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Jack of All Trades: The Brilliance of Messi

Messi's versatility is his best attribute, and it was on full display against Valencia last weekend.

David Ramos/Getty Images

The term "jack of all trades" has quite the history. It was originally a quasi-latin term from Elizabethan English known as "Johannes Factotum", meaning Johnny Do-It-All (also, I have now found the name of my first born son). The original connotation was that this was a person who could do a lot of things competently, but nothing masterfully. In football terms, it's James Milner. In the end, though, it's not too insulting of a thing to call someone this because as the saying goes, "Jack of all trades, master of none, Certainly better than a master of one".  No matter how you look at it, this saying means Jack sh*t to one Lionel Messi.  He's the master of all trades.

Most of us watched the first half of the Barcelona - Valencia match with a big lump in our throat as Valencia looked the better side and were getting chance after chance on the Barca goal. Most tactical analysis will place this on the midfield configuration in which Busquets was asked to venture forward and Mascherano was stationed in the pivot/deep lying playmaker role. Busquets looked out of his element facing his own goal and Macherano is a midfield destroyer, not distributor. Xavi was also made uncomfortable by the hard pressing and athletic Valencia midfield. The result was that Barcelona's forwards were getting disconnected from the rest of the team and began idling too far up the pitch to be involved.  Much can be said about subbing on Rakitic and reconfiguring the midfield with Mascherano moving back to defense (and much can be said about the wonky lineup in the first place), but Messi made it all a moot point. Whether you think Lucho has been good or just lucky doesn't matter because he has Messi, and against Valencia Messi showed that tactics don't really matter when you have the best player in the history of the game.

In this specific match, as the midfield and attack become more disjointed, Messi took things into his own hands and began dropping further and further back into the midfield.  Messi is, of course, given freedom to roam, but before the Rakitic substitution he dropped back deeper than normal, served as an outlet and link from midfield to attack, took the ball in tight areas and either recycled possession and kept things moving or pushed forward into attack.  Heat maps will back this up, as he had much more activity in the middle of the pitch in this match. Xavi was getting outmuscled as the "organizer" because of the hard press by Valenica and he recognized it and did something about it. In this match, Messi played both wings, central attack, and an advanced midfield and a central midfield position.  He was brilliant.  Before the midfield shuffle he had already imposed his will on the game and changed things for the better, uncharacteristically missing on an easy chance to make it 2-0. If I were his coach he would get all the pizza and Coke he wanted with no argument.

When you look at his statistics for the match, they are run-of-the-mill by his standards.  A goal, an assist, 4 shots (one a beautiful free kick that hit off the bar), 102 touches, 3 key passes, 4 dribbles, and 4 drawn fouls.  It is more interesting, however, to look at his passing stats. In La Liga he averages 60.7 completed passes a match with accuracy of 82.8%. This is likely due to the more vertical nature of Barca's attack this year, as he is getting less touches and taking more risks advancing the ball than is typical. He is involved more than he was under Tito or Tata, with an average of 55 passes a match with the former and only 45 per match with the latter. It made little sense because for whatever reason the team's best player was getting to see less of the ball. The last two years of Guardiola's reign, for example, saw Messi making 67.7 and 63.8 passes per match, respectively.

So how did he look on Saturday against Valencia?  72 passes for a 91.7% success rate, much higher than his season average and higher than his average day playing under Pep.  Quite impressive, and what it continues to show is that Messi is one of the most versatile players in the world.  A true total footballer.  Not to belabor the point of how great a footballer Messi is, but I do believe that his real value is shown in these understated ways.  He did not dribble through 10 men, nutmeg the entire team, hit any amazing golazos, or score a hat trick.  All of the things that find their way to the front page were absent (and yes, a goal and an assist has become an average match for Messi), and yet Messi controlled this match as much as any other with his intelligence and versatility.  He decided to become a midfield organizer when he realized Barca didn't have one.  I don't know many, if any, other footballers who could have done this.

I hope to analyze Lucho's coaching and tactics to a greater degree in the future, but the point of this article is to praise Messi for the things he does that don't always get noticed.  Whether or not the midfield needed to be fixed by the manager didn't matter because Messi knew how to fix it on his own.  This is just a reminder that every week you get a chance or two to see the greatest footballer to ever live ply his trade.  Don't take it for granted, and not just the goals, but all of the little things he does brilliantly that aren't always apparent.  He's the greatest ever, not just the greatest goal scorer ever, and the Valencia match just adds another bit of evidence to his case.

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