Messi At 27: Have We Seen his Best?
The great Lionel Messi turns 27 today.
For years, Messi has been the best soccer player in the world. From 2008-2013, he claimed every individual award imaginable, set countless scoring records, led Barcelona to unprecedented heights, all the while casting a spell over teammates, opponents, and fans alike. He evolved from inverted winger to false nine to something resembling a striker, all the while comfortably perched at the very top of the game. He made the extraordinary routine. Arsene Wenger described him as “like a PlayStation”. Pep Guardiola once exclaimed “I’ve run out of adjectives — you’ll have to put your own.” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella did, calling him “inmessionante.”Most greats fall into one of two categories–physical specimens and artists. Specimens–like Ronaldo I and Ronaldo II–are destroyers, wielding their physical gifts like weapons, bludgeoning the opposition into submission with their speed, strength, and quickness. Artists–like Xavi and Pirlo–are often more withdrawn, and rely on guile and technique to spellbind their opponents. Messi, blessed with impossibly close control, incredible leg turnover, a low center of gravity, a magical left foot, and a mind deft enough to pull it all together, was the rarest of breeds: specimen and artist. And he played with a youthful exuberance that set him apart and increasingly belied his age. Despite his status, he worked hard for his teammates. He consistently led his team in assists, and celebrated every goal, regardless of scorer, like it was his first year in La Masia, like he was just happy to be there. The great Lionel Messi turns 27 today. While 27 seems young, in soccer years, it’s older than you think. Consider: since 1992, excluding Messi, the average age of players finishing in the top 3 in Ballon d’Or voting (as of June 1 of that calendar year) is around 26; the average striker is under 25. Great 21st century striking luminaries such as Andrei Shevchenko, Fernando Torres, Ronaldo il Fenomeno, Raul, and Michael Owen all peaked before they were 27. So did the two preeminent creative attacking forces of the pre-Messi era, Ronaldinho and Kaka. For many, their downfall was precipitated by an unfortunate injury, or an injury riddled season or two, from which they never truly recovered.
Messi, now a father and in the middle of his third World Cup, is beginning to lose his aura of invincibility. In the last year, his previously spotless reputation has taken a hit. His Messi and Friends charity matches last summer were marred by delays and accusations of corruption. He was accused of tax fraud. And on the pitch, his cherubic image has fallen by the wayside. He is increasingly characterized as a primadonna, pulling strings to undercut his coaches and teammates.
His performances so far in Brazil have been far from convincing. Against both Bosnia and Iran, he rarely strayed from the center circle, simply waiting for the ball. When he got the ball, even when he had time and space to turn, he was easily dispossessed. When he wasn’t, his passes were picked off. Even worse, he looked disinterested without the ball, on offense and especially on defense. Despite his central position, he managed to float on the periphery.
Some of that is surely tactical–Sabella’s system was designed to relieve his 3 strikers of defensive duties. Perhaps that will change as Argentina go deeper into the tournament and come up against stronger sides. But this is also something worth monitoring; really, his performances have been reminiscent of what many called a dispirited effort in the second leg of the Champions League against Athletico. At the time, many speculated that, disgruntled at having been positioned wide on the right for the first time in a soccer generation, he never got into the game. But, if reports are to be believed, for the past game and a half, Sabella set up the team specifically to accommodate Messi and his desire to float freely across the front-line in a 4-3-3. Yes, Messi popped up to score two wonder-goals, but when his strikes found the back of the net, the blushes he saved were his own.
In truth, this is a trend that has been developing over the past couple of years. Worryingly, he hasn’t reached his best since pulling his hamstring against PSG in early Spring, 2013. He has been injured for much of that time, but injuries are often a byproduct of age and harbinger of physical decline. And after watching a supposedly healthy Messi look pedestrian and lethargic for most of the first two games of what could be, what should be, his World Cup, I’m beginning to fear that he’s past it.
It bears repeating: 27 is older than we’ve been trained to think. We want to believe Messi is different, because, well, he’s Messi. He’s unique: better, eternally youthful. But it increasingly looks as if Messi’s lost a step. His burst of acceleration isn’t there. His leg turnover is not as quick–it sometimes looks as if he can’t quite keep up with his own mind. For years, when Messi turned into space in midfield, he was gone; players would hug him to make sure he couldn’t rev up, sacrificing a yellow every time. Now, more and more often, Messi’s runs at the heart of the defense don’t come off. He is either caught in possession or plays the ball to the other team, with an errant hopeful ball towards the left. Meanwhile, he doesn’t work as hard defensively; much has been made of his diminishing tackles, and rightly so. He has become a more selfish, petulant player, prone to tantrums. In the midst of all this, that youthful exuberance that made him such a joy to watch has completely disappeared.
He’s still a great player–he’s possibly still the best player. He scored 28 goals in 31 games in La Liga even as Barcelona collapsed around him, a ridiculous return for anyone else. But really, that’s more than pedestrian for Messi, especially considering 6 of those goals were penalties. For perspective, the last time he scored so few goals was in the watershed 2008-2009 season, when he partnered up front with Eto’o and Henry, and only began playing centrally towards the end of the season. He’s still certainly capable of moments of magic and inspiration, still capable of end product, but that’s all that’s left. His overall influence on the game has diminished; as against Bosnia and Iran, he can increasingly be found on the game’s periphery.
I hope Messi is hurt, and I hope he proves me wrong.
But the great Lionel Messi turned 27 today, and I fear we’ve seen his best.