opinions | 2016-02-10
Form Follows Function – The Rationality of Lionel Messi
Messi's brilliance lies in the way he seeks the best solutions rather than the spectacular
Do you remember that match when Messi scored from an outrageous bicycle-kick? No? Well, me neither. Okay, let's try another one: how about when he scored a 40 yard screamer? You know, the one that went right into the top corner? Thing is, I don't. And I hope you don't either, because Messi has never scored a goal like that. Of course, it could very well be a coincidence that not a single goal of the hundreds of goals in Messi's career, fits these descriptions. I think it isn't. I think these observations point to something more fundamental about 'La Pulga' and why he truly is a one-of-a-kind genius. They tell us something about the rationality inherent in Lionel Messi's game.
People call Messi's way of playing football all kinds of things: magic, extraterrestrial, genius, unbelievable, or even magisterial (Hi there, Ray). None of what I'm gonna say is meant to challenge these characterisations. True, Messi's game is often, and I mean: very, very often, spectacular, but at the same time, the following statement holds true: it's never more spectacular than it needs to be. When Messi goes for the spectacular, it's always as a means to an end, never as an end in itself. If he can score a goal the easy way, he will do so. If there's an obvious pass to be played, he will do so. If dribbling through four opponents, for once, isn't the best option, be sure that he won't try it but do the sensible thing instead. If you see him scoring some wonder goal after dribbling past six players, I basically guarantee you that doing so was the best option available to him. My point is: Messi doesn't overcomplicate things. He is genius, not coupled with madness, but with rationality.
When you watch matches featuring great players of the past, you will notice that most of them were rather different. Pelé, for example, was a player who frequently tried the impossible. And Pelé being Pelé, he actually succeeded doing so once in a while. Maradona, at least in some matches, was similar to that. Not too long ago, I watched a couple of games that Diego himself has named as some of his very best. Even in these games he was making many bad decisions. Going for the spectacular, trying the impossible, when there was a much easier option available that led to the same end. A more recent example may be Ronaldinho. Now, every culé loves Ronnie and, yes, he was an outstanding footballer. But when you watch his YouTube highlight reels only, you would be lead to think that he was at least as good as Messi. Thing is, he wasn't. It's not even close. And the main reason why is because Ronaldinho wasn't nearly as rational a player as Messi is. Even at his peak, he was a player who could, and frequently would, create match-winning moments, but in order to do so he needed to try the impossible many times during that same match. Most of the times, what he tried to do didn't work out. Not because he wasn't a great footballer, but because the impossible is, well, obviously not literally impossible, but really, really difficult. His magic came at a price. Messi's doesn't.
In some ways, Cristiano Ronaldo's playing style is the direct opposite to Messi's rationality. Think about the vast number of shots that Cristiano takes. Quite a few of them from distances or angles that make scoring them only a distant possibility. But Cristiano takes those shots anyway, although it's certainly not the rational thing to do. Trying to score from 30 yards out will ultimately result in one fine goal that graces every YouTube compilation. Many people are more than willing to forget about the dozens of even hundreds of times that those shots simply meant a loss of possession. But these things matter! Doing the selfish thing instead of the rational thing makes you a worse player, because doing so hurts your team.
Messi is different. Not only does he rarely try the impossible when there's a clearly superior option available, his rationality can be seen in almost everything he does. Think of his finishing. We all remember instances when he smashed the ball into the top corner, but the typical Messi-finish looks very different to that. It looks something like this. This is Messi scoring the opening goal against Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League 2008/09. The finish is pure rationality. He calmly guides the ball into the long corner. The goalkeeper has no chance of reaching it, there are ten centimeters of space between where the ball crosses the line and the goal-post just to make sure it ends where it's supposed to. It's all very simple, but at the same time, one-hundred percent deadly. There's beauty in the simplicity of what Messi does. Form follows function.
Also, his dribbling style is obviously breathtakingly spectacular. But it contains few embellishments. Multiple step-overs? Elásticos? Back-heels? You hardly ever see him do those things (Maybe he should suddenly start doing all these tricks in some big match because nobody will expect it). It's all close control, turn of pace and manipulating the opponent's expectations for Messi. Even the nutmeg that he does now and then has a certain simplicity to it. After all, it's the most direct way imaginable to get past your opponent.
You see, for all his unlimited talent and all the unbelievable things he is capable of, Messi is a true La Masia graduate. For he knows that simple football, while being the hardest to execute, is ultimately the best football there is. Messi, in a nutshell, is Maradona, but with rationality instead of madness. And that's why I think it's highly unlikely that he will score from a bicycle-kick or with a shot from 40 yards out any time soon. Because most of the time, trying these things simply isn't the rational thing to do. And Messi is all about rationality.
Anything wrong? Send your correction.
WRITTEN BY: Lukas Tank
Student of philosophy and admirer of excellence & beauty in football. Especially fond of Guardiola's Barça and Sergio Busquets. Also has a blog: footballarguments.wordpress.com