play when you want, and you no longer have to do everything

Do you remember Lionel Messi? That little guy, who used to wear a mushroom haircut? The one who started dribbling everyone, but they fouled him all the time? The one who later became the best passer in the world and also the best scorer? The one who finally cut his hair, but dyed it blonde? And then he removed the peroxide and grew a beard? That he seemed to have gotten over that crisis, only to tattoo his entire leg in black ink? The one who won the Ballon d’Or seven times? Have you ever heard of him?

It used to be everywhere, always. Watching football for the last 15 years was like trying to pay attention to someone else on a Saturday or Sunday, only to be reminded by Messi that you were wasting your time if you didn’t watch him.

Enjoying that Bayern Munich game? Hey, I just dribbled the entire Getafe team. Man, this Zlatan guy is pretty interesting, isn’t he? Do you know what is interesting? I just scored 50 goals and distributed 16 assists in 38 LaLiga games. Wow, will Manchester City ever lose a game? Uh, my team just had 20 kills in a game, and I kicked or assisted every single one. Alright, looks like it’s time to enjoy some of this Erling Haaland. I’m 32 years old and I’m going to do a 20-goal, 20-assist season just for fun.

Every month during the season, European Sports Media, a group of 14 European magazines, vote for a Team of the Month. There is an archive of his selections from the 1995-96 campaign. Since then, Messi was voted 84 times. No other player has had more than 51 appearances (Cristiano Ronaldo). Put another way, during his 16 seasons with Barcelona, ​​Messi was voted Team of the Month 60 per cent of the time, insane. For more than a decade and a half, Messi’s average month was better than everyone else’s best. He is the only player in history who was more likely to be on the team than not.

And suddenly it disappeared.

Just…nothing. No impressive runs, no physics-defying free kicks, and hardly any goals. After twenty-one games in his first Ligue 1 season with Paris Saint-Germain, the greatest footballer of all time has scored just once. In the 2012-13 season he had already scored 33 goals at this point in the national campaign. In his last three years with Barcelona, ​​he averaged 16 goals in the first 21 games of the La Liga season. Let me repeat: Lionel Messi has scored ONE GOAL in Ligue 1 this season. Unsurprisingly, it’s because of this, and surprisingly everything else, that he has yet to be selected for ESM’s Team of the Month this season. He has been so absent from the daily rhythms of European football that some people were even angry when he won the Ballon d’Or.

It certainly feels like the beginning of the end, or maybe it’s the beginning of something new.

Has improved with age

During the last five years, the best way to be wrong was to predict that this would finally be the year that Messi could not maintain his level. The indices were always on your side: forwards peak in their mid-twenties and time, as they say, is undefeated.

Like an idiot, I tried it last season, when we had reached the end of November and Messi did not have an assist and had only scored one non-penalty goal. He was 33 years old, the pandemic had tightened the schedule and, as Barcelona deteriorated around him, he took on an ever-increasing workload at a time when most players would have started to pick their places.

That would have to take its toll, right? All signs pointed to a real, perceptible slowdown, except one: It’s Lionel Messi, IDIOT. The best of all time closed his last season in Spain with 30 goals (27 without penalties) and nine assists.

Then, he kept going and finally won the only thing he had never won: a major international title for Argentina. And although he received more help than usual from the Albiceleste, he still got her to port. Messi surpassed all Copa América players in assists and progressive forays, was tied for first in goals and finished second in progressive passes. As always, he was much better than the others in everything.

However, since the end of last season, Messi has become something of a billionaire freelancer in global football’s gig economy. He has played more minutes for Argentina than in Ligue 1 over the last seven months. Add the Champions League, and he has only worked a couple more hours for PSG: 1,315 minutes for his club, 959 minutes for his national team. In other words, after almost two decades of dominating club football to the point that nobody really cared if a team led by Lionel Messi won a LaLiga title over Real Madrid year after year, Messi has only played the games he he, and we, really care: the ones that could add another significant trophy to his personal collection.

At 34, Messi doesn’t need to dominate in Ligue 1, and PSG clearly don’t either. With the reigning Ballon d’Or winner featuring in less than 50 per cent of France’s minutes, they have created a 10-point lead in the table, backed by the best expected goal differential in the league. (Neymar has even played fewer minutes. This is not what one would call “healthy competition”, folks.)

With Ligue 1 within reach and World Cup qualifiers finalized for Argentina, the focus is now on winning the Champions League. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a signature moment for Messi — and PSG — so far this season came in the Champions League group stage in a 2-0 win over Manchester City. A breakthrough, a pass into the area and a goal… All from the same player… All in the same move.

Messi, the point guard?

When Messi played, there were notable changes. Last year, most of his touches came in the central zone of the area:

This year, it’s still his main spot, but he’s receiving the ball less often in the box and more often in the midfield zone:

Considering where he catches the ball, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s taking the fewest shots since he was 23:

Now he’s still taking more shots than most – Messi is in the 99th percentile among Ligue 1 wingers and attacking midfielders, according to the FBref site – and right now he’s going through one of the longest streaks of his career without defining majors. numbers. When he starts playing in Ligue 1 again – having recently tested positive for COVID-19 – he’s going to start scoring.

It is known that he is the best at throwing a ball on goal than any other living being. But after a career in which he has been not only the best scorer and creator of his own team but of the whole world, Messi’s limited numbers in a PSG uniform suggest that he may have taken his foot off the accelerator with respect to the goals or that perhaps he has begun a transformation into a playmaker in a deeper position.

Compared to last season, he is completing three fewer progressive passes every 90 minutes (from 15.4 to 12.5, which is still a 99th percentile in Ligue 1) and receiving 2.5 fewer progressive passes (from 8.3 to 5.6). Instead, he’s completing more progressive passes than ever before: up to 11.1, up from 9.4 last year. Despite not playing even half of the minutes for PSG in Ligue 1, Messi has completed 107 progressive passes, 33 more than any other player in a squad with the best players in the world in terms of progressive passes. In fact, only 17 players in Europe’s top five leagues have completed more progressive passes. He has also completed eight through balls moving between opposing defenders, and the four players in Europe who have completed the most have played almost twice as many minutes.

The Mbappe connection

Whether this is happening because Messi is bigger or because it is what works best at PSG is not clear. The first reason always seems the right one – and then Messi always ends up proving the opposite. But the latter makes a lot of sense. As you’ve probably seen if you’ve watched a game this year, the PSG players either can’t or don’t want to press, so they’re not winning the ball up front as often as they used to. And therefore they need to move the ball higher than most super clubs afterwards. If you have Messi, it makes sense to get his help in this process, and it has certainly worked, as 56 per cent of PSG’s possessions end up in the final third, the most of any team in Europe.

Also, in Kylian Mbappé, PSG have the best progressive resource in the world, so instead of making Messi obstruct the space to make him advance, both in the last third and in the area, the Argentine grabs the ball in greater depth and climbs it to get closer to its superstar partner. There is only one clear pattern in all the passes from Messi to Mbappé: it is a vertical and direct pass.

As his former coach, Luis Enrique, once said of Messi, “If he plays as No. 9, No. 8, or No. 6, he will be the best No. 9, No. 8, or No. 6 in the world.” . He’s able to judge the perfect pass from about 40 yards out. He can put the ball where he wants.”

Is this new for Messi? Or is he the Messi you get when he’s constantly injured and doesn’t have time to develop on-pitch relationships with his teammates? Regardless of the answer, it seems clear that the current version of Lionel Messi is at least a different version of the Lionel Messi we have seen before.

After nearly two decades of dominating the sport in every conceivable way, it seems that he has finally started to pick his positions.