Messi ambles around for the majority of the game is not a secret. Everyone knows that. He walks with an air of nonchalance, hardly perturbed by everything around him, the kind of walk he can do either in his backyard or at the football ground, because he is too famous to do this elsewhere. It is an integral aspect of his game, a silent interaction exercise that helps him conserve energy for the explosion some situations might demand. Ahead of the World Cup, Garry Neville said that nobody fears Messi because he just walks around the pitch. But unlike sleep and wakefulness in humans, Messi’s walk is not a mutually exclusive exercise to anything he does on the field. Messi mitigates the fundamental conflict between the state of activity and inactivity by meandering on the pitch. Aquatic animals and birds are known for practising unihemispheric sleep, a unique state where one cerebral hemisphere sleeps while the other doesn’t. The same concept can apply to Messi’s existence on the pitch, even though he is neither an aquatic animal nor a bird as per my highly trustworthy source.
Bobby Gardiner’s evergreen piece about the pattern of Messi’s walk for FiveThirtyEight ends with a sentence: “For Messi never really walks; he prowls.” Indeed, Messi is on the hunt for every moment he stays on the field, standing inches away from the point of action, staring at every little sequence, sniffing out the potential opening of space, scanning thoroughly the coordinates of his teammates, making his own mental models of the path that he is going to take, the speed, the acceleration, the twist and the turn that he is going to make.
It’s the sheer unpredictability of his next move that gets the defender totally off guard, as Jose Gvardiol would have realised yesterday in the World Cup semi-final. Gvardiol is six inches taller than the man he found himself against on the left line, blessed with a brawny physique that looks perfect for the emphatic shoulder push to bring a man down in an ugly duel, and was having a spotless campaign, until Messi sold him down the river in the semi-finals.
From the moment the ball landed on Mess’s feet to his final burst into the box, it seemed like either he will get dispossessed, or will launch a hopeless cross as the last resort, or maybe take a pause and backpass to his teammate. Only the most optimistic bunch would have thought of what Messi actually ended up doing in the next few seconds. He had no business doing it, against a defender who is taller, muscular, 15 years younger, and hence more agile than him. Even the match situation didn’t demand him. Argentina had a cushion of a two-goal lead, and Croatia never looked like a team that have two goals in them, forget scoring two in twenty minutes.
Messi is standing just behind Kovacic on the far right when he sees a throw-in from Nahuel Molina ballooning over him to the nearby Julian Alvarez, who wastes no time to put the ball in Messi’s path. With the ball at his feet, he is cramped for the space. On the left stood a Gvardiol, preparing to match stride for stride. On the right was the touchline. In between, Messi, whose first touch helps him to keep the ball away from Gvardiol, the second keeps the ball from going beyond the touchline, and finally the third set him free for a sprint. Gvardiol, however, is still in the game, and he might even outrun him.
“For I am the size of what I see. And not the size of my height,” writes Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa, here, is talking about how village life is larger than the city for him because the smallness of the village allows him to see more of the world than he could in the city. But he could very well be talking about Lionel Messi, and if there’s a possibility for that, he could also be talking about Messi’s duel against Gvardiol at Lusail Stadium.
Messi is now in his element, ready to burst he also knows he is no longer 20 but his opponent Gvardiol is. So we don’t see the lung-bursting sprint chasing its freedom through loud and unruly wind, but a very calculated, thoughtful run with a varied tempo and intensity. If you’ll watch the replay, you’ll see how Messi breaks into the open space towards the center, but then suddenly straighten his direction to go towards his right flank, on the edge of the box.
He does this exactly at a moment when one more touch in that direction would have given Gvardiol an upper edge, an easy clearance. Thus straightening up was an important course-correction measure that brought Messi to the left of the box. Kovacic, meanwhile, is dallying his way toward Messi, who is all alone, with no help in his sight.
This is exactly where the magic happens, as Messi pirouettes back, slowing down the things, before buzzing inside Gvardiol to play a nice, simple cutback to Julian Alvarez. Phew! Gvardiol didn’t do much wrong here, in fact, he did very well to force Messi
toward the goal line, but it was not enough. This was suffering of the highest order, like a ten-second storm that washes away your entire existence.
Lead Image: Lionel Messi