analysis | 2015-03-29
A Truthful Breakdown of Lionel Messi at the 2014 World Cup
Reviewing Messi's campaign in Brazil
When the final whistle blew on July 3, 2010, the curtain fell down on Argentina’s World Cup dream. Lead by then coach, World Cup winner as a player and regarded as the best of all time by many, Diego Maradona, the Albiceleste had crashed out of the 2010 World Cup in spectacular fashion after losing 4-0 to Germany. In a defeat, it is easy to pick a scapegoat. Some chose Diego Maradona, others the makeshift right back Nicolas Otamendi, and some put the blame on rookie goalkeeper Sergio Romero. However, one person who was not able to escape any criticism at all was the reigning Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi. The Albiceleste’s number 10 had just come off a massive 47-goal-season with Barcelona, but he was unable to find the back of the net in South Africa and it seems that was the only thing that many fixated on.
Fast forward nearly four years later to November 2013. The groups were drawn for Brazil 2014, and a lot had changed. Messi’s perceived image in his homeland had taken a drastic turn for the better. He had just finished leading his country to the top of the World Cup qualifying table in South America while scoring an impressive 10 goals in 14 matches. Now captain of his country, the map for the group stages was laid out for the two-time winners. They were handed a relatively easy group which consisted of World Cup debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina, Asia’s Iran, and a familiar World Cup opponent, Nigeria. But just like anyone who has been following this sport will tell you, nothing is easy and having a stronger team on paper does not always mean victory.
Argentina’s opening match at the World Cup against Bosnia-Herzegovina was at the same venue where they would play their last match of the tournament: The mystical Maracanã. The South Americans, spearheaded with arguably the strongest frontline of all the nations at the tournament, made it difficult for themselves. Sergio Agüero seemed rusty, there was no mobility in midfield, and Lionel Messi himself was not playing particularly well. Alejandro Sabella brought in Gonzalo Higuaín at half time, opening more space for Messi and in typical fashion, he scored one of his trademark goals (the ones we take for granted) which ended as the match winner as their opponents would go on to score a late goal.
Not an impressive performance by Lionel’s men, but it was the opening match and World Cup jitters do happen, especially considering the recent nightmare in 2002 for Argentina. The second game arrived and Sabella went in with the big players; Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María all started for Argentina. Iran, who had created more than their fair share of chances in the match, were bending but not breaking... That is until the 93rd minute. A curled shot from outside the penalty area sealed a narrow 1-0 victory for Argentina. The goalscorer? Lionel Messi, of course. That goal secured Argentina's progression into the knockout round of the competition. However, the final group stage match against Nigeria would deliver the first real blow for Alejandro Sabella's team.
Playing in Porto Alegre, it felt as if Argentina were playing at the Monumental in Buenos Aires and not in neighboring Brazil. The match started off in sensational fashion with Lionel Messi once again opening the scoring, but it was at the 38th minute where things went sour for Alejandro Sabella. An already out-of-form Sergio Agüero had to leave the pitch due to an injury and was replaced by Ezequiel Lavezzi. At the stroke of halftime, Lionel added another goal to his World Cup tally, this time off a free kick. He had now scored his country’s last four goals at the World Cup.
At this point in the tournament for Argentina, it was The Lionel Messi Show. On paper, it looked great. After being unable to score a single goal in South Africa, La Pulga had now racked up four goals and one assist in three matches. It was a statistician’s dream. He had scored off a mazy run against Bosnia-Herzegovina, a last-minute winner from outside the box against Iran, and buried a rebound and a sensational free kick against Nigeria. Messi was leaving his mark in Brazil.
And while grabbing all the headlines, in reality, it was a worrying sight. It is normal for a team to rely on their best player especially when that player is Messi. However, it is equally as worrying that Argentina depended on the little magician as much as they did, especially considering the attacking prowess they possessed. With Man of the Match in the Champions League final Ángel Di María, Coppa Italia winner Gonzalo Higuaín, and Premier League winner Sergio Agüero, there was no need for Argentina to rely on their number 10 as much as they did in the group stages.
Sergio Agüero was ruled out for the Round of 16 clash against Switzerland which meant that PSG’s Ezequiel Lavezzi would start in his place. For Messi, it meant playing against the team he got his first international hat-trick against back in February of 2012. Lionel had scored three goals in a 3-1 win against their next opponents and hoped for a similar outcome. What he and the rest of the world got were shades of the match against Iran. In other words, playing against a very stubborn, defensive-minded team and winning without convincing.
