Lionel Messi doesn’t need the ball to hurt you


Lionel Messi walks like a camel.

That’s not a description of his gait — unfortunately for every defender who’s ever tried to tackle him, Messi’s short legs and long body are anything but spindly or top-heavy — but of his ability to think on his feet.

“You must walk like a camel,” Henry David Thoreau advised, “which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.”

Messi thinks best while wandering his little patch of Qatari desert. He chews things over mid-shuffle.

“He’s not running, but he’s always watching what happens,” Pep Guardiola explained in the 2019 documentary, This Is Football. “He smells the weak points in the back four. After five, 10 minutes he has a map in his eyes, in his brain, to know exactly where is the space and what is the panorama.”

Ernesto Valverde, another former Barcelona manager, agrees that Messi starts each match on a one-man reconnaissance foot patrol. “As the game advances, he gets in little by little,” he told the Financial Times. “But he knows perfectly where the rivals’ weaknesses are.”

Even a casual fan knows that Messi strolls around the World Cup like it’s the planet’s most popular Ramblers meet-up. What’s less well documented is where and why he walks — the tactics of inaction, all the little ways he pokes and tugs at defences without touching the ball or breaking a sweat.

Let’s see if we can get over that hump.

Picking at the seams

The first thing Messi needs to know is who’s defending him.

Sometimes that’s easy: the other team might assign one player to follow him everywhere he goes. It rarely works.

“Very calmly and nicely he came up to me and asked, ‘Are you really going to follow me all game?’” the Honduras midfielder Hector Castellanos recalled after man-marking Messi in a September friendly. “I told him, ‘Honestly, yes, crack.’ He smiled and didn’t say anything else.” Messi scored twice, set up a third goal and gave Castellanos his shirt after the game.

Messi shielding the ball from Castellanos (Photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Against a more conventional defensive scheme, where players organise themselves in lines and close down attackers who are threatening to receive the ball in their zone, Messi’s job isn’t to lose any one guy but to figure out where to stand so that nobody’s sure who’s responsible for him. He’s trying to find the seams in the defence.

Take the following play from the opening minutes of Argentina’s tournament. Saudi Arabia is defending with a high back four, leaving space for Argentina’s runners — Angel Di Maria on the right wing and Lautaro Martinez in the middle — to get in behind.

Messi wanders in the other direction, in front of the back line, so that Saudi defenders have to choose between tracking runs and leaving Messi unmarked between the lines or else following him and leaving a runner free. They’re stretched both ways like rubber bands.

Thirteen seconds later…

Messi’s shot was his first touch of the World Cup. He had barely even broken into a jog. But by taking two steps to his right near the centre circle a full 11 seconds before the shot, he helped create the whole attack.

“Just by moving two paces,” Guardiola wrote in an old autobiography, “I could radically change the game’s rhythm.”

Taking space, making space

To help avoid those little moments of confusion, a lot of defences will give their left centre-back a clear mandate to step out to stop Messi from receiving between the lines. You may remember Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol spending the semi-final draped all over Messi like a chequered scarf. When one dropped off the back line, the other did too.

But Messi can use that kind of attention to his advantage, too. Half an hour into the Croatia game, when the Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernandez turned on the ball between the lines, his most obvious option was Julian Alvarez making a run right up the middle. Normally both Croatian centre-backs would work together to step forward and try to catch that run offside or else sprint back to goal and cut it off.

But Gvardiol, hyper-conscious of Messi, checked his shoulder and paused for a split-second as Messi curled into midfield toward the ball. Gvardiol’s moment of hesitation meant that while his retreating centre-back partner played the runner onside, he left a gaping space for Alvarez to run into.

Penalty, Argentina. Goal, Messi.

Again, Messi had helped set up a dangerous attack without touching the ball, almost without even moving. Taking a step to his left instead of running toward goal let him occupy potentially valuable space in midfield where he could receive and dribble at the defence. But when Gvardiol slowed up to defend that space, it created even more dangerous space in behind for Alvarez.

The rise of off-ball tracking data in football has started to make it possible to measure how Messi’s walking helps his team. A paper presented at the 2018 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference calculated the value, in goal probability, of the spaces that Barcelona players occupied for themselves or generated for their team-mates in one La Liga game.

Not surprisingly, Messi was an outlier for how much of his space gain was “passive” — as in walking or jogging, not running. Yet he still managed to occupy more valuable spaces than almost any other Barcelona player while generating some of the most valuable spaces for his team-mates.

As FiveThirtyEight summed up the research, Messi walks better than most players run.

