What makes Messi so good?

ESPNSTAR.com analyses the reasons behind Lionel Messi's phenomenal record-breaking antics.

Lionel Messi
Kelvin Yap

By Kelvin Yap

Messi is amazing. Everybody knows that.

But what sets him apart from modern-day greats like Sergio Aguero, Neymar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney et al?

To find the answer, we have to ask a simpler question: What makes Messi such a brilliant attacking footballer?

The answer is pretty simple, really, once we go back to the basics.

There are three main things you want an attacking player to do - to dribble, to pass and to shoot - which is why all of the above functions are represented in the most basic football video games.

Many fellow football fans I've talked to agreed that Messi isn't the best at each of the above - Ronaldinho was arguably a better ball-carrier and overall entertainer at his peak in 2004, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are widely considered the world's best passers while the likes of Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto'o are arguably more lethal finishers.

It is no coincidence that Messi has played alongside all of the players mentioned above at some point in his career - it is then interesting to chart Messi's history and see how his career at Barcelona led to him developing his all-round game.

Most of us have heard (or read) the extraordinary story of Messi, the prodigious youngster being signed by Barcelona director Carles Rexach at the age of 11 with a contract written on a napkin.

Most of us have witnessed his extraordinary exploits in the past three years - in each of which he has won the Ballon d'Or.

Getting Messi on his feet

When Messi first burst into the scene, he was an excruciatingly shy youngster - so shy that there are many anecdotes of the Argentine's bashfulness on the internet, ranging from him being too diffident to even ask for meat at an Argentina national team barbeque to his youth teammates that he had played with for three years admitting that they had hardly heard him speak.

This may not seem relevant to his ball-playing skills, but his shyness played a major part in development for when he broke into the first team at Barcelona, for it was the most extroverted player who took him under his wing - Ronaldinho.

It's clear that Messi looked upon the Brazilian as a mentor of sorts on and off the pitch.

When asked in 2007 who he thought the best player in the world was in 2007, Messi said: "I've always said it's Ronaldinho. He's a truly impressive player who can change the course of a game at any moment.

"During the time we've been together [at Barcelona], I've tried to learn as much as possible from him. On top of that, he's always been a great friend."

It's in another interview in 2008 that Ronaldinho's influence on Messi is apparent.

"Ronnie [Ronaldinho] was massively important for me. I was so young when I started to come into Barcelona's dressing room, but he made a point of being first to step up to me and look after me.
"I try to copy little things Ronaldinho does but more fundamentally I just try to play for the joy of it."

Analysing Messi's dribble

The first thing I did when I was first given the task to analyse the technical side of Messi's game was to naturally watch hours of Messi video clips.

The first thing that struck me was that Messi's dribbling style was very like Ronaldinho's.

I saw a YouTube clip which featured both of them to a non-football watching, track-running friend to get a neutral perspective on it and the first remark was: "They run like Jack Sparrow [from Pirates of the Caribbean]."

It's a funny yet valid point - both of their arms tend to go out sideways instead of pumping in a forward-backward motion which most players use, which helps by spreading their weight over a larger area, enabling them to change direction quickly without losing balance.

If you observe the way they beat opponents with the ball, it's more about when and how they choose to slow down rather than their speed, which is helped by another factor - short legs.

The players above are selected by asking my colleagues to name a player of average physique and put them side to side, compared to Messi and Ronaldinho.

The image is of the players standing in a typical upright position during a match cropped exactly from their head to toe with the torso-to-leg ratio measured.

As you can observe, Messi's legs are significantly shorter than the other players, and he uses it to his advantage by keeping a small stride.

For example, over a span of 10 meters at full speed, Messi will have touched the ball six times while another dribbler like Angel Di Maria would have taken half that amount.

Messi is further helped by his short stature (he is only 169cm) and lower center of gravity, which allows him to change directions more easily and dodge past defenders without compromising his speed.

Back to the point of Ronaldinho's influence - go to YouTube to compare Messi from, say, 2005, to one of him in 2012 (you have 10 minutes to go watch it starting from.... now!)

