Lionel Messi and the kind of assist we’ll only truly appreciate when he’s gone
When it comes to Lionel Messi, the extraordinary is ordinary. It’s why we won’t truly appreciate moments like his assist against Eibar until he’s not around to produce them any more.
Pointing out in 2018 that Lionel Messi is pretty good at football is hardly a groundbreaking revelation.
The Barcelona man has been at the top of his game seemingly forever, and 20 goals and 10 assists are more than anyone else in Spain’s top flight this season, but his majesty comes from his continued ability to produce unexpected brilliance.
It shouldn’t be possible: someone who has been considered the main danger-man for a full decade ought not to have the freedom to play as if unhindered by opponents, as if he remains able to flick a switch and win a game at any moment.
It takes something special to produce the necessary magic right when everyone’s expecting you to do so and taking preventative measures as a result, but in Barcelona’s win against Eibar Messi once again made the opposing defenders wonder whether it was even worth trying to keep him out in the first place.
Eibar, sitting comfortably in the top half of La Liga, produced as much as could be expected of them against the might and resources of Barcelona. They out-shot the league leaders and held their own possession-wise, producing numbers you might normally associate with a team leaving the field with one point if not three.
That they didn’t was largely down to the sort of devastating pass that it’s near enough impossible to defend against.
Messi actually picked the ball up inside his own half, but his career has featured runs from such a variety of positions that the idea of letting him have the ball ‘where he’s less dangerous’ doesn’t exist.
Whether cutting in from the right or left, accelerating from deep or squeezing through non-existent gaps like his Camp Nou predecessor Ronaldo, the consensus is if he has the ball anywhere then he’s a threat.
So, while Eibar might have felt the situation was more or less under control when he collected Sergio Busquets’ pass, it’s all relative.
His run to go from ‘where he’s less dangerous’ to ‘uh-oh’ terroritory is real blink-and-he’s-gone stuff, evocative of another ex-Barça player in Yaya Touré.
But the sight of someone of Messi’s height and build eating up ground with just a couple of touches is harder to explain. Somehow, the grace of the upper-body movement is comparable, despite the Argentine’s legs all-but over-rotating to cover the same amount of turf.
To do this while mentally preparing the pass that follows is impressive enough in itself, but the execution pushes it one step further.
Some credit must go to Luis Suárez, of course, for making the run and ensuring Messi’s ball didn’t simply end up as one which looked pretty but amounted to nothing.
While a player of Messi’s quality could undoubtedly thrive in any setup, the anticipation and attacking instincts of Suárez, as with other Barça forwards past and present, helps unlock those great components of Messi’s game which go beyond the (often equally impressive) doing it all himself approach.
There’s a traditional game of trust, common to anyone who has been in a sports team or even a member of the Boy Scouts, where you allow yourself to fall backwards in the knowledge that your team-mate will catch you.
The stakes might seem low, but the principle is translatable: here, the timing and direction of Suárez’s run comes from a place of trusting Messi to find its endpoint, and the trust is so strong that the Uruguayan doesn’t even need to be fully visible to his team-mate.
Whether the result of a shout, a glance or repeated attempts in training, Messi can find not only the spot where Suárez’s stride will land, but – maybe more importantly – where the covering defender’s will not.
The arc on the pass is an act of beauty in itself, almost acting as a line-drawing of Messi’s own career trajectory.
Rather than an angled ball, keeping its steady motion throughout, the ball seems to control its own motion as soon as it leaves his boot.
Its early acceleration is the mid-2000s Messi, shooting out of the blocks and embarrassing Chelsea’s Asier del Horno into a Champions League red card.
It then picks up, bypassing Eibar players like a Ferrari in the inside lane of the motorway, as if mimicking the solo goal against Getafe in 2007 and four-goal haul against Arsenal at the start of the decade.
At this point, a normal pass would flatten out and go supernova, or grind to a straight-lined halt to leave Suárez straining and stretching.
Instead the ball decides (yes, Messi has handed the reins to the object itself at this stage) to put in that last little burst of pace before drifting further to the right, corresponding to the extra brilliance required of the Argentine to keep pace with Cristiano Ronaldo in full flight.
Even while stepping aside for others, it continues moving forward, just like the man himself.
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it’s a well-trodden argument that the quality of a player won’t be truly felt until he steps away from the game, and that even goes for a player of Messi’s quality who has enjoyed whole-hearted praise near enough from the moment his career began.
You might wonder how and where he can find space for post-retirement growth, but we’re sure to feel his absence when we begin to look at Barcelona away from the Messi v Ronaldo dichotomy, and when we do the same for the two players themselves.
The on-field and off-field battle between the pair tends to be dominated by stats, with less focus on the quotidian, but we’ll eventually be attuned to the fact that assists like the one for Suárez are anything but an everyday achievement.
We’ll watch Barcelona a few years down the line and they’ll still be scoring goals and dominating games, but they won’t be producing these moments from nothing.
When you watch a player outdoing his peers on such a regular basis, even a conscious effort to not take him for granted is itself an acknowledgement that the temptation is there.
Others will be capable of these moments on occasion, but none will be able to brush it off as normalcy. If we don’t realise that now, we will in time.
By Tom Victor