It was called a “sprinkling of sorcery” by commentator Sam Matterface on UK broadcaster ITV.
Matterface and expert summarisers Lee Dixon and Ally McCoist had just witnessed 35-year-old Lionel Messi take apart one of the standout defenders in the World Cup, Josko Gvardiol, to create the goal that sealed Argentina’s 3-0 victory over Croatia in Tuesday’s semi-final.
The Croatian centre-back is 15 years Messi’s junior. At 6ft 1in (185cm), he’s six inches (16cm) taller than the Argentinian. And he tips the scales at 80kg (176lb), making him seven kilos (17lb) heavier than Messi.
So how is it that the older, smaller man emerged on top in a one-v-one battle that started just inside Croatia’s half and continued all the way to the byline before Messi inflicted his final insult, a perfect cutback to Julian Alvarez who gobbled up the opportunity to score his second goal of the night?
“It’s not the pace,” said Dixon, a former Arsenal and England full-back. “It’s the slowing down and speeding up. Gvardiol thinks he’s got him… and then he goes again. Then he stops him. Then he turns him and he goes again. Off-the-mark speed is absolutely sensational. And then he puts it on a plate (for Alvarez).”
“It was genius,” concluded McCoist, who was a striker for Scotland and Rangers. “As simple as that. It’s the final dip of the shoulder to come back — that completely unbalances Gvardiol and gives him the half-yard.”
“That was just genius…!”
Lionel Messi leaves the commentary panel lost for words with this beautiful piece of skill to gift Argentina a third goal… ???#ITVFootball | #FIFAWorldCup pic.twitter.com/2KjMWqMjyA
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) December 13, 2022
After an amazing setup from Lionel Messi, Julián Álvarez gave Argentina a 3-0 lead over Croatia with the GOAL OF THE DAY. ?? ⚽️ ? pic.twitter.com/c0R073zLGs
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 14, 2022
How does he do it, then? How does Messi make a mockery of the physical disadvantages he faces in battles such as this one against Gvardiol to remind the world that even now, in the final years of his career, he still has explosive pace, hips that can twist and turn at high speed and dancing, size 8 (8.5US) feet that can make him as elusive as Floyd Mayweather in his prime?
“He is built to change direction,” says Jonas Dodoo.
The head coach of Speedworks Training, Dodoo is a former track and field sprint coach who now works as a consultant for the Football Association, England’s Rugby Football Union and professional clubs across the Premier League, German Bundesliga, NFL and Major League Baseball. “Anatomically, he is designed for it,” says Dodoo of Messi’s ability to turn defenders inside out. “He has a long body and short legs, which means he is built to be agile.”
For a taller defender such as Gvardiol, that agility can be difficult to deal with, says former Stoke City defender Danny Higginbotham.
“The one thing you want to try and do as a defender is dictate to the attacker which way he’s going to go,” Higginbotham explains. “But Messi’s change of pace and direction is incredible. He can stop a ball so quickly that he then stops you as a defender, but by the time you’ve stopped, he’s off again.
“You look at someone who’s as tall as Gvardiol against Messi; he was never able to use the physical side of his game because he’s got to slow down the minute that Messi is slowing down. At one point, you think Gvardiol’s got him, because Messi turns back on himself. But then he turns again, and he only needs that split second to get away from you. And then it’s so difficult (for Gvardiol) because of the way Messi changes direction. The fact that he is small means his centre of gravity is so much better and it’s so much easier for him to turn.”
Higginbotham has first-hand experience of coming up against a player whose movement left him feeling as far out of his comfort zone as he ever had.
It was the summer of 2007 and Stoke were playing Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly, pitting Higginbotham against Spain striker Raul. “I looked at him and I thought, ‘He’s not the quickest, not incredibly physical’. But he was this absolute legend that would score goals, would assist goals, whether it be on the domestic level or international level. And I was like, ‘What is it (that makes him successful)?’.
“I spent 70 minutes marking him and it was ridiculous. You would take your eye off him for a split second to look at the play, turn around and he wasn’t there anymore. I had no idea where he was. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable on the pitch as I did marking him. It was all about his movement.”
