Lionel Messi assures his place in the pantheon of the greats

“Lionel is the best player I’ve ever seen, probably the best ever. He made the difference. Messi is unique, a one-off….” Pep Guardiola looked to be drifting off into predictable territory with his eulogy of Lionel Messi after the UEFA Champions League final but he suddenly slipped into a more sombre note when turning his attentions to Lionel Messi: the human being. “….Messi is unique, a one-off,” he continued. “I just hope he doesn’t get fed up. When he doesn’t play well it is because something is wrong with his environment. Let’s hope he can continue playing well.”

The comment was a revealing insight into Messi’s character because the player we all know and admire derives so much joy from kicking a football that is hard to imagine how he can ever fall out of love with the game. But beneath his unflustered exterior perhaps lies a more vulnerable character who, until recently, has had to do a lot of growing up. Ronald Reng writes for FT Weekend Magazine that Messi “has a pleasant lack of interest in the world, which protects him from the blandishments of the football circus.” Thus, he cares little for fashion and prefers to stay indoors – a rarity it must be said in the Spanish culture – while he watches minimal football on television. All his attention is focused on the moment he kicks the ball.

On the pitch, Messi plays by instinct and is guided by whatever means allows him to get the ball the most and in dangerous positions. It’s because of this operational mastery that it is sometimes better to strip him of any great tactical responsibility and allow him to express himself the fullest. His former coach, Frank Rijkaard, attempted to mould Messi into a tactically, more robust player perhaps misunderstanding that the greater advantage lies in granting him more freedom. Messi almost construed this as an act of punishment saying, “I cried a lot because Rijkaard was so hard on me.” In the grand scheme of things, it has helped make Messi the player he is but Guardiola has handled him better, subliminally channelling his genius into a tactical framework which gets the best out of him. Messi’s movement is overwhelmingly a team ploy, wreaking havoc with opposition marking structures and he runs harder than anyone to win the ball back. Perhaps it’s this environment which Guardiola was alluding to earlier on; that Messi needs the encouragement to play his game and should not be too bogged down by tactical quirks. Because all he wants to do is play football. “When I have the ball at my feet, I don’t think, I just play,” said Messi. “On the football field, my only thought is: ‘Give me the ball!’ I don’t invent dribbles. I don’t work out any moves. Everything simply comes from instinct.” Guardiola identified this as soon as he took over the reigns at Barcelona, his chief scout Pep Boade, telling Simon Kuper in 2009, that Guardiola had “structured a Messi strategy. If John Terry kicks Messi, the whole team will protect him.” Even though he doesn’t go out, the club say they will do all they can to make Messi feel happy, feel part of the city.

Lionel Messi’s presence in greatness has surely been confirmed by his European Cup exerts but at 23 and still maturing, the question is how great he will be. Pep Guardiola is in no doubt he is the best ever. So good in fact, it’s as if has implied that Messi may even get fed up of being better than the rest. Of course that’s not true but at the moment, he has no parallel. Cristano Ronaldo may have pipped him to the Golden Shoe but the Portuguese midfielder is a maverick and his pursuit for individual glory was put into perspective by Messi’s team play. As Jonathan Wilson writes for Sports Illustrated, “the greatest greats — Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfred Di Stefano — were all individually gifted, great team men. Messi may not have won the Golden Boot or the pichichi this season, but he is an awful lot closer to joining them than Ronaldo.”

Certainly any attempts to justify Messi’s place as the greatest of the greats, as many have argued and others against, prove to be highly subjective. You could say he does things that others don’t but so does Xavi Hernandez, who must be considered the best constructor and Messi, the best destructor. And what about Sergio Busquets? The man Xavi calls “the best midfielder there is playing one-touch.”

Ossie Ardiles, a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1978, argues that the game is at its peak now and that puts Messi above the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele.  Ardiles said: “the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players; the pitches are better, the boots are better, the rules have been altered to favour the attacking players… the way the players look after their bodies, the way that clubs and national sides employ so many people to look after their bodies, with what they eat, and just about everything you can think of.”

The argument, however, can be labelled as biased against those of the older generations because the environments were markedly different then and were out of their power to shape. Sure, there was more scope for one to differentiate one self but they did it in spite of those environmental disadvantages. Logic says it’s not possible to compare players out of their time period and it would probably be better if you judge their relative superiority in that era and compare the differences. It’s still an imperfect measure but if it’s the method that’s used, it weighs in favour of Messi.

Lionel Messi’s rise has been inexorable but if demographic trends are anything to go by, he shouldn’t have made it as a football player. His story in itself is already astonishing as at 11, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency before the intervention of Barcelona at 5’6 but he’s still 2 inches short of the average Argentinean male. But sport is increasingly an athletic one and at the top-level, they have been steadily growing bigger, getting stronger, fitter and faster. And while Messi satisfies three of those criteria, if you compare it with other sports, Messi goes against those humanistic trends. Of course, football is a peculiar sport because it’s more skill-based therefore physique is not definitive. Indeed, natural conditioning is reaching its peak and, at the highest level, that will expose technique – a factor Barcelona are ahead of and others still catching up – culminating in the rise of the “little men.”

<Figure 1>How Sportsmen Grew From the 1980’s to Now. Source: Observer Sport Monthly January 2010, Issue No. 118

From a tactical point of view, Messi is also innovative, first inspiring the now universal use of “inverted wingers” and now leading the charge for the “false nine.” In the role Messi is a creator but unlike the game’s other great creators – Ferenc Puskas, Pelé, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona – who played behind another forward, he tends to have no fixed position. Perhaps only Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano have played similarly in a forward role. Again, attempts to justify a player’s greatness positionally proves futile because it is almost discriminatory to those players who sacrificed themselves for the team ethos; a factor so key in football. Similarly futile is scorning the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo just because the coach chooses to get the best out of him in a position which is perhaps not as central as a playmaker but is still pivotal.

Some argue Messi wouldn’t be as effective without the groundwork of the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and point to his international record as proof. Yet, apart from two separate periods when he stoked up a partnership with Juan Roman Riquelme and now under Sergio Batista, he has had to play with broken teams. In the World Cup of 2010 he nevertheless carried an exciting and at the same time, vulnerable Argentina side. When the balance is right in international level, he can be the difference as he so often is for Barcelona as displayed –- ironically — against Spain in a match they won 4-1. In the Champions League final against Manchester United, the defenders were visibly scared of him, backing off to gift space for the last two goals in the 3-1 win and his movement and potency effectively made the space for the first. Messi is overwhelmingly a team player and drifts to where he feels appropriate. Rinus Michels may have been the man who originated the theory of Total Football but it is widely recognised that it was Cruyff who breathed life into those most complex of plans and Messi is doing similar at Barcelona. Guardiola acknowledges he is the difference. The best he’s ever seen. Probably the best ever. Messi is unique. Messi is a one-off.

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