Lionel Messi scores lots of goals. He's very good at that.
He provides lots of assists. He's very good at that too. But that's just the tip of the iceberg for the best player who has ever existed. There's elements of Messi's game that we just simply accept as part of his profile, but if we take a step back he has single-handedly evolved so many individual elements of the game.
Such as these.
1. AUTONOMY OF FINISHING
There have been some chat recently about players who can execute the same finish with regularity. Thierry Henry’s cut across the defender and curl is an obvious one, as was team-mate Dennis Bergkamp, who could shift the ball a foot to his right and bend into the corner. Free-kick takers - David Beckham and Juninho Pernambucano two excellent examples - practised so often that their method became robotic and very close to perfect.
But no-one has ever combined these two elements like Messi has. For Henry’s curler, see Messi cutting across from a centre-right position, shifting past a defender and curling either into the goalkeeper’s top right or bottom right corner. There’s not 10, or 15, or 20 of these. There’s more like 100. He currently has over 700 career goals for club and country and comfortably 15% - likely much higher, which would require watching his full back catalogue - have come from collecting wide and executing this perfect shot. Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal have all bitten this in the Champions League, as have countless others.
THEN you add in free-kicks, with general consensus only now agreeing that he’s the greatest there’s ever been at that, too. He notched up his 50th free-kick goal in October 2019 and the vast majority of them are from the same position and angle of trajectory. It’s an automatic, mechanical, practised motion that is a love letter to impeccable technique and incessant practice.
The ultimate act of disrespect, the Roman Emperor's thumbs down for your attempt at stopping him, Messi executes nutmegs as naturally as walking. Plenty of players enjoy nutmegs, particularly the likes of Ronaldinho, and are able to thread the needle in tight spaces. But Messi does it when players aren’t facing him and are just turning or moving regularly. There’s no gap to be found yet he finds it anyway, without even thinking about it.
The best way to get past a player is often just to go directly through them and remove their influence from the equation. There could be novels written on the different scenarios in which Messi skips past good players - world class players - with such insouciance. Others could nutmeg but Messi does it with such a Neo-esque control over the environment that it’s like he’s bending the space between the legs.
3. CROSSFIELD PASSES
There are crossfield passes, and then there’s Messi to Jordi Alba. The Spanish full-back is the most regular port of call for Messi’s swinging ball over the opposition right-back, but there have been other regular beneficiaries who expose that offensive area of the pitch.
What does he do? Well, he waits, that what he does. Messi trots very deliberately laterally, just waiting for the right moment for the defence to step forward, for his team-mate to remain onside, and for him to loop his high pass, with sufficient curve on the ball so that the person who touches it can use the natural rotation to send their effort towards the target. Every part of it is totally intentional - Messi knows the exact power and trajectory to hit the target from that position and he can drop it into the correct place every time.
In fact, if he wasn’t regularly passing it to a full-back, his assist return would be much higher (and the likes of xG chain or Possession Value (PV) would represent a far more impressive view of Messi’s already-awesome offensive output.)
Don't just take my word for it, just sit back and watch this video. It's mesmerising.
4. SPACE CREATION
It seems like a crime against Greatest Goals YouTube compilations to have Messi dropping deep but if ever proof were needed that the 32-year-old could play until he 40 if he likes, there are numerous examples of him within 30 yards from his own goal, bamboozling three defenders, and suddenly opening up the entirety of the pitch for his team-mates to progress.
The below clip shows him against Real Betis. He is being heavily pressed by three rabid offensive players, and his options appear limited. Six seconds (and a nutmeg) later, he has left them all wandering around, in a stupor like a pick-pocketed tourist wondering where their digital camera has gone. Virtually every other player knocks the ball off to the full-back or the goalkeeper; the remainder try what Messi does and lose the ball.
A #Messi piece coming next week, but as a taster, this clip from him away to Betis last season. How he gets out of this space, and therefore opens numerous possibilities... he is ridiculous in any area of the pitch.— FootballCritic (@CriticFootball_) January 10, 2020
*Note: Not an advised move for players who aren't Lionel Messi pic.twitter.com/3kS5JlFAIP
An often under-discussed aspect of Messi’s dribbling technique is his strength when in possession. He was always built small, as his requirement for growth hormones in his youth can testify, but even from an early age he was extraordinarily difficult to shrug off the ball.
That’s not just to do with superhuman skill, rather an indefatigable desire in possession. Why take the foul when I can score? It’s not in his make-up to complain, though there have been times where this has been tested to the limit from brutal defences. His run-in with known roughouser Tomas Ujfalusi in 2010, where Messi somehow survived a horror tackle with just a sprain, was recovered from in just 10 days, astonishing considering the impact.
He has always struggled with his hamstrings, indeed when he was younger there was a serious concern that he may be missing regularly due to his weak and susceptible muscles, but when it comes to impact injuries, he is built to last, as Scott Brown will attest to. And Sergio Ramos, Antonio Lopez, Marcelo, Nicolas Pareja and everyone else who attempted to take him out.
6. HE LIKES XG
As referred to in the 2013 book ‘The Messi Mystery’ and referenced by Ben Hayward for Goal at the time, Messi got much smarter. As Barca physio Juanjo Brau referenced: “He has gained knowledge as a footballer, he is more intellectual on the field and has more control over his game."
And if you watch any career retrospective, of which there are thousands on YouTube, you watch him develop from not just a provider of chances to team-mates but improve in the quality of the opportunities for both them and him. Aside from free-kicks, he is not a purveyor of low-xG shots, subscribing completely to the Pep Guardiola philosophy of getting the ball into as straightforward a position as possible.
In the past there’s more efforts from difficult angles, through groups of players, from distance. He still attempts these - because he’s a genius - but now he clearly gets closer in, works those one-twos and gets inside the posts. What constitutes straightforward for him and for his mere mortal team-mates isn’t the same, of course, but the theory is solid.