Before scoring to give Barcelona a 1-0 victory against Atletico Madrid this past Sunday, Lionel Messi had never scored at the Wanda Metropolitano, which has been Atletico’s home stadium since the 2017-2018 season. For almost 86 minutes of game time, it looked as if that barren streak would extend. Atletico had done everything right to neutralize Messi and Barcelona.
Then in those dying minutes, Messi drove from the right wing during a counter attack, cut inside of Saúl Ñíguez and the recovering Thomas Partey, played a one-two with Luis Suarez, and slotted the winning goal beyond Jan Oblak. The goal said so much about Messi’s individual brilliance, and the inability of defenses to stop him for an entire game. But it was an even better display of his patience and attentiveness.
Messi fires at the Wanda!
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) December 1, 2019
No one in world football exemplifies the power of one individual to decide a game as much as Messi. He is so good at being a scorer, a dribbler and a creator, that he feels inevitable. One way or another, he will find a way to hurt opponents. Barcelona and Ernesto Valverde seem to have built their team around Messi’s inevitability. No matter how vulnerable the team is, nor how reductive its tactics, when there’s a Messi, there’s a way. His ridiculous output throughout the years, in multiple systems and roles, is proof.
At first glance, Messi seems to embody the English expression of taking a game “by the scruff of the neck,” which is a player’s ability to step up in a critical moment and decide a contest through talent and will. The image of the cliche is tied to the character, courage and boldness of a player. And if you didn’t see Messi’s goal against Atletico, you might assume it was a vintage display in which he took what he felt was rightfully his.
But the English expression is harsh, it’s too rough an idea for the older Messi. He does take over games, but the axiom fits better with his younger self, when he was more of a force of nature than he is now. The evolution of Messi’s dominance reminds me of the misreading of the Latin phrase, “Carpe Diem,” which Nicholas Baker tried to correct in his book “The Anthologist”:
“‘Carpe diem’ doesn’t mean seize the day — it means something gentler and more sensible. ‘Carpe diem’ means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be “cape diem,” … What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things — so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand.”
There was an instance before the winning goal against Atletico when Messi almost seized the game. When he nearly grabbed it by the scruff of its neck, truer to “Cape Diem” than his eventual goal. He received the ball in the center circle with a defender right on him. He turned the defender, and the defender cynically fouled him in an attempt to stop the counter. Messi rode the challenge and drove forward. Soon after, another defender came from behind and slide-tackled him, and he rode that challenge as well. He then tried to nutmeg a third defender who was in front of him, but the defender blocked it and the ball went out to Luis Suarez on the left. Suarez switched the ball to Antoine Griezmann on the right, but Griezmann’s subsequent volley went over the bar.
Had Barcelona scored after Messi’s dribble, it would have been a perfect display of his ability to change a game by will — his boldness to beat multiple defenders, refusing to fall from cynical fouls, and then create a winning chance out of nothing for his team. But it was not to be. The eventual goal still showed Messi’s inevitability, but it was more “Carpe Diem” — pluck the day — than its more violent cousin.
The winning goal came from Messi’s brilliance, but it was also a product of an Atletico mistake. Throughout the contest, Koke had the defensive task of shielding Messi away from the inside of the pitch whenever he got the ball on the right wing. He and the fullback, Ñíguez, wanted to make Messi pass or go outside to his weaker right foot. For most of the game, the tactic worked. A younger Messi, being faster and more agile, would have probably still found a way to go to the outside and beat both men with speed. But this Messi is slower. Whenever he went outside and tried to beat Koke and Ñíguez, they trapped him wonderfully.
Then before the goal, Koke and Atletico slipped while trying to win the game. Koke went up to help the attack as Messi walked, and drifted on the right wing on his own, standing in acres of open space. Waiting for his chance. When the counter started and the ball came out to Messi in Atletico’s half, Koke was about 20 yards behind. Only Ñíguez and the recovering Partey could deter the Argentine. Partey made the mistake of recovering too deep and allowing Messi space inside. Messi recognized the opportunity in the moment, and though Partey did his best to stay with him, there was nothing he could do the instant that Messi turned in.
Messi beat Atletico and scored that goal not by the sheer force of his ability and will, but by being patient and attentive and waiting for the game to unravel for him. He waited and waited until Atletico’s tactical plan snapped on its own, for Koke to go up for the winner and leave him unattended, and then he waltzed past the defender to deliver the fatal blow.
Before Barcelona faced Atletico, Atletico’s Kieran Trippier made a great observation about Messi in his older age:
“You play against Sadio Mane, for instance, and if you take your eye off him for a second, he’ll just dart in behind you,” Trippier said. “But with Messi, you look four times and he’s still there. It’s weird. A lot of the time he just walks and walks — and then, before you know it, it’s a goal.”
At 32, Messi is understandably a much different player than he used to be. He is still capable of seizing the day, but now, more often than not, he just “walks and walks,” waiting for the game to come to him, for his opponents to make even one single mistake, and then he simply plucks. That ability is not as visceral or thrilling as taking the game by the scruff of the neck, but it is its own delightful and effective superpower, one that has helped him stay at the top of the game when most players would be in the twilight of their careers.