This is part of a series of three posts about my favorite player, Lionel Messi. Like Messi, I was diagnosed at a young age with growth hormone deficiency, and, like Lionel, I was cured of it--although, unfortunately, I was neither a gifted young footballer nor contacted by FC Barcelona. These posts will focus on three parts of Lionel's game: dribbling, passing/vision, and movement.
Part 1: Messi, the Underrated Dribbler
Okay, first things first: I understand very well that Messi is not underrated as a dribbler. Mostly everybody very well knows that Messi is the best dribbler in the world, and, lest we forget, we have the jaw-dropping, supernatural runs like this and this as irrefutable evidence. But it always has struck me that Messi is underrated as a certain type of dribbler.
Let me explain.
The common Lionel Messi narrative is that he was somewhat of a freakish child prodigy--freakish because of his size and ability, which packaged together made him unstoppable at a very early age. Argentinian clubs quickly caught whiff of his abilities, but they were concerned over his size which was inhibited by growth hormone deficiency (GHD). Seeing his prospects in his home country shrink along with his size relative to other young football players, Lionel and his family moved over to Spain, specifically Barcelona which housed a youth facility and program which would not only cover the Argentinian's expensive hormonal treatment but develop him as a football player. Soon Messi had found a new home in FC Barcelona's "farmhouse," La Masia, and continued his upward trajectory into the best player on the planet.
Now, let's read that paragraph again, highlighting what is commonly cited as the whyof Lionel Messi's brilliance.
The common Lionel Messi narrative is that he was somewhat of a freakish child prodigy--freakish because of his size and ability, which packaged together made him unstoppable at a very early age. Argentinian clubs quickly caught whiff of his abilities, but they were concerned over his size which was inhibited by growth hormone deficiency (GHD). Seeing his prospects in his home country shrink along with his size relative to other young football players, Lionel and his family moved over to Spain, specifically Barcelona which housed a youth facility and program which would not only cover the Argentinian's hormonal treatment but develop him as a football player. Soon Messi had found a new home in FC Barcelona's "farmhouse," La Masia, and continued his upward trajectory into the best player on the planet.
In this narrative, it's well-understood that Messi did receive growth hormone treatment, but that simply only just ensured that the extraterrestrial talent of the kid from Rosario was preserved, sustained. "You couldn't stop him as a kid," Pique recently told reporters in an interview. "He's always been the way he is now - all that has changed is the context. He does exactly the same things that he did when he was 13 and I wouldn't be what I am today without having come through the ranks alongside him."
The problem with this perspective is that it overemphasizeshis God-given talents; it characterizes Messi as a glorified phenomenom, a boy with a special mutation which provided him with all the tools for success. In the comparison between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, it's always the Real Madrid player who is sometimes favored (wrongly, of course) for his "learned skills," his cultivated shooting ability, his circus-like ball trickery. However, Messi more frequently triumphs because he is just unreal -- possessing moves and shots that are both extremely obvious to us but somehow irretrievable, indecipherable...like some undiscovered foreign language that denotes thoughts and objects similar to our own but somehow escapes translation. It is here where I think Messi is underrated as a player. According to many perspectives, he is no longer is a student of the game as Zidane, Cruyff, or mostly any great player was, but a fortunate recipient of talents destined from birth. A Messiah.
But there are plenty of young footballers who had as fortunate starts as young Messi. Youtube is populated with "look how great my child is!" videos of five year-old Messis that probably will never even touch a pitch in Europe, let alone sign a professional contract. While I think Messi's physique and natural reflexes are a large part of his early success, I think he was just as much aided by playing up in age groups, with stronger, more talented boys. Just as influential in his development, was his passion for the game, a kind of "stupid passion" that he still seems to have. What I mean by stupid is that in Messi, then and now, you see an individual who is both introverted and obsessive about the sport. Psychologically, Messi has never struck me as an intelligent footballer in the way, say, Xavi is. For Messi, I think it is important for him not to think about how he plays the game (compare: Messi: "I have no plan before the game...I just feel my way through the contest" with Xavi: "Sometimes, I even think to myself: man, so-and-so is going to get annoyed because I've played three passes and haven't given him the ball yet. I'd better give the next one to Dani because he's gone up the wing three times. When Leo [Messi] doesn't get involved, it's like he gets annoyed … and the next pass is for him.") Messi, the boy who never owned a pair of jeans, who always wore his training gear out with his teammates, thrived on a kind of insulated self-education in the game of football. His brilliance, therefore, is retrieved less in listening how he thinks about his playing style than in how easy and instinctive it all seems to him.
