Lionel Messi: Football Beyond Numbers
Lionel Messi, a 5'6" guy from Rosario, a city in Central Argentina has made quite an impact on football in the past decade, hasn't he? A shy, introvert kid who was diagnosed with Growth Hormone Deficiency, moved to Barcelona at a very young age with a dream of making it big in football. And now when you look back at what he's achieved so far, it's one hell of a story to cherish upon. A story or impact as big as to being labelled the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) by all of the culér fan base and a very good chunk of the footballing universe as well.
He has been Barcelona's main man for over a decade now and clearly has no signs of stopping any time soon. As a football fan, you don't want him to finish either, purely because of the joy he brings to the game. Even as a neutral, you can't help but surrender yourself to the little man's magic. It's like he's been sent by the footballing Gods to take care of the beautiful game which we all love and live for.
Football has been evolving with each passing year and it's getting increasingly statistics driven. Statistics governing the game is not a bad thing as a football game is won by a team who obviously scores more goals(numbers). But football being restricted to only statistics/numbers is an inappropriate conclusion. It is much, much more than just numbers. As the great Bill Shankly once said, "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that." Football is a feeling to which all it's fans associate themselves with. It is a matter of love and pride.
Lionel Messi, who himself has extraordinary, stupendous statistical records to his name is also a victim of it at the same time. Yes, he is a sufferer of his own incredibly high standards over the years. He is judged on grounds of his own performances or levels in the past, which in hindsight is only possible due to his outrageous consistency year after year after year. In my lifetime, I've never seen a more consistent performer than Leo Messi, maybe Cristiano Ronaldo comes to mind as well but that's a completely different discussion.
Over the years, as a footballer, Messi has developed leaps and bounds. A teenager who started off as a volatile, pacey winger with brutal dribbling abilities, has added and adjusted his game to different levels depending on the players and managers he's played with and under respectively. On a whole, he's become more complete as a footballer with each passing season which is a testament to his incredible footballing IQ. His reading of the game and situations which occur during it is top notch. In fact, he does it quicker and at a higher level than his counterparts. These are the fine margins which separate the greats from the rest. There have always been debates on Messi's best season so far or in other words, discussions on his peak. When exactly did Messi peak as a footballer? For me, the answer to this question is all but simple. Lionel Messi has never had any peak season which should determine his career or categorize his abilities in particular. He has always had phases of brilliance. Lionel Messi has peaked in multiple phases of his career, covering different facets of the game and as a result, mastered it all.
When he originally burst onto the scene, it caught the eye of the football universe as someone who had frightening speed, breathtaking dribbling, and immense talent. In football terms, as people would like to call it a "Dynamic/Prolific Winger". As time passed by, in 2008 when Pep Guardiola became the manager of FC Barcelona, started the demonic rise of the magical, mercurial, Lionel Messi, who went on to lit up the Camp Nou and the world of football like nobody else had ever before. That's when football witnessed one of it's greatest ever teams playing the most beautiful, sumptuous football in history. It included some of the all-time greats in Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, etc., but it was a little Argentine who led the charge and took the game to a whole different level. In 2009, in the Clasico at the Bernabeu, Messi caused havoc as a false nine, channelling his dribbling, creativity, and scoring at it's absolute best.
Just when one thought he/she had seen it all, Leo hit back in 2012 with an absolute monster year in terms of goal scoring. He broke records left, right and center. He went on to break Gerd Muller's record for most goals in a calendar year (85) and bagged 91 goals in 2012. Yes, Ninety One! He also smashed La Liga's most goals in a season record by banging in 50 goals that season and continued on his merry ways by scoring another 46 the following season.
With the departure of Pep in 2012 and Tito Vilanova in 2013, Leo had a sedate next year and a half, in comparison to his own extraterrestrial standards, plagued by injuries, fatigue, and problems off the field. In 2014-15, Messi under Luis Enrique returned to his belligerent best. This time around he was deployed back as a winger but was tasked with dictating the tempo of the game as he drifted into central zones playing in those long diagonals for players making runs in behind the back line to go with his elite linkup play as well. That was the season which brought out Messi's exceptional passing range and abilities. He had a stellar season individually which highlighted his continuous growth as a footballer.
