Rob Ward dissects a genius.
On Wednesday night, Lionel Messi became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League knockout game. He also completed his eighth hat-trick of the season and notched his 47th goal of the campaign. There can no longer be any doubt that he is the greatest player in the world. There remains little doubt that he’s the greatest of all time. But of all his many qualities, which is it that marks him out as being ‘the one’?
Quite simply, Messi is the greatest ever dribbler of a football. Like his fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona, he possesses a low centre of gravity, is deceptively strong and has an exquisite first touch. Where he differs from Maradona, and everyone else, is in the way he runs with the ball.
Messi has very few tricks in his locker. No Cruyff turns. No Ronaldo-style step-overs. No lollipops, rabonas or seal dribbles. He has no need for such unnecessary embellishments. Instead, he relies on keeping the ball mere millimetres from his left foot. He doesn’t push the ball in feet front of himself and chase it. He rarely knocks it past an opponent before running around them and collecting it.
Rather than raw power or trickery, Messi relies on an almost magnetic ability to keep the ball attached to his toes. Allied with his amazingly quick feet, he’s able to twist, turn, feint and fool defenders with relatively simple movements. His touch is so perfect that he can simply nudge the ball wherever he wants it to go – tantalisingly out of reach of defenders. He cushions and caresses the ball until he decides to release it. His touch is so soft and so delicate that it’s often impossible to see exactly where and when he’s touched the ball. He weaves in and around the opposition, gliding across the turf: his mastery is almost magical.
And when Messi decides to pass or shoot, he does so quite unlike anyone else. He’s capable of smashing a shot into the top corner or rifling a pass into a teammate’s feet. But he rarely does. Instead he coaxes, cushions or chips the ball around the pitch as if he’s playing a different game to everyone else: one where points are awarded for artistry rather than goals.
Witness the numerous occasions Messi ghosts across a penalty area, the ball velcroed to his left boot. He skims across the surface, poised to capitalise on any slip or mistake. He lets defenders get as close to the ball as they like – his mastery means he can move it away from them at will. His perfect balance keeps him upright as others flounder and, then, just as he runs out of space he flicks his boot under the ball. It’s a barely imperceptible movement: crafty, quick, accurate. The ball teases the goalkeeper as it is dinked within inches of his despairing grasp – before nestling in the net. In England we still eulogise such goals by Georgie Kinkladze, Paolo Wanchope and Noel Whelan. At the Camp Nou, they happen every week.