Still, the word "instinctive" has always felt naughty to me in regards to Messi. And when I describe Messi's play that way I intend it to mean something else...
"A Technical Footballer"
I think Messi is a very underrated technical footballer. I also think we have become accustomed to recognizing techique only as excess, as is the case with Ronaldo. Simply, to describe somebody as a technically gifted is to described their talents as not only purely learned, a posteriori, but as a kind of style. Ronaldo has a style, flair, same with Zidane, and even Messi's first team idol, Ronaldinho. These individuals don't casually beat opponents they "trick" or perform moves past them due to an array of techniques that are picked up in the training ground. To the naked eye, Messi is the anti-thesis of these types of players, with his fast maneuvering and swift touches. He just does things.
However, videos like the one above put a lie to this philosophy. Certainly, there is a simplicity to this method that asserts that results are best achieved with massive repetition and inherent quickness--but, looking further, we notice that Messi uses a variety of methods to both unsettle and surpass his defender. What many of us miss when watching Lionel Messi play is that he is constantly performing moves and series of moves; he doesn't just go around a defender as he (and others) are doing in those five year-old videos due to the fortune of a good touch and speed.
Analyzing a variety of clips and matches of Messi, I'm convinced he is very adept at what is known as the "Coerver Method:"
The Coerver Method is a soccer coaching technique which Coerver created. By analysing videotapes of various great players including Pelé, devised a new concept in football which advocates that skill could not only be inherent with the young players but could also be passed on in a comprehensive academic way. Under this technique, players progress in a structured manner, pyramidal, from basics of ball mastery to a tactically driven group attack. They would be exposed to the other essentials like Receiving and Passing, Moves (1v1), Speed and Lethal Finishing.
Essentially, the Coerver method asserts that there are a variety--but a numbered variety--of techniques one can use to not only improve touch on the ball but to beat opponents. It's a very structuralist (re: Dutch) vision of football as a comprehendible, and therefore conquerable, system that is navagated by moves (players) and strategy (coaches). I'm very familiar with Coerver training, as it was attempted, unsuccessfully, at various soccer camps during my youth. These camps are often seen as failures in the United States and other countries because there is such a small emphasis on technical ability and fundamental ball control. Without significant guidance and repetition, its tough to see how this program works for many young players--which is precisely why a controlled training environment like La Masia is always preferrable to the sporadic travel soccer scheduling of the U.S.
With a lot of the La Masia players, you notice a familiarity with the system. They all don't just possess incredible touches on the ball, but they play using very fundamental moves. Here are some examples with Messi:
It's arguable that Messi has never really done anything other than these moves. I've recently begun to take up learning the entire sheets of moves. I go to the local gym here that has an indoor pitch and everybody else seems to be working on Ronaldoesque flicks, stepovers, and juggles. To any of you that play, try doing those moves on the sheet; a lot are not easy to do in a game situation without significant practice. But the results to my game have dramatically improved: everything is simple, attempting to bait opponents and one-two touches to get past them. Religiously watching out for these moves with La Masia players, you begin to realize that even if they aren't taught as "Coerver training" the techniques have easily been sewn to the point of instinct to the Barcelona men. I once read an interview with a coach who said he could spot the "La Masia kid" in three minutes--I bet I could do it in one.
Anyway, back to Messi. What Messi adds to these moves--most of which, again, are very basic and were formulated by footballers half a century ago--is three important things:
- Pace --This is self-explanatory, really. Messi performs very basic moves (yes, moves--cuts, drags, rolls, touches with inside/outside/sole) at a very impressive quickness. It's not enough that Messi is very knowledgable of these techniques to the point of instinct; he does them fast--really fast.
- Change of pace and direction --To be able to do these movements fast is useful but Messi's secret is he can amend the moves into a series of movements--granted, these movements only last for a fraction of a second. In other words, Lionel will frequently charge at a defender full speed and cut left and briefly "kill" the ball. This will allow the defender to somewhat anticipate the first movement before Messi adds another movement (with acceleration).
- Feinting --Arguably, the most profound evidence that Messi is just as much as a learned footballer as Ronaldinho or Zidane. Messi will not only fake a movement or move (as above, with the Nani clip he fakes an outside the foot cut) but he'll "feint" with his body, with his hips, to trick the defender into believing he's executing the move. (Watch here at 5:04-5:25)
Top comment: "first time I've ever seen Messi do stepovers."