Playing in the blistering heat in São Paulo, the two time champions dominated possession with 63 percent of the ball in their favor but the conservative approach by the Swiss made it difficult for Messi to break down a great defensive effort (though he did manage two highlight reel dribbles during the match). With 90 minutes and not a goal by either side, extra time ensued. Argentina were threatening, notably through Messi, but with time running out at 117 minutes, penalty kicks were on the horizon. However, Lionel clearly had something else in mind. Rodrigo Palacio won the ball back in midfield, gave a quick pass to Messi who seemed to conjure a last-ditch effort and like a magnet, attracted half of the Swiss players in his direction. Skipping past the first, he kept moving forward and passed it wide to Di María who was completely unmarked and just like that, Di María had scored the goal of his life to send his country to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Messi had given his second assist of the tournament, following a run we have seen countless of times by the little man, which many world class players can only dream of making. Only this time, at least for the media, the entire planet was watching him do it with Argentina and Messi had captured the attention of the footballing world once again.
Argentina were into the quarterfinals and Messi, just as he had been doing for most of his career, was the driving force behind his team’s success. Despite not scoring or even assisting, the quarterfinal match against Belgium was arguably Lionel’s best match of the tournament; one where he was tormenting Belgium like it was nothing. However, it would provide another blow for Argentina which would subsequently add even more pressure on Messi’s shoulders. Argentina won their first quarterfinal match since Diego Maradona’s days in 1990 with a goal by Gonzalo Higuaín. A goal by Higuaín but the real genesis of it all was none other than well, you know who by now. With Belgium’s Vincent Kompany moving the ball forward, Messi pressured the Belgian captain to make a quick pass which was intercepted by Messi’s Barcelona teammate, Javier Mascherano. Javier passed it to Messi who was quickly marked by two Belgian players. Messi swirled and twisted his body to get away from both, before passing it to Di María who found Higuaín. Although the ball was miss hit, Higuaín volleyed it to score the only goal of the match.
A Higuaín goal from Di Maria’s assist, but that goal would not have existed if not for Messi creating the sequence of events leading up to the goal in the first place. Messi’s genius in the match does not end there. Fast forward to the 28th minute and you’ll see the pass of the tournament. Messi splits open four red shirts and sends Di María through on goal. Ultimately, it was a bittersweet pass. While the move was downright ridiculous, Di María, whose shot was ultimately blocked, got injured and missed the rest of the World Cup. That is why when you look at players, especially a real gamechanger like Lionel, you cannot merely look at statistics. The run by Messi that lead to Higuaín’s goal or that pass which opened up Belgium did not earn Messi an assist nor a goal. For many, that went unnoticed. But that’s what makes Messi what he is. Strip him of his goals and assists and he’ll still win you most matches.
For the first time in 24 years, Argentina reached the semifinals of the World Cup and the little magician had a big say in it. While the first semifinal of the tournament provided a demonstration on how not to defend, the second could be considered a different sport. Argentina against the Netherlands, Lionel Messi against Arjen Robben. In truth, it ended up being Javier Mascherano against Ron Vlaar and Sergio Romero against Jasper Cillessen, which gives you an idea on what kind of a match it was.
For the first time in the tournament, Messi was somewhat anonymous despite dribbling his way around a few Dutch players, creating some nice chances and nearly setting up Maxi Rodriguez for the match winner. The Dutch constantly double marked Messi, and with Di María injured and Agüero not proving to be much of a threat, it became easy to isolate Lionel from the rest of the team. Both sides were unable to find the back of the net and Argentina went to extra time for the second time in the tournament. One hundred twenty minutes provided nothing but clean sheets and it was time for a penalty shootout. Argentina’s Romero saved the first shot, Lionel Messi took the first shot from the spot for Argentina. Honoring the captain’s armband, Messi stepped up and slotted it. The Albiceleste ended up winning 4-2 on penalty kicks and began celebrating.
Messi and Argentina reached the finals of the World Cup in Brazil. The chant, which ended up becoming iconic, was ringing in the ears of all Argentines. “Brasil, decime que se siente” was chanted by fans across both countries and “A Messi lo vas a ver, la copa nos va a traer” was becoming a reality. The Argentine players all chanted it, shirts waving and all. For Lionel Messi, it meant playing on the grandest stage possible.
