So. Lionel Messi has returned, after 59 days away from the lineup of FC Barcelona. He scored two goals, capered about like a colt unbound, and many people had similar reactions to the spectacle, to the tune of:
“I had forgotten how good he was in the time he was gone.”
For me, however, it was easy to forget because it’s been a long time since he HAS been that good.
Messi’s best is staggering. But Messi’s good to really good is still pretty astonishing. Athletes talk about a success capability, the range of possibilities available to a competitor. A cyclist does sprints at 250 rpm so that if he needs it, the capability is there. Messi is good. So good that he can not be at his absolute best and still be the best, scoring goals, delivering passes and assists and being a wonder of a footballer. It’s more than enough to get by, but his level best really has only rarely been required. Yes, he’s that good.
Having Getafe as the next-round Copa opponent was rather fitting, since it was against them that Messi scored That goal, the one that many point to as his greatest. He essentially either faked out or outran the entire Getafe defense before slotting home and essentially continuing his run.
Messi was 19 years old when he scored that goal, and what people forget is that Messi used to run like Pedro. As time passed and he became not only the best player on the team but the best player alive/cash cow/most in-demand athlete, all that stuff slowed him down. But that wasn’t all.
The last proper pre-season that Messi, or the rest of the team for that matter, had was the year that Guardiola took over the club. There was no silver, which meant no extra matches, no Club World Championships, SuperCopas, SuperCups, promotional appearances or friendlies. Who the hell wanted to pay to see a club that had won feck all, right?
That Treble year, the season essentially didn’t end. For season after season, on it went as through it all, Messi wanted to play. He would get injured, rush back early, the dude just wanted to play. Guardiola came, adopted a preventive training regimen that kept Messi from getting hurt and it was great, because that means that he could play even more.
Lionel Messi became a fixture in the starting lineup unless he was injured, or on rare occasions. He played Copa matches, Champions League matches, Liga matches, friendlies for club and country, qualifiers for World Cup, charity matches … you name it, Messi played it.
His regimen was adapted so that he didn’t have to run like Pedro, so that he could play as much as he wanted, as much as the world and his coaches wanted. The adaptation so that basically, our little wonder wouldn’t break under the strain.
And, during all that time, complexities began to arise as the demands and the burden grew. He trained, he fought off little knocks, probably lied about other ones, and kept playing because more than anything else in the world at the time, Lionel Messi wanted to play football. That’s all. Give him the ball and he’s happy. And what coach isn’t going to include the best player alive in his lineup? Guardiola did it, Vilanova did it, Roura did it under the guidance of Vilanova.
Then, last season, Messi broke. It was inevitable, really, but break he did. He rushed back, helped the club, then broke again. He rushed back, helped the club, then broke again. He got better, just in time for World Cup qualifiers, friendlies and a crapfest of a pre-season that along with club and personal demands, left a tired, messy Messi.
And then this season, his first under Tata Martino, he broke again. At the time, people nattered about things that were being done or not done. Others said it was simple fatigue. Whatever it was, he broke.
More interestingly is that for a long time, Messi had been self-managing so that he could keep playing. But because matches are really the best form of training, as he walked around, stood and watched his teammates press, run and play, the inevitable fitness loss happened. Look at this picture from the 2013 season, and note the little “Villa paunch,” as I like to call it.
Compare that to the dude in the top image.
So when we say “Man, I’d forgotten how good Messi was,” it’s because he hasn’t been that good for a long time. I can’t think, even as we watched Messi score goal after goal to break the record, when the last time was that he was bouncy, running in that effortless way that used to see him able to leave any defender in his wake. We watched him instead get chased down by defenders who shouldn’t have been able to get near him. We watched him focus on a seemingly impossible record, lock his focus on a goal and go, grim-faced, about his mission.
The numbers, the performances were amazing. But for me, watching Messi in that match last night brought about a facepalm to end all facepalms as suddenly it was obvious: No, it didn’t take 8 weeks to heal a hamstring. Duh. But it did take 8 weeks to give Messi, for the first season in too many, a proper pre-season where all he did was train, eat right and take care of his body. And we are seeing the results, as we see Messi as he should be, should have been but couldn’t be because of the life of a global superstar footballer.
Look at the run that led to the cross for Sanchez, and the way that Messi accelerated away from people to find a clear piece of space. Look at the first goal he scored and how locked-down his control was of a difficult ball, the kind of control that showed a fully engaged player. And the second goal … all I could think about were the Pepe Le Pew cartoons, where the cat was running full speed to try to escape the amorous skunk, who just loped down the road, always just ahead of her. Those Getafe defenders were running. Messi just seemed to be loping in a pocket of space, in the middle of a green-shirted phalanx until suddenly, he stopped and detonated.
That Messi. For the first time in a long time, our superstar is mentally and physically fresh, and it shows. The challenge now for Tata Martino, will be maintaining and honing that edge. The best part about it is that the World Cup qualifications are over, and there are no friendlies, save one just before spring in Qatar. There is just FC Barcelona football, and training. Yes, there have been periods where that has been the case, but instead of trying to dig out from a mess, he is fit, honed and fully rested.
People don’t remember how good this Messi was because it’s a different Messi. So I, like everyone else will say “Welcome back,” but for me it’s been a much longer wait when I really think about it. All that it took to remind me was a couple of accelerations, a couple of runs and a couple of goals. Men against boys for the best player alive, which is how it should be.
Welcome back, indeed.