World Cup – Why Messi is the most influential player in the tournament

Football doesn’t always piss me off, but when it does, it’s usually because of the stuff that happens off the field. The latest thing to piss me off is the narrative that Messi hasn’t done enough for Argentina in this World Cup to write his name down in history, and although I know that the petty people saying that have no real understanding of the game, and Messi cares about them about as little as I do, the anger has evoked me to attempt to break that myth once and for all.

Messi scored four of Argentina’s six goals in the group stage. One was scored by Marcos Rojo, one was an own goal. The rest, Lionel. With Messi’s goals, Argentina got nine points from the group stage and advanced as the winners of their group. Without Messi’s goals, Argentina would have had two points, and would probably not have made it through the group. But of course, they were “just Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria”, eh, haters?

That’s right, they were “just Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria”, and if Argentina had been a bit less of a mess at the time, they shouldn’t have had to rely so heavily on their captain to drag them out of trouble. But they did, and Messi dragged them.

We move on to the match against Switzerland, in the round of 16. It was Messi’s dribble and a perfectly weighed pass to Angel Di María that helped La Albiceleste avoid penalties and advance to the quarterfinals. But even before that, Messi was influential, no matter how hard people looking at the scoreboards would try to deny it.

Against Switzerland, Messi created 7 chances to his team mates, completed 8 take-ons, took two shots, and also recovered two balls. I am perfectly aware that it isn’t the equivalent of a hat-trick – which is what people seem to expect from him – but against a side very well defensively organized, a side that had two men committed to only keeping him out of the game, that’s quite extraordinary. And add to that the game-winning pass.

How about Belgium, then? Surely Messi wasn’t “influential” against Belgium? Wrong again. If you look at Gonzalo Higuain’s goal closely, you see that it’s Messi who starts the move again. He paused in the midfield, kept the ball from the three Belgians charging at him, thus opened the space in the middle of the park, and in addition, allowed Pablo Zabaleta time to get to the overlap. Without that Messi move, the goal wouldn’t have happened. Angel Di Maria’s attempted pass to Zabaleta wouldn’t have happened because Zabaleta wouldn’t have had the time to get to where he was. Without the attempted pass, the ball wouldn’t have bounced straight into Higuain’s path to slot it home.

Messi keeps the ball and allows Zabaleta to join the attack.
Messi keeps the ball and allows Zabaleta to join the attack.

 

Zabaleta is now making the run and in addition, three players have their focus on Messi, which gives the space in front of the defense line to Higuain.
Zabaleta is now making the run and in addition, three players have their focus on Messi, which gives the space in front of the defense line to Higuain.

And in addition, even against Belgium, Messi completed 8 take-ons, completed 82% of his passes and was close to scoring the second goal late on, only to be stopped by Courtois. Perhaps Messi wasn’t in the limelight, but saying he wasn’t influential simply indicates lack of understanding of the game.

At this point, I suppose it’s a good time to draw the conclusion that without Messi, Argentina wouldn’t have reached the semifinals of the competition.

And what about that semifinal then? It was Messi who forced Netherlands to be cautious at all times. Nigel De Jong wouldn’t go further than three meters away from him, not even when there was space to advance to in attempt to help the attack. Because of Messi, Louis Van Gaal sacrificed Holland’s attacking game, and that’s pretty much the highest compliment a player can receive in football, let alone in a World Cup semifinal. An entire team, set out to stop him.

Despite all this, despite having a more “quiet night” as some have called it, Messi completed 10 take-ons, and gave Argentina two glorious chances to win the game at the end of the extra-time. First, a delicious chip over the defense line to Palacio, who failed to finish, and only moments later, a run through the right wing to send a perfect cross to Maxi Rodriguez, whose shot was of bad quality. If even on a “bad night” a player gives his team two direct opportunities to win the game, how bad is the night, really, and by whose standards?

Not to mention, when two Netherlands’ players reportedly refused to take the first (arguably most important) penalty and left the job for center back Ron Vlaar, Messi stepped up to the plate and netted his in a cool fashion. Is that not influential enough?

Argentina, as of today, is a defensive team. Injuries for key players Di Maria and Kun Aguero have meant that the “Fantastic 4” that took Argentina through the qualifiers was shattered, and Sabella had to think things over. As result, Argentina’s game plan has, more often than not, been to sit back and wait for an opportunity to counter. Thus, the side also makes up for the center-backs’ deficiencies in pace and makes sure that the play is in front of them more often than behind them. After the injury of Di María, the responsibility of starting the attacking moves has been solely on Messi (although Enzo Pérez did a decent job covering for the Noodle) and Messi’s role has been ever-closer to a midfielder.

It’s increasingly clear that Messi is not a forward in the current Argentina, rather, a playmaker. The evolution could perhaps be seen when we compare some of the heatmaps drawn up on Fifa’s official website.

First, let’s look at just Messi. Below you see his heatmaps against Nigeria (relatively open group-stage game in which he scored twice & was a major attacking threat), Belgium (in which ARG gave up possession after Di María’s injury and Messi dropped ever-deeper) and Netherlands (against whom Messi was more than clearly a deeper playmaker rather than a forward).

nigeriabelgium

hollandBasically, what the lesson here is, is that ever since the group stage ended and Argentina’s approach has dramatically changed to a more defensive one, Messi’s base position has dropped, and his touches inside the opponent’s box have decreased. His role in starting the attacks, in keeping the ball and allowing the rest time to move and adapt, has become greater than his role in front of the goal. The fact that Argentina has only scored two goals in their last three games is because the final balls by Lavezzi, Higuain and co. have let them down, or frankly, because the attacks, on occasion, have been very one-dimensional with little movement in front of Messi.

Furthermore, if you compare Messi’s role to some other midfielders (who aren’t expected to score some eight goals a game), you see that Messi’s role is more reminiscent of theirs. Below is Wesley Sneijder’s heatmap versus Argentina, and Toni Kroos’ heatmap versus Algeria. Compare those to Messi’s heatmap versus Holland.

sneijder

kroos algeria

I guess this all is very obvious to those who have watched the games, not just the scoreboards, and actually understand some bits of the game. And for the people that say that Messi couldn’t flourish outside Barcelona, it’s the perfect response, yet those people don’t even seem to understand that the response is right in front of their eyes. Messi plays in a counter-attacking system with Argentina, in a very deep role, with opponents marking him, and has created 21 chances in the World Cup (more than anyone). Messi the midfielder has been the best playmaker in the tournament, after dragging Argentina through the group stage as a goalscorer.

Making a difference, being influential, isn’t only scoring goals. Argentina score less now, and quite obviously so does Messi, but Argentina still rely on Messi just as much as they did before, now, in a different part of the field.

But then again, after all, taking your team to the World Cup final doesn’t really count if you can’t score at least 15 goals over the course of the road.