Dodoo agrees that Messi’s low centre of gravity is a plus point. Not only does it make it easier for him to twist and turn but it also makes him “hard to push over”. Physically, the Argentina captain also has “great brakes”, says Dodoo, “so he can stop just as fast as he can go. Notice many of his weaving runs are a combination of stop-start runs. This requires excellent braking strength as well as sprinting capacity”.
But Messi’s “hardware” is only one part of the equation, he explains: “When we consider strength, power, speed and intense actions we always talk about software and hardware. Hardware is very much about muscles, joints and physical traits. Software is brain perception, action and decision making.”
Messi’s “software” is what often gives him a head-start on those who physically should have the better of him.
“He is great at combining his scanning abilities to predict and respond to his opponent’s micro-movements,” says Dodoo. “He is often cruising through defences at sub-maximal speed, encouraging them in, like a red cape to a bull, then accelerating away once they have ‘bitten’.
“Working at sub-max speed also means whenever he needs to reel people in, he has an escape boost to get away — like suddenly shifting up and down gears.”
The neural system is the third part of this equation, and in basic terms, Dodoo explains that it’s what connects a player’s software to their hardware.
For former Spain national-team coach Robert Moreno, who worked with Messi for three years as assistant to Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique, it’s this part that puts Messi on a different level to his opponents, no matter how many physical advantages they may have over him.
“He’s like The Matrix,” Moreno tells The Athletic. “Do you remember that scene where the character is moving his body and all the bullets go slowly? For me, Messi plays like this. All the things are happening in his mind slower than are happening for the rest of the world.
“So it’s normal that he’s able to go against Gvardiol and make him feel like he’s a little boy playing with an adult. It’s the same he did in the past against Jerome Boateng in the Champions League (when Barcelona beat Bayern Munich 3-0 in the first leg of a 2014-15 semi-final, with Messi scoring twice and Boateng at one point so nonplussed he crashes to the turf like a felled tree) and other players.
?? Messi masterclass, 5 years years ago today ?#UCL | #OTD | @FCBarcelona pic.twitter.com/kGr90VkujJ
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 6, 2020
“It’s because he thinks faster than the rest. And he’s able to do what he thinks. I’ve not been a professional player but sometimes when you play, you think you’re going to do something but you’re not able to do what you’re thinking. He is able to do that. He has the capacity, he has the coordination, the flexibility to move his body wherever he wants, when he wants, and that means he can do what we saw against Gvardiol.”
So, when Messi is in a one-v-one situation with a defender, even though that defender might know what the Argentinian is going to do, they aren’t able to stop it — by the time they’ve made their move, Messi is already yards ahead.
This is illustrated, says Moreno, by the famed connection between Spain left-back Jordi Alba and Messi when they were Barcelona team-mates: “There was an action — when Messi received the ball in the last third of the pitch on the right side, he’d drive the ball, Alba ran into the space and Messi put the ball there. After that, Alba made the cross.
“All the teams in Spain knew we were going to do that. But no one was able to stop it. Why? Because football is knowing what you have to do, but doing it as fast as you can.
“With other players, it’s the same. You know that (France’s) Kylian Mbappe is going to go one on one with you. And he’s going to kick the ball a little bit, run more than you and after that, cross. You know that but he does it so fast that it is impossible to stop.
“It’s the same with Messi. But with him, it’s harder. Because you know, ‘OK, Mbappe is going to run on my right side or my left side’. I know that. I can anticipate and try to stop him. But you don’t know what Messi is going to do. Because he can go on the left, on the right, in the back, pass the ball… he has so many options to choose from and does it in a fast way that it’s impossible to stop.”
And yet, he combines that injection of speed with moving slowly more than many other players.
Earlier in the tournament, The Athletic reported that Messi walked more than any other player in the first round of group matches. And in that semi-final against Croatia, only Leandro Paredes covered less ground than Messi among Argentina’s 10 starting outfield players — and Paredes was taken off with more than 30 minutes remaining.
