The Genius of Lionel Messi Just Walking Around

On Sunday, a global audience of a billion plus will tune into the World Cup final to behold the most transfixing spectacle in sport: a small man walking back and forth. The Argentina-France match, at Lusail Stadium, in Lusail, Qatar, will be a showdown between two of the world’s great footballing powers that holds the potential for all sorts of thrilling action and endeavor. Will Kylian Mbappé, France’s superstar attacker, produce one of those runs to goal that leave wind-tossed defenders behind him, flapping like suits of clothes on a drying line? Will we see more clever, commanding midfield play from Mbappé’s teammate Antoine Griezmann, perhaps the tournament’s standout player? Or will the middle of the pitch be dominated by Argentina’s stubborn trio of Enzo Fernández, Rodrigo De Paul, and Alexis Mac Allister, with the moments of glory falling to Julián Álvarez, the twenty-two-year-old phenom who has slashed and pounced his way to four goals in his first World Cup?

Perhaps the match will provide all of the above. Yet the telling difference may be found in the least dramatic, least kinetic activity on the field. Sunday’s result might well turn, as so many games have before, on the meandering movements of Lionel Messi, who will spend much of the ninety minutes simply walking around—drifting here and there, wandering the field at the pace, and with the apparent dreamy purposelessness, of a flâneur on a psychogeographic dérive.

Messi is soccer’s great ambler. To keep your eyes fixed on him throughout a match is both spellbinding and deadly dull. It is also a lesson in the art and science of watching a soccer match. If you ask any astute observer—an experienced coach or player or tactically tuned-in analyst—how to understand the game, they will advise you to take your eyes off the ball. There may well be an analogous precept, with a German name, in philosophy or art history or mechanical physics. The idea is this: to apprehend the main thrust of the narrative, to really wrap your mind around what’s going on, you must shift your focus from the foreground to the background.

In soccer, the principle unquestionably applies. When you learn to bifurcate your brain, keeping an eye on the main action while devoting equal or greater attention to what’s happening off the ball, the game opens up to you. It is then that you begin to pick out trends and patterns: the positions that individuals are taking up in and out of possession, the shapes and formations that teams are assuming when they attack and defend, the spaces that are opening up on the pitch and the ways that the adversaries are, or aren’t, exploiting them.

And, if you happen to be watching a match featuring Leo Messi, you’ll notice that something on the order of eighty-five per cent of the time, he can be found off the ball, strolling and dawdling and looking mildly uninterested. It is the kind of behavior associated with selfish players, prima donnas who expend no effort on defense and bestir themselves only when goal-scoring opportunities arise. Messi, of course, is one of the most prolific scorers of all time, with a career total of nearly eight hundred goals in club and international competition. His penchant for walking is not a symptom of indolence or entitlement; it’s a practice that reveals supreme footballing intelligence and a commitment to the efficient expenditure of energy. Also, it’s a ruse—the greatest con job in the history of the game.

A famous aphorism, usually attributed to the Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque, sums up the subtly visionary play of the midfielder Sergio Busquets this way: when you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets—but when you watch Busquets, you see the whole game. Something related might be said about the great Argentinean: when you watch Messi, you watch him watching the game. Another manager, Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who coached Messi for four years at Barcelona, has described his walking, especially in the early stages of a game, as form of cartography—an exercise in scanning and surveying, taking the measure of the defense, noticing where the vulnerabilities lie, and calculating when and how opportunities might be seized. “After five, ten minutes, he’ll have a map in his eyes and in his brain,” Guardiola has said. “[He’ll] know exactly what is the space and what is the panorama.”

In other words, for Messi, walking is tantamount to seeing and thinking. But it is also crucial to the ways he turns analysis into action. His moseying about the pitch reconfigures and unlocks defenses: he trudges around, dragging opposing players with him, creating space for his teammates. As often as not, his ramblings also lull defenders into a state of torpor that leaves them vulnerable to Messi magic—those flashes of sorcery that erupt and wreak havoc with bewildering speed.

A fine example was Messi’s sixty-fourth-minute goal in Argentina’s group-stage clash with Mexico, a stunning strike from twenty-five yards out that salvaged the team’s then teetering World Cup campaign. Watching the replays of the goal—both the regular televised version and the bird’s-eye “tactical view”—you can see the fruits of Messi’s slow and sneaky maneuvering. While his teammates work the ball into the final third along the right wing, Messi arrives in the center of the pitch, slowing his jog to a leisurely stroll in an expanse of green grass so empty and unpeopled that he could have spread out a picnic blanket and uncorked his favorite Mendoza Malbec. Somehow, the most dangerous player in history has managed to slip, completely unmarked, into yards of open space with a clear sight of goal. It is surely no accident that the position Messi takes up prior to receiving a pass from Ángel Di María is parallel with the referee, who helps to camouflage Messi’s presence. By the time the Mexicans get wise to the situation, the shot has already fizzed into the net.

An analysis by the Athletic determined that Messi has walked more than any player at this year’s World Cup, an average of more than three miles per game. He walks more than ever these days, which makes sense. He is thirty-five; by walking three miles instead of running them, Messi is storing up his energy and lengthening his career.

But watching late-stage Messi, both in his day job for the French super-club Paris Saint-Germain and in his tournament appearances for Argentina, you can’t help but draw the conclusion that these off-ball movements are more about stealth than health. The standout moment of the World Cup came in Tuesday’s Argentina-Croatia semifinal, when Messi unleashed a jaw-dropping run down the right flank past the twenty-year-old defender Joško Gvardiol, culminating with a pass to Álvarez for an easy goal. For Messi, it was a throwback, a kind of cover version of his greatest hits from the circa-2010 Barcelona days, when he sometimes played on the right side and did a lot of unseemly humiliating of opponents with the ball bustling at his feet.

Perhaps it was also a foreshadowing. The cup title is the only triumph missing on Messi’s C.V., and the vibes are good; even the French may not be able to arrest Argentina’s momentum. In any event, that blazing run against Croatia was another study in the deceptiveness of the Messi saunter, which so quickly and punishingly can turn into a Messi sprint. He was, of course, just kind of loitering along the touchline when he gathered the ball and began twisting, rumbling, pausing, restarting, whirling, and finally powering past Gvardiol, before placing the ball on a salver for Álvarez to push in. It was epic, but Messi made it look easy, like a walk in the park. ♦

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