On July 13, 2014, Argentina faced Germany in the final for the third time in World Cup history. The media fixated on building it as the German machine against Lionel Messi. That tells you how far Messi’s credibility with the National Team had evolved since South Africa 2010. Sergio Agüero was clearly unfit since the beginning of the tournament, and Ángel Di María unable to play the final, Germany’s game plan had become much easier. Stop Messi and you will stop Argentina’s build-ups and attacks. After all, they were missing two of their main attackers up front. Yet, despite their absences, it was Argentina who had the clear-cut chances. Rodrigo Palacio missed an opportunity in front of goal, Manuel Neuer should (or should not, depending on who you ask) have been sent off and Gonzalo Higuaín missed a chance which will haunt him for the rest of his life. And in the middle of all that, you had Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lionel Messi. Lavezzi, arguably Argentina’s most-threatening and best player in the first 45 minutes, wreaked havoc on the flanks until he was off at half time. As for Leo, he had some good runs and some good passes in the first half, both of which could have lead to goals (one of them led to a Higuaín offside goal).
In the second half, Messi found himself one-on-one with Manuel Neuer inside the penalty area at a difficult angle with the German sweeper fast approaching. His left-footed shot though just went wide. In truth, had any other player missed it, it would have been chalked off as a good chance but because Messi had built such high standards for himself, it went down in history as a real miss that he should have buried. Germany, clearly at better fitness levels having essentially played only 45 minutes against Brazil as opposed to Argentina going the distance a day later against the Netherlands, grabbed the winner late in extra time.
The Messi in the final was different than the one in the group stages or even in the early knockout stages. Fatigue can also be attributed to his “walking” which many loved to talk about. While he was not running as much – playing 120 minutes in three knockout stage matches will do that to you – he was just as influential. With Agüero and Di María injured, both of whom played a big part in Argentina getting to the World Cup, Messi had sacrificed his preferred position on the pitch for the better of the team. Substituting Lavezzi off for Sergio Agüero meant shifting from a more conventional 4-4-2 to a more open 4-3-3. The switch in formation meant La Pulga had to do a lot more running with an unfit Agüero on the pitch. The more he went back to defend, the more energy necessary to kickstart an attack. As Alejandro Sabella put it, “He put himself at the disposal of the team and played in solidarity with his team-mates. He put the group first, before the individual, and he personally sacrificed himself for the benefit of the team.”
Messi finished as joint third top scorer at the World Cup with four goals and deservedly or not, was awarded the best player of the tournament, but that loss meant that the media had gone from “Argentina cannot do anything without Messi” to “Messi failed at the World Cup” all in the span of a Mario Götze goal.
José Mourinho, far from Barcelona’s and Messi’s biggest admirer, defended the player stating that he deserves respect “more than ever” for his World Cup and that “It's easy to respect Messi when he has won but when he has lost, it’s not so easy.”
Looking at Messi’s overall heat map in Brazil, his position was farther from the box and more of something you would see from an all-around midfielder. Despite that, he still managed to score four times and assisted twice. In the middle of all the criticism leading up to the tournament, Messi finished as one of the World Cup’s top players, played a crucial role in leading his country to the final for the first time in 24 years and had it been for better finishing in the final, Messi would have a World Cup winners medal around his neck.
Breaking down his World Cup by the numbers makes his tournament even more impressive. He created the most key passes with 23. Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Arjen Robben only came in second in that department with 17 each. Messi also had the most completed dribbles at 46 taking him beyond Arjen Robben who came in second with 29.
Many allude to the fact that he had a goal-scoring opportunity to give his team the win in the final. The truth is that as fans, we have become so used to Messi scoring that and when he does not, it is easy for some to claim he’s finished. Such was the talk in the media after the final. He makes scoring look so easy, as if he’s manipulating the ball and placing it where he wants with his hands by using a string and not his feet. Anyone who has ever kicked a football knows how difficult it is to place the ball where we want, but Messi makes it look easy.
Looking past his unique skills and goal scoring records, we tend to forget he is human and take him for granted. This is why, when he missed that chance in the final, the nonsensical cries of Messi being done and being a choker, commenced. Fans often compare Messi to the great Maradona, but he also missed a crucial penalty in the 1990 World Cup against Yugoslavia. However, he could count on his teammates to win the shootout. Had Gonzalo Higuaín or Rodrigo Palacio put away their chances, both easier than Messi’s, we would talk about how Messi carried his team like Maradona once did and that he is the greatest ever.
Now Messi has reached an even higher level to his usual standards, his utmost best in his footballing career, more dominant at Barcelona and Argentina as he continues to be the most decisive and magical player we know and love. So let us enjoy Messi as he plays every weekend, while we tell our children of the greatest ever player, and to never doubt Messi because of a miss in a World Cup final, since we all know he is too unique for that.
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