Against Croatia, more than half of Messi’s total metres covered were in “Zone 1” of exertion — which FIFA classifies as speeds between standing still and moving at 7km/hr (4.3mph).
“He’s doing that because he knows he is 35 years old, and he’s not able to repeat high-effort actions as he did in the past,” says Moreno. “So he’s walking, waiting for the moment to receive the ball in the correct place and give the pass, or do the action that gives them the opportunity to score.
“While it seems that he’s walking, he’s always turning his head and analysing what’s going on. He plays a match while analysing all the opponents he has in front of him and trying to find weaknesses. That, for me, is impossible for the rest of the players.”
And it’s that process that Higginbotham refers to as the real “genius” of Messi.
“We all know how good he is on the ball but equally as important is what he does before he receives the ball,” he says.
“Look at the times when he receives the ball and the areas that he receives the ball in. He’s positioned himself so that with his first touch, he can turn and straight away he’s going at the opposition.
“People say, ‘When Argentina are without the ball he’s just walking around’. He is, but what he’s doing is looking at the game and thinking, ‘What position is going to be best for me when we win the ball back so I can be fed the ball in space, where a defender doesn’t want to commit himself, but I’m going to be in enough space where I can turn and run at the opposition?’.
“A lot of the decisions he’s making when he’s without the ball make it better for him when he’s on the ball. That’s the genius of it.”
Messi’s “football intelligence” is the key, explains Moreno.
“It’s a different thing to the intelligence a ‘normal’ person has. It’s the knowledge that you can’t explain. It’s the same if I ask you to explain to me why we speak as we speak. You are not able to explain it. You learned in the past to speak and you now speak, but you are not able to explain to another person why you do things in the way you do them.
“Footballers are the same with football. They are able to do things but they are not able to explain why they do them. Messi is the maximum expression of that situation. He finds solutions where mortal people aren’t able to find these kinds of solutions.
“We can talk about physique, technique… everything. He’s an incredible player, but the difference for me is the way he is able to analyse football while being inside the match. As a coach, it is easy to analyse from outside, sitting in my room with my computer. But he does it inside the match. This is one of the big differences to consider him for me the best player in history.”
Perhaps it’s this obvious football intelligence, combined with his stature, that can lead people to dismiss Messi’s physical attributes.
“He’s not Cristiano Ronaldo, this is clear,” smiles Moreno, “but he is strong — in his legs, his core and all the parts of his upper body.
“It’s impossible to play at the top level if you are not strong. Yes, there are people that are stronger than you but you are strong enough to play there. If not, it’s impossible to play every three days. It’s the first difference to arrive at the top level, to have a physique that allows you to play there.”
One other part of Messi that has not been mentioned yet is his backside (bottom, if you prefer).
Last year, during the European Championship, former Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure wrote a guest column for The Athletic extolling the virtues of players using their bums and hips to protect the ball from opponents, making it harder to get it off them and giving them more space to wriggle out of tight spaces.
“I played with Lionel Messi (they were Barcelona team-mates),” wrote Toure, “and there is nearly always someone on him when he tries to dribble but he manages to get out of the tackle all the time. When you use your bum properly, you have greater time to get better control of the ball and get out from tight spaces and people pressing you, which is one of the big challenges when you play in midfield in the modern game.”
Messi has clearly learnt how to make the most of what he has physically. But while Moreno accepts that without being strong it would not be possible to be “the best player in history”, he says that is far less important than what’s between Messi’s ears.
“It’s not a question of being strong,” he says.
“If we talk about the (Catalan) style, you analyse that you normally win with players that don’t appear to be strong: Xavi, Andres Iniesta — these kinds of players. Because the ball runs faster than the fastest player in the world.
“So even though physical aspects are important, there are a lot of players who have a physique like Messi or one even better. But the advantage is to have a similar physique to the top players in the world, but with a different way of thinking about and seeing football when you are inside the match.”
That is the “sprinkling of sorcery” that allows Messi, at 35, to leave talented 20-year-old defenders wondering what the heck just happened on the biggest stages.
Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe in the race for the Golden Boot: World Cup top goalscorers history
(Main graphic — photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)