There are countless moments of glory you could pick out from Lionel Messi’s career to try and illustrate his elusive genius, but it is a much more mundane example that perhaps best explains it.
“Even in training, you just couldn’t get near him,” one source from Barcelona says. “It’s just funny at times because he is so insanely good.”
The point of this is that it’s training, so it’s everyday, and this is what it’s necessary to get your head around when it comes to Messi and why he is the greatest. Not just of the century, but maybe all time.
He has made the utterly remarkable utterly routine. You only have to watch him in any given match. Messi produces so many pieces of play that would be the highlight of anyone else’s career if they were capable of them. For him, they’re just another moment of a game. It is almost an extra-sensory next level.
And this everyday excellence applies to almost every element of his game. Look at the abilities that he could genuinely be considered the best at, and not just in the modern game. There is: the frequency with he scores fantastically precise free-kicks; the perfection of seemingly impossible through balls few would see let alone then try; the ease with which he beats so many of the best defenders and - of course - the frequency with he scores. He has about three “signature” finishes, from the chip to the precise drive to the low slot powered into the corner.
This completeness, however, goes even deeper. It is more fundamental. It is the simplicity of the sublime.
Consider how Messi actually plays. There is no over-elaboration. There’s never an extra touch necessary. His route to what he wants to do is the simplest, because it makes the most sense and - most importantly - because he can pull it off. It applies to how he beats people, to how he finishes, to how he passes. He does not need to go around or over. He is capable of going through. You only have to think of his tour-de-force goal to win the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United, or the impossibly precise through ball for Gonzalo Higuain in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final against Belgium.
And that is all because we’re talking about a player with perfect manipulation of the ball. This is what it comes down to, and so elevates him.
His basic control is, well the ultimate; par excellence… purity. Messi, as former Real Betis manager Quique Setien told The Independent, “is football.”
“He’s pure,” Setien add. "He’s not only one thing. He’s everything.
"When you have a footballer like that, who can do it on his own, there’s nothing to say. The other 10 are going to say ‘let him do what he wants, he’s going to make us better, and we’ll win more matches.’”
And all of this has logically translated into triumph over triumph over the course of a campaign. It is the reason Barcelona have gone from a club who end almost every season in crisis to one who end almost every season with the title.
This genuinely does mark a historic shift. Having Messi has ensured that Barcelona have replaced eternal rivals Real Madrid as the default title winners. The 14 years since the Argentine’s debut have seen the Catalans win 10 leagues. The last 11 have brought eight. This is what everyone forgets in the great rivalry. When Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been in direct competition - be it the league itself, Clasicos or even major Champions League matches like the 2011 semi-final - Messi has trounced him. There’s just much more to him. Ronaldo can be the hero in any given game by finally getting that cross into the box, where he waits. Messi runs any given game.
A certain frustration remains about Europe, given he’s only won four Champions Leagues, and feels he should have more.
A great lament remains about international competition, given Messi has brought his team to three separate finals, and won nothing.
It is the only caveat to a career of consistent brilliance.
The caveat to that, however, is that these are knockout competitions. They are prone to the nuances of the form and luck, which that one bad day - or one bad bounce - can overturn a good season; while three good days can save a bad season.
They may be the most prestigious events, but the end result doesn’t necessarily - or mathematically - reflect the greatest.
The final of the 2015 Copa America, when Messi was in perhaps the form of his career and on a much higher level to a fitness-constrained 2014 World Cup, best illustrates this.
For that match, Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli had been obsessed with stopping the playmaker, who had been on incredible form throughout the competition. The semi-final had seen him just repeatedly dance through the Paraguayan defence to devastate them 6-1, the lightness of his running offering such a jubilant contrast to the wreckage of its effects. Messi just coursed through as Paraguayan defenders fell to the ground, and into each other.
Sampaoli’s challenge was really one that every manager that has ever faced Messi has become obsessed with. Before the famous 2010 Champions League semi-final win over Barca, it was the primary issue Internazionale manager Jose Mourinho was fixated on.
“Every time I played against Messi, I spent hours studying him,” Mourinho told a few journalists at Chelsea in 2015. “It is not about stopping him but giving him a difficult match. That is the best you do against him.”
Sampaoli somewhat replicated Mourinho in this final by putting a four-man “cage” around Messi and yet still, when it came right down to it, he got free. In stoppage-time of a 0-0 draw, Messi broke away from his markers, turned on the edge of the box and put in a ball for Higuain. It should have been the winner, and deliverance. It was instead a Higuain miss, and more pain.
Messi scored his penalty in the shoot-out but he was the only Argentine to do so. Chile won. Messi couldn’t do it all.
But that’s kind of the point. This is what we're reduced to. This is how complete he's been. If one corkscrew shot in the 2014 World Cup final goes in we're talking about by far the greatest career ever.
He does more than anyone to a better level than anyone.
He has a gravitational effect on an entire match, to a greater degree than anyone else. The qualities of his talents mean he is always in the centre, dictating, driving.
He’s everywhere. He is the standard. He is football.
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