Following the 2014-15 treble-winning season, Xavi's departure left a massive void in the Barcelona's midfield. His guile, control, vision just all went missing. Now with an ageing Iniesta, a workhorse Rakitic and an isolated Busquets, Barça also lacked all of Xavi's qualities and that was the time Leo Messi stepped up to the stage yet again. He subsequently adjusted his positioning on the pitch and adapted his game into more of a playmaker. A playmaker who'd start off in the middle of the park, linking up and setting the tempo to the game. All of this along with his omnipresent creativity and dribbling abilities made the herculean task of replacing Xavi temporarily possible but as a result, also increased the already massive burden on him to carry forward the team.
In 2017, when Neymar left for PSG, Barça needed it's talisman more than ever. This time the job was even tougher. Suarez had started his decline, Iniesta was in his last season and not being able to feature regularly, a new manager, bizarre midfield signings, Leo Messi weathered it all and came out all guns blazing. This time around under Ernesto Valverde, Messi was tasked to operate as a false right wing, occupying the halfspaces, receiving and combining between the lines. But since Barça lacked creativity in the midfield "yet again" and EV's pragmatic defensive approach, Messi had to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball and orchestrate the play. And he's been doing this job for the past 4 years now with very little support if you actually watch Barça's games.
For Messi, there's nothing like the best Messi. He has had the best phases of different attributes. 2006-2009 - Manic Dribbler, 2010-13 - Prolific Goalscorer, 2015-16 - Complete Overall, 2016-present - Extraterrestrial Playmaker. Meanwhile, scoring, dribbling, passing and magic have always been constants.
Messi also has phenomenal linkup play with Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba in particular. His combination play with both of them is something stats won't ever reveal. For the past few seasons, it's become too mainstream for Messi to start moves and finish them off all by himself.
His extraordinary understanding of the game, seeing passes that sometimes aren't even visible on live television are signs of pure magic which numbers can never provide justice. Lionel Messi's game is a blessing to the eyes. How he creates spaces for his teammates with his elite footballing intelligence can only be watched and appreciated yet never be quantified. Till date, his buildup play is one of his most underrated facets, as people who don't watch him play on a regular basis still think Messi is all about goals and assists. And, the most astonishing part is he does this week in week out. His consistency levels are astounding.
What we've also got to appreciate is every team and every individual goes out against him to stop him and he still shines, still finds the spaces, still goes past people, still scores, still creates, he's just unstoppable. Somehow pulls out a rabbit out of the hat and surprises most of us. One can say he in his rightful mind, is 5x times ahead of the others which shows out on the pitch.
Even after having consumed Lionel Messi for more than a decade now, Culés still somehow involuntarily end up demanding absolute perfection from him week in week out. They themselves start judging him with regards to his own unparalleled standards but yet blame others when they do the same. This is a common unrealistic expectation syndrome with most of the Barcelona fans because it's Messi, of course, it's Messi, who's made the insane look normal for over a decade now.
People start coming up with statistics to draw comparisons with other players and Messi himself (past seasons) as well. This Leo, that Leo, goals scored, key passes, chances created and what not. As a football fan and lover, I've myself done that in the past but after a certain point of time, you reach a stage where numbers aren't everything. Football's way beyond that. And, Leo Messi is that life beyond numbers. Like Pep Guardiola, Barcelona's greatest ever manager in their history once said, "Don't write about him. Don't describe him. Just watch him." In this world full of chaos, Lionel Messi is pure aesthetics.
He can drop a stinker, yet give you things which cannot be weighed in numbers. These ratings and statistics can't ever justify Messi's greatness or magical prominence. His legend has already reserved its seat in football's immortals. The day I start watching Messi just on numbers, I'll stop watching football.