont like it. I rather leave Copa this season and concentrate on CL and La Liga, but we always go after all, don’t we?
    It’s funny how often (when you watch it from your TV) happens that the ball is with Ter Stegen, and few seconds later you have an opponent in your box with a scoring chance.
    It was a very demandig game from Bilbao but we had the opportunities to kill the tie even last night, but we did not.
    Neymar gets a plus for me for his performance.

  18. I left a replied to someone’s question but it says it waiting for moderation. Not sure what that means

Comments are closed.