Describing what Messi does is like trying to describe a symphony. It’s kind of a stupid idea. It’s intimidating. You’re aware that your words may not live up to the experience.
So just pick a moment…
Barcelona versus Arsenal, 2010. It’s the Quarterfinals of the Champions League, second leg, 87th minute, 3-1 for Messi's Barcelona, and he had a hat-trick before halftime.
A pretty unbelievable one.
Barca was through.
Messi was not.
He has a quality that elite athletes in other sports share. They all can take over a game and score at will. Doing so, for Messi, is not a rare occurrence. There’s six and a half minutes of it on YouTube…
The guy has a killer-streak in him. He’s one of the most gracious players on the field, he helps opposing players up, he doesn’t taunt, or bang his chest. But he’s a merciless killer during the game. All-go. That’s Larry Bird. That’s Jordan. Brady. Tiger Woods used to have that. It’s inflating the importance of a moment to gain a mental edge. Then it’s a matter of converting desire into performance.
To win a game…
you can out-hit ’em.
Or plain out-compete ’em.
That’s beating a player through want.
Through hurdling adversities — like doubt, pain, and distraction.
Look at that 87th minute goal against Arsenal:
*Almunia is a part of a line of good Spanish goalkeepers. He had zero caps for his country though, didn’t represent them once, not at any level. He only ever played for club and money, and had just the year before finally beat out his nemesis at Arsenal, the quacky but whizz shot-stopper Jens Lehman. He hated Almunia’s guts and was very open about it. In 2008, two years prior to having Messi roll up on him trying to bury his fourth, Almunia was given Arsenal’s starting job, Lehman was shipped back to Germany.
It’s a cold-hearted goal. It's unecessary for advancement. But roll a ball in front of Messi, add people who want to take it from him, and it doesn't matter what the stakes are. Messi will score.
Look at how Arsenal broke down…
That's Messi in the middle of the field, ball coming to him. He's alone in open pasture. Arsenal’s offside trap is in shambles. To defeat Barcelona, Messi needs to be surrounded and, preferably, whacked every time he gets the ball (See Real Madrid’s tactics).
Nobody is near him in this case. He receives the ball about 40 yards out and he’s got the space to get his speed up. His path though isn’t clear. Arsenal defender, Emmanuel Eboué, is going to recover and will have to be beaten. Two defenders are closing in on him from behind, so Messi will have to be quick. For most guys, that’s the problem — the quicker you go, the worse your control. Messi doesn’t have that problem.
Eboué will try to stand him up.
Slow him until his teammates recover.
Messi wants to blow past him.
When Ronaldo does a move, you see it. His legs scissor, he makes a wide cut. It’s all very pronounced. Robben uses a lot of angles, speed, it’s observable. Messi is not like that though. You never really see his moves. You see him stop, you see him accelerate. You see him take the ball one way, the defender go the other.
Messi beats Eboué by waiting until he’s committed to a location. A place where, if their paths continue, they will meet.
At the last moment, Messi hops the other way, bursting into the space Eboué left behind, never meeting the defender where it appeared he would.
So what’s that? What attributes are on display? Anticipation: he knows Eboué thinks they have a rendezvous point. Elusiveness: he has the speed and ball control to change directions suddenly and with speed. And really, doctors should study his eyes. This guy might have some fucking awesome lenses he’s seeing through. Why assume it’s just his feet that are faster? Couldn’t superior vision contribute to Messi’s eerily deft touches?
Back to the goal. The challenge from Eboué slows Messi down just enough to allow Thomas Vermaelen to recover. The defender barrels into little Messi, clumsily hitting him on his back, but the Argentine is squat. That’s his third attribute on display: he’s built like a boulder. His center-of-gravity is low. You can push on him and he’ll tilt, rock, but not fall over. Messi distinguishes himself from his peers in this way. While Eden Hazard, even Neymar, will initiate contact then swan dive, Messi welcomes contact then fights it. Given his small size, he doesn’t use muscle as much as he uses positioning. Watch how he keeps his body between Vermaelen and the ball, taking the hit on his shoulder and back, letting the defender roll off him. He is not interested in going down in the box. That’s cheap art.
Vermaelen gets goal-side, only to be turned around, stretched out and left to bleach. There’s something satisfying about seeing an opponent go down so dramatically. Messi is a sculptor like a boxer is. His subject is another human and he cuts and turns with the ball, like a painter with his brush, a fighter with his fists.
Seeing the referee hold up a red card, knocking in a penalty kick?
That isn’t satisfying.
Where’s the inspiration?
The only player left to beat is Arsenal’s goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia*.
This all goes down in a second and a half…
As Messi approaches, Almunia moves off his line to close the space.
Almunia gets his knee on it.
The ball ricochets right back to Messi.
Now does that seem unfair?
Of course it does.
Does Messi need luck to be this good?
Of course he does.
None of the greats are unlucky.
Look at how Almunia recovers:
He has the near post well-covered, going far post is nearly impossible from Messi’s angle, so the only choice is 5-hole. Almunia’s legs are about a yard apart. That’s a highway for Messi.
He knocks it in. His fourth goal of the game.
As the ball rolls around the net, and Barcelona go up 4-1, Almunia becomes a part of Messi’s latest masterpiece. The final movement being Almunia falling, shutting his legs, too late.
Finishing that play showed tenacity: a by-product of the killer’s streak. And it showed accuracy: when Messi shoots, he has the control of a world-class violinist. He hits the string right in the gut of it.
Tenacity, accuracy, elusiveness, control, anticipation, a relentless competitive streak — does this capture the player? Does this description mirror the performance?
Maybe it doesn’t have to.
Words are an homage.
Maybe that’s how they pay their respect — by coming up short.