The Messi from 2005 was already an exceptional talent with the speed and trickery to beat players, but compare it to the current Messi.

The big difference is that Messi utilises the start-and-stop a lot more to throw his opponents off pace, which was a trademark of Ronaldinho at his peak.

Messi lacked the outrageous trickery of Ronaldinho, but it's not necessarily a bad thing - he simply took the essence of the Brazilian's ability to get past players and incorporated it into his more direct game.

The rise of Messi's passing game

Ronaldinho may have helped Messi out of his shell but his off-field influence was worrying the Barcelona board. The Brazilian himself fell victim to his partying ways and went on a steep decline which prompted his sale in 2008.

It turned out for the better as it allowed Barcelona‘s current ‘tiki-taka' style to come to the fore and paved way for Messi's passing game to develop.

Messi himself admitted that he was always more of a ‘dribbler' than a ‘passer' at Barcelona's La Masia academy, in an interview with El Pais in 2012.

"I was corrected, but I don't really remember anything specific," he revealed, "They did respect my way of playing, but it's true that the philosophy here is to play one-touch football but I never passed the ball!

"They told me many times to get rid of the ball earlier but they realised that it wasn't working and they gave up.

"Little by little I started passing the ball more. But when I first started playing... I didn't give it to anyone!"

Looking at the statistics in the table above, Messi's contributions spiked in 2010, which was the year where Barcelona switched to a ‘pure' tiki-take style when pure no. 10 strikers like Ibrahimovic and Eto'o left the club to be replaced by wide forwards like David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro.

It helped that Messi was deployed in a ‘false nine' role where he had a choice to play as a striker or drop deeper to create space for his team mates in front.

If you watch a YouTube clip of Messi's assists, it can be seen that his most of his assists were aimed between the center-back and the full back for the wide forwards to finish - a trademark of Barcelona's tiki-take style where others like Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta can be seen making the same passes.

As a product of La Masia, Messi also developed the trait of keeping his head up when having the ball and frequently noticing the movements of his team mates even before he receives the ball - a habit which can be observed with passers like Paul Scholes, Andrea Pirlo and Xavi.

Finishing it off

Messi's goal record is nothing short of phenomenal, especially for someone who doesn't play as a pure striker.

His goals are actually very varied, ranging from the world-class precise long-range shots into top corners to dead-calm finishes after mazy dribbles bypassing half the opposing a la Maradona.

However, it's the simple ones, the tap-ins that Messi is underrated for.

Ask any striker and they will agree that it's the skill to elude defenders and pop up unguarded that is hardest to master as it relies less on physical technique and more on instinct.

There are a few strikers who seem to able to consistently turn on the ability - Gerd Muller (whose record Messi is anticipated to break) , Ruud van Nistelrooy, Pippo Inzaghi and Eto'o to name a few from the modern greats. None of them are the fastest, strongest or the most powerful finishers but they didn't need to be - they had the uncanny knack to sneak up at the right places, right time to score an easy goal.

It's the same for Messi - he has the natural instinct to pop up at the right moment to simply pass the ball into the net.

Combine that with his ability to place the ball into any part of the net with unerring accuracy, it's no surprise that Messi is sending goalscoring records tumbling every time he steps on the pitch.

Messi's most underrated characteristic

It's inevitable schoolboys (or even amateur footballers like myself) look up to top footballers and try to play like them on the pitch, and it's actually the same for Messi, who seems to be on a constant journey to improve.

The difference is that where our success may be limited to mimicking Cristiano Ronaldo's trademark free kick stance before blasting the ball overhead, Messi has the immense ability to pull off well, pretty much whatever he wants to do with the ball.

This is where Messi isn't given enough credit for - he joined Barcelona as a prodigious talent but he was always willing to learn and improve as a player from those around him - and fortunately for him, he had the best to learn from along his career.

As a result, we witnessed him transform from an already-brilliant wonderkid into a world-class phenomenon with the ability to dribble like Ronaldinho and pass like Xavi and Iniesta.

In other words, Messi is a world-class midfielder, winger and striker rolled into one.



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