The weird thing about iconography is that it requires stasis. We like to freeze idols in time, even as time moves on. So it is with Lionel Messi, the greatest player in the history of the game, who could, in his athletic dotage, still be the most decisive player in the game.
In 2017-18, the first year Ernesto Valverde managed Barcelona, Lionel Messi scored 48 goals for club and country. If you exclude the batch for Argentina and look at his Barcelona goals, only three goals from open play were scored from outside the box, and all of those were just outside the box. Further, if you watch Messi play that season, he was pretty much always in the box when Barça had the ball, so his goals came almost entirely from him popping up in a space where the opposing defense was doomed. And with a great many of those goals, he also had open shooting space, rather than having to make his own space.
Even more interesting is that so few of them were MESSI goals, mazy, crazy dribbles that were the stuff of highlight reels. His dribbles were short, usually to make space, never to take on defenders directly. There were lots of 1-2s and wall passes on his path to becoming an effective, rather than a spectacular player.
His total for club and country went up to 51 the following season, and the trends continued. And when Messi made runs they were close to the box, runs to compress space rather than take on defenders. But again, his goals were not only in the box, but shots that were, for the most part, easy for Messi. His XG and conversion rates were otherwordly because how could they not be. You give a player of that talent the ball in the box, in space and with shooting space, he’s automatic.
History isn’t kinder to Valverde because of two matches: Rome and Anfield. But the reason Messi liked Valverde, the reason all the older players liked him is because he understood how to shape a game to suit their strengths. If you have the best scorer in the history of the game, whyever would you have him farting around in midfield? The deeper Messi is, the more work he has to do in order to become dangerous.
Mike Goodman wrote a really good Champions League matchday preview that looked at Messi and didn’t paint a pretty picture. The stats therein were sobering, numbers that, prima facie, told the tale of a player in steep decline. But Messi has been in physical decline for years. Valverde changed the attack, changed the way Messi used the ball and the positions in which he received it in a way that masked that decline. Scoff at Paulinho all anyone likes, but he was a boon for Messi as a midfielder who could play 1-2s on the move and charge the box.
When Valverde was fired, Setien came in with all his talk of ideals and immediately, Messi became less Messi as play got messier. Under Koeman that trend has continued. In both cases, the reality of a broken team meant that Messi took more of the load upon his shoulders, made more runs and defenders, got the ball in statistically challenging places. It’s no wonder his production has fallen precipitously. He’s trying lower-percentage shots as well, and even shots in the box now are under more pressure from defenders.
Koeman’s team isn’t broken as much as it is playing the type of football that doesn’t prioritize Messi, for as many laudatory things as the Dutch manager says about Messi. Valverde did, even as it wasn’t Messidependencia as much as it as Maximizing Messi.
But as we watch Koeman’s players carry the ball, run hither and yon and don’t really progress the ball as much as slash it up the pitch, it’s no wonder he sees the value in a runner such as Depay, or a midfielder like Wijnaldum. In the absence of that type of player, Barça XIs are stuffed with technicians and precious few protagonists, players who can make stuff happen. And with Fati down to a knee injury, Messi in many lineups sits as the sole protagonist, a complexity exacerbated by players who recognize that and insist on feeding him the ball in places where he shouldn’t be getting it. So Messi has to try to be the player he was, rather than the player he is.
Messi has been declining. Players he used to outrun have been catching him from behind for years now. Messi has been becoming a different player right before our very eyes, but we’ve been kinda ignoring it because we want to see MESSI. We’re hooked on the golazos, the defenders strewn in his wake as he bangs in another worldie. Those days are gone. His leaving Barça would have been an opportunity to rewrite his script, to be more Clark Kent than Superman. Now that he’s been forced to stay, it’s in a team that needs him but can’t properly use him. So there he sits, a man out of time in every sense of the phrase.
Messi should, at this point in his career, either be a 9 or a controller. His reflex is such that he defaults to superman, even as he is now more mortal. And if Koeman is going to keep Messi, he’s going to need to adapt his approach to play to account for a player who can still be the greatest in the game, provided his team adapts to him. The age of 30 is still a brutal number for an attacking footballer, and Messi was no different. He just lived in a hothouse that still allowed him to thrive.