DOHA, Qatar — The conceit was easy, forward of Argentina’s last group sport against Poland: What in the event you merely watched one participant for 90 minutes? And that participant, one of many undisputed GOATs, may properly be enjoying his final World Cup sport ever. So, pen and pad in hand, I did what I’ve by no means executed 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 last look at a World Cup. You’ll get to see him once more, possibly as soon as, possibly two, three and even 4 instances in Doha. And sure, there’s a probability — by no means say by no means — that he could flip up in 2026, though he turns a venerable 36 this summer time.
Despite having watched Messi for the previous 20 years — maybe 500-plus instances on tv and at the least 100 instances in particular person — 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 belongings you suspected. Here are some I picked up against Poland:
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1. Messi walks round a lot of the match
It’s 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 analysis of Messi walking through the 2018 World Cup is an amazing learn. When you look solely at him, although — one thing you possibly can actually solely do in particular person — it’s completely outstanding how disengaged he seems to be from every part else.
He would not monitor runners, he could stick out a leg if an opponent is close by, however largely he simply strolls round. Sometimes he is trying within the basic path of the ball; generally he isn’t.
You’re tempted to suppose it is vitality conservation — in any case, the person is 35 years previous — and strolling means it can save you vitality for when you want to dash. Except Messi, particularly at nationwide crew degree, 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, often 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 tug a defender out of place. It’s not one thing we see typically, however, when it occurs, it may be devastating.
I counted 4 events, there could have been extra. He sprinted towards the far submit 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 recuperate the ball and cross it. On the opposite events, he whipped a ball excessive of the defender to the flank and took off into area, assured that he’d get a return cross (generally he did, generally he did not).
3. Most of Messi’s dribbling runs are typically 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 area. He’s fast with the ball at his toes, which appears counterintuitive, and he takes on opponents on a regular basis. He would not appear to thoughts dropping the ball, which occurred fairly a bit against Poland, maybe as a result of he is giving it away in areas the place it will not harm Argentina (and maybe as a result of his teammates modify to the likelihood). Whether 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 celebration trick is extraordinarily powerful to defend
There’s a traditional Messi move from central positions, which, like a Garrincha dribble, opponents know is coming however merely cannot cease it. He will get the ball centrally, he fakes a dribble after which twists his physique to uncork a curving left-footed move that dinks at tempo over the defensive position and into the left wing place. Marcos Acuna was the beneficiary of this on three totally different events, however, maybe, essentially the most gorgeous model of the move was the one which discovered Alvarez late within the sport.
Once Messi receives the ball there, it is a traditional triple risk. He could dribble and draw the foul, he could take a contact and shoot or he could pull off that move to the left. You cannot actually defend the move as a result of you’ve 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 broad on the best, simply contained in the opposition half.
When it is the previous, the end result is nearly all the time a shot, the aforementioned move or a dribbling run that ends in a foul or a shot (or, if defending properly, a turnover). When it is the latter, at the least on this sport, it was largely one in all two issues: a easy layoff, as if to say, “Nope, not feeling it, you have a go,” or the traditional dribbling run, often from proper to left. Again, you understand what’s coming.
6. Even when Messi would not get the ball, he wreaks all kinds of havoc as a decoy
His mere presence is disruptive, as a result of in the event 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 marvel the place he is gone. And when he exhibits up on the best, the opposing crew’s left aspect has an overload to consider.
7. All of the above are apparent Messi patterns, however then he’ll break them with out warning
It’s as if he lulls you into a way of safety.
Take the header that led to the missed penalty. You do not’ count on to see Messi on the far submit difficult a 6-foot-4 keeper like Szczesny within the air. Or Argentina’s opening aim: the play unfolded down the best, the cross got here from the best 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. Look on the counterattack the place he acquired 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.
This 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 rather a lot 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 risk.
Enjoy it whereas it lasts.