DOHA, Qatar — The conceit was easy, forward of Argentina’s closing group sport towards Poland: What should you merely watched one participant for 90 minutes? And that participant, one of many undisputed GOATs, may properly be taking part in his final World Cup sport ever. So, pen and pad in hand, I did what I’ve by no means achieved earlier than: chronicle one man’s each second on the pitch.
Spoiler alert: Argentina beat Poland, 2-0, which implies this wasn’t Lionel Messi’s closing look at a World Cup. You will get to see him once more, perhaps as soon as, perhaps two, three and even 4 occasions in Doha. And, sure, there’s a probability — by no means say by no means — that he might flip up in 2026, though he turns a venerable 36 this summer time.
Regardless of having watched Messi for the previous twenty years — maybe 500-plus occasions on tv and at the very least 100 occasions in individual — whenever you zero in on him and nothing else, you decide up issues you do not in any other case see, in addition to getting affirmation of stuff you suspected. Listed below are some I picked up towards Poland:
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1. Messi walks round a lot of the match
It is the character of the sport to be strolling when the ball is not close to you, however Messi does it way over most. This, we knew: Bobby Gardiner’s seminal evaluation of Messi strolling by way of the 2018 World Cup is an incredible learn. While you look solely at him, although — one thing you possibly can actually solely do in individual — it’s completely outstanding how disengaged he seems to be from all the pieces else.
He does not monitor runners, he might stick out a leg if an opponent is close by, however largely he simply strolls round. Typically he is trying within the common course of the ball, typically not.
You are tempted to assume it is power conservation — in any case, the person is 35 years previous — and strolling means it can save you up power for when it’s good to dash. Besides Messi, particularly at nationwide crew stage, has been doing this for a very long time.
2. Messi has two different speeds: the seldom-used trot and the rarer-style dash
The trot is what he makes use of when he must get from Level A to Level B in a rush, normally to keep away from being offside or to take a set piece. The dash is unleashed when the ball is with somebody he is aware of can ship it to him or when he wants to drag a defender out of place. It is not one thing we see typically, however, when it occurs, it may be devastating.
I counted 4 events, there might have been extra. He sprinted in direction of the far put up to win a header (and the beneficiant penalty, which he then missed). He took off as quickly as Wojciech Szczesny parried Julian Alvarez’s shot, as if he knew Alvarez would get well the ball and cross it. On the opposite events, he whipped a ball excessive of the defender to the flank and took off into house, assured that he’d get a return cross (typically he did, typically he did not).
3. Most of Messi’s dribbling runs are usually all the identical
What I imply right here is that the overwhelming majority of the time, he receives the ball both at a standstill or at a trot after which both stops earlier than taking off once more or spins into house. He is deceptively fast with the ball at his ft, which appears counterintuitive, and he takes on opponents on a regular basis. He does not appear to thoughts dropping the ball, which occurred fairly a bit towards Poland, maybe as a result of he is giving it away in areas the place it will not damage Argentina (and maybe as a result of his teammates modify to the likelihood). Whether or not he loses it or whether or not he beats three or 4 opponents, the impact was the identical: opposing defenders converge on him, no matter defensive form was in place is now warped, which implies openings are created elsewhere.
4. Messi’s passing social gathering trick is extraordinarily powerful to defend
There’s a traditional Messi cross from central positions, which, like a Garrincha dribble, opponents know is coming however merely cannot cease. He will get the ball centrally, he fakes a dribble after which twists his physique to uncork a a curving left-footed cross that dinks at tempo over the line of defense and into the left wing place. Marcos Acuna was the beneficiary of this on three completely different events, however, maybe, probably the most beautiful model of the cross was the one which discovered Alvarez late within the sport.
As soon as Messi receives the ball there, it is a traditional triple menace. He might dribble and draw the foul, he might take a contact and shoot or he might pull off that cross to the left. You’ll be able to’t actually defend the cross as a result of you have got to pay attention to the opposite choices, which, you may say, are the “least bad” ones.
5. Messi spends 90% of the sport in the identical two areas
One is roughly a 3rd of the way in which between the “D” on the prime of the opposing penalty space and the middle circle, the opposite is vast on the precise, simply contained in the opposition half.
When it is the previous, the end result is sort of at all times a shot, the aforementioned cross or a dribbling run that leads to a foul or a shot (or, if defending properly, a turnover). When it is the latter, at the very least on this sport, it was largely considered one of two issues: a easy layoff, as if to say, “Nope, not feeling it, you have a go,” or the traditional dribbling run, normally from proper to left. Once more, you recognize what’s coming.
6. Even when Messi does not get the ball, he wreaks all kinds of havoc as a decoy
His mere presence is disruptive, as a result of should you’re an opposing participant, you are properly conscious of who he’s and what he can do. When he isn’t on the prime of the “D,” the center-backs surprise the place he is gone. And when he reveals up on the precise, the opposing crew’s left facet has an overload to consider.
7. All the above are apparent Messi patterns, however then he’ll break them with out warning
It is as if he lulls you into a way of safety.
Take the header that led to the missed penalty. You do not’ anticipate to see Messi on the far put up difficult a 6-foot-4 keeper like Szczesny within the air. Or Argentina’s opening aim: the play unfolded down the precise, the cross got here from the precise and Messi was all the way in which subsequent to the left touchline. Or two different events when he picked up the ball deep in his personal half, from his personal central defenders.
And there are the moments when he forgets his age — and methods his physique into forgetting it. too. Take a look at the counterattack the place he obtained the ball in his personal half and raced with it into the opposing half, a half-dozen Poland gamers converging round him like a white cloud and Messi rising from it to shoot on aim. It was blocked, however nonetheless.
That is clearly only a 90-minute-plus-injury-time snapshot of what Messi does at this stage of his profession, nevertheless it’s typical (missed penalty apart) and it is nonetheless loads whereas typically showing to be little. And whereas it is acquainted, it is the moments of unfamiliarity that he can nonetheless conjure up that give an added layer of menace.
Take pleasure in it whereas it lasts.