“Leo is priveleged. He’s a genius. One of the greatest athletes of all time. Athletes, not just footballers.
… And I was there as a coach and we were planning to do this or that and I thought, ‘and we’ll get the ball to Messi and that’s that, we’ll score. Only the best of time is able to do that.
… And the best thing about him isn’t the exceptional things that he does. The greatest thing about him is that no one does the easy things as well as he does. No one.
… There’s not a bad control, a bad pass, all the things they teach you as a kid to keep simple. I’m not talking about dribbling three players and scoring, or about the other things we know that he does …
The best thing to teach kids about him is to watch the easy things that he does better than anyone else. Everyone makes them complicated, they want to add stuff, he keeps it simple.”
— Pep Guardiola
Those are excerpts from Guardiola talking about Messi on a radio interview. What is remarkable about them is not only the reverence, but the understanding of a great player and his physical and psychological effect. Those effects have changed over time, one expanding, the other becoming even more iron clad, something seen in how Messi is fouled these days. Opponents will kick almost anybody else. If they foul Messi it’s almost apologetic, becuase nobody wants to be the one to piss him off.
Yet when he is wronged, Messi is evolving there as well. The miscreant might not get a nutmeg, might instead get a perfectly placed rainbow that results in a goal or great scoring chance. A Twitter account, Between the Lines, said this of Messi on the day everyone was celebrating his 30th birthday:
This season, Messi was Barcelona’s deep-lying playmaker, their controller, and still managed to score more goals than anyone else in Europe.
The only thing that came to my mind was that, right about the time that Michael Jordan reinvented himself (after retiring at age 30 to play baseball for a season), Messi is doing the same. The hoops star returned as Jordan 3.0, a more complete player than the scorer he left as. He was assisting, defending, developed an unerring jumper, brought the three-pointer into his arsenal, even added a fadeaway. This happened even as people weren’t all that capable of moving on from slashing, driving Jordan and waited for dunks and stuff instead of realizing and appreciating this amazing new player. It took a while.
Messi, too, became Barça’s deep-lying playmaker and controller this season past (one of his best) because he understands, even if so many of his supporters don’t yet, how the game and his abilities are changing. He is adapting, becoming Messi 3.0.
People snarled when he moved back on the pitch under Luis Enrique, but coach and player understood. Messi is now on the path to becoming the most devastating player ever, in all aspects. Messi doesn’t care if he scores, or Alba, Suarez or Neymar. He just wants his team to win. Whether that’s a pass or a slalom run doesn’t matter to him. He has depersonalized the game and ascended to the next level in doing so.
Messi’s stats last season were already astonishing, but imagine how they would have been had his teammates had an even reasonable conversion rate. There was a recent video of 50 great chances created by Messi this season, all spurned. Even if we assume a normal, twenty percent conversion on those passes, how might the season have looked. He created chances against Alaves, Juventus, Deportivo, Betis. It would have been his greatest season as an overall force for his team in reality as well as theory.
Often supporters and fans aren’t really all that interested in their idols and growth. As one person said on Twitter, “Messi turning 30 makes me feel old.” If Messi isn’t the rolling, rumbling, tumbling dynano of the past, then what are we? It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of a player rather than a team, to watch but not see as that player and the team change.
As with the season under Gerardo Martino. Luis Enrique’s last season was a few bounces and conversions away from being something special, even if that is difficult to grasp because what we see is what happened, rather than what almost happened. Reality is the arbiter, the objective reality that gets cast aside for subjective evaluation when convenient. Barça, even when it doesn’t have the success that its supporters crave, is still an astounding football team that lives on razor-thin margins but always hovers close to excellence.
That team has the best player in the history of the game, a player who is now 30 years old and is about to be married. He is different now, evincing anger, rushing to the aid of teammates who have been treated unjustly, becoming what he watched as he grew up as a player, examples of comportment set by Xavi, by Puyol. Messi understands his next steps, how he has to grow and change to become that next player, the one it will take us a while to suss. Messi deeper on the pitch isn’t a waste, but a new opportunity for magnificence.
Messi has a new coach now in Ernesto Valverde, a Mister who must make transfer moves, shape and hone his team into something capable of meeting the standards set by its predecessors. The biggest question, of course, is what is his vision for Messi? This is true even as Messi himself doesn’t care about anything except his team, would sideeye people who assert that someone, somewhere is wasting his years and time. He’s a team player.
Winning has a finite window, that period where a team is performing at its maximum, a window that can be opened and closed by injuries, assimilation difficulties and other things.
For people who watch Messi, who watch and see the player, this season is one of the most exciting for what it means for him as well as what it meams for his team. Muhammad Butt over at Squawka wrote an excellent piece on what to expect from Messi in his 30s. It also clearly lays out why this season, and the seasons to come, will be so thrilling.
Barça will need to make moves in the transfer market, smart ones, to enable the necessary evolution of the team. Some of those moves will be unpopular. The Bulls signed Dennis Rodman, a head case from the Detroit Pistons because they recognized the reality of Jordan moving back on the court and the necessity of replacing his rebounds. The Rodman signing was greeted with nigh-universal scorn by Bulls supporters, but Rodman became the player that allowed the Bulls to reach a new level.
Transfer rumors come and go, but nobody knows anything. There is nothing to react to. Umtiti? Digne? Out of nowhere. Valverde’s vision of how to use Messi and the team will shape what happens.
Until then, we have anticipation, and celebrating the best to ever play. What is the best thing we can give Messi for his 30th birthday? Patience and understanding as he, and the team around him, evolve.