Personal magnetism

Not all of Messi’s space creation is entirely touch-free. When defenders try to get tight to keep him from facing goal on his stronger left foot, Messi likes to dribble backward or exchange simple passes to draw his marker farther and farther out of the back line. It’s the same idea as a lot of his off-ball walking, but now he’s using the ball as bait.

This was another way Gvardiol tended to get caught in Messi’s gravitational pull. In the example below, Messi receives the ball between the lines but can’t turn with Gvardiol pressuring him from behind. So he dribbles toward the halfway line, dragging the centre-back with him.

A few seconds later, Messi — who simply walked backward, laid the ball off and stood still waiting for it to return to him — is dribbling at the defence while Alvarez makes a run into the gap behind Gvardiol, who’s caught in no-man’s land.

On that play, Messi didn’t wind up spotting the killer pass. But don’t worry, you probably remember another one where he was the only person on Earth who did:

Once again, a centre-back calculated that not following Messi in midfield would be a bigger risk than leaving a hole in his back line. This time Messi made him pay.

Playing in the shadows

So far we’ve mostly seen examples of Messi playing in front of the centre-backs. But since he’s always walking, he’ll often wind up behind the defensive line when they push up together. He’s out of sight and out of play in an offside position. Probably safe to ignore him, right?

Oh, you sweet thing.

For starters, there’s the risk that a through-ball to another player will suddenly spring Messi into action, like on this disallowed Lautaro Martinez goal against Saudi Arabia.

(Martinez was ruled offside by a hair, but Messi’s participation in the play was perfectly legal.)

Sometimes Messi will linger offside in a centre-back’s shadow until the second he steps around him to show for a pass, making it all but impossible for the defender to keep track of his movement.

By constantly floating into positions where opponents can’t see him and the ball at the same time, he disappears in plain sight.

Arriving fashionably late

The basic idea behind a lot of Messi’s walking is to let the play move away from him so he can sneak back into it at the right moment. That’s how he tends to find his best shots.

Occupying space in the penalty area is hopeless for a 5ft 7in forward — if you stand around waiting for the ball, a centre-back will find you first — but arriving in space is harder to stop.

Take this play against the Netherlands, where Messi hangs back disinterestedly in midfield while his team-mates break forward, then charges into the box for a follow-up cross after everyone has forgotten about him. The delivery misses, but his run is right on time.

“I used to say in Manchester that the last player to arrive to the box is the first one to be able to shoot,” Guardiola’s former assistant Juanma Lillo explains. “I tell that to my strikers all the time: the closer you get to the goal, the further you are from scoring.”

By waiting to be last to arrive, Messi can also make space for the runners in front of him. Here’s a missed opportunity against Croatia where Messi starts a counter-attack as the most advanced player but takes his time jogging up the far side of the pitch while Alvarez and Nicolas Tagliafico sprint up the left. At the moment Alvarez probably should have played Tagliafico into the box, Gvardiol is still hanging back, checking his shoulder to find Messi.

Standing still in transition

One last way Messi can affect the game with minimal effort — and maybe his favourite in his old age — is to simply stop moving when Argentina win the ball. The idea is the same as always: while everybody else runs one way, take a step the other way and watch spaces open up.

If a centre-back doesn’t stay with him, Messi will be free to receive the ball and lead the counter-attack with runners in front of him. But if a centre-back does stay with him, that’s one less defender for the runners to deal with.

To Alvarez’s credit, he finds the runner in the channel this time. To Gvardiol’s credit, he manages to mark Messi in transition and still cut out the counter with an incredible recovery run. But if that last loose ball had bounced a foot the other way, Messi still could have buried it with a late-arriving run.

It would have been his first touch in the whole possession.

The art of walking

This is the dilemma France face in the final: Messi can beat anyone on the ball, but off the ball he can be just as influential, even when he’s hardly moving.

He’ll pick at the defensive seams between Theo Hernandez, Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano (assuming they’re fit). He’ll make Upamecano choose between chasing him into midfield or guarding the space behind. He’ll wander deep into midfield. He’ll hide behind the centre-backs. He’ll arrive in the box at the last second. He’ll orchestrate counter-attacks while standing still.

None of these tricks are hard to spot if you pay attention to him. But when everyone else is running one way and he’s walking the other, it’s hard for defenders to keep him in their sights.

Whenever he wasn’t going down whatever the nineteenth century equivalent of a Wikipedia rabbit hole on camels was, Thoreau had other thoughts on walking, an activity he held in high esteem. “It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven,” he wrote, “to become a walker.” Sub in “manager” for “Heaven” and that basically fits — the whole reason Messi’s walking is so effective is that he’s the only one allowed to do it.

Thoreau figured he had “met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks, — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.”

On Sunday, the world will see another.

(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)


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