The Evolution Of Lionel Messi – The Greatest Player Ever
Against Bayern Munich in last night’s Champions League semi-final, Lionel Messi gave one of the single greatest performances in modern football.
On the biggest stage, against one of the best teams in Europe, the little Argentinian gave a masterclass. On RTE’s coverage afterwards, Liam Brady described it best: “It wasn’t football, it was magic”.
Nearing his 28th birthday in June, Messi is hitting the prime of his career. An unstoppable force for the last decade, he is beginning to morph into some kind of supreme alien being of which everyone is finding it hard to comprehend. His evolution over the last ten years seems to have come in three stages.
As a precociously talented 17-year-old, then Barcelona boss Frank Rijkaard gave Messi his debut against Espanyol in the Catalan derby.
He would only make 7 appearances that season but quickly made an impression with fearless performances full of skill and daring. His first goal against Albacete, making him Barca’s youngest ever goalscorer, was a sign of things to come.
Under Rijkaard, Messi would generally play as a right winger cutting inside on his left foot as part of a dynamic attack with the likes of Ronaldino and Samuel Eto’o. He suffered badly with injuries initially, though, and his proclivity for shirking defensive work would leave his full-back exposed a lot.
In three and a bit seasons, he would score lots of goals from that right flank, though – 42 in 110 – but his trajectory was only beginning in earnest. His prolific potency was yet to be harnessed.
Pep Guardiola’s appointment as new Barca boss would elevate Messi to stratospheric levels.
Initially, Guardiola would leave Messi in his position on the wing for most of the season until the final Clasico in May of that season.
The Blaugrana boss felt he needed Messi to be more involved in the play to maximise his talents.
Ten minutes into the game against Real, Messi drifted from his right wing position into a ‘false nine’ spot, more central, but deeper than a natural centre forward.
There, the Barca maestro would create havoc, drifting between the lines where defenders couldn’t pick him up, not knowing whether to stick or twist.
With Guardiola’s guidance, Messi would become the deadliest finisher the game has seen, breaking records left, right and centre. In 219 games, he would amass an eye-watering 211 goals, accelerating from a goal every other under Rijkaard to a goal a game under Pep.
In Guardiola’s final season, he would score a scarely-believable 73 goals in just 60 games.
Even after Guardiola’s exit, Messi would continue to be indulged his exploits in the ‘false nine’ position. Under the tutelage of the late Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino he managed another 101 goals in a mere 96 games over those two seasons.
Despite Messi’s goal rushes, Barca had been struggling to match the heights of the Guardiola era.
They had suffered a humiliating Champions League exit the previous season at the hands of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and surrendered their La Liga title to the same opposition.
The catcalls of ‘the end of an era’ had reached a cacophony.
Luis Enriques’ appointment as coach, though, has seen a revitalisation and an evolution not just in Barca’s style but in Lionel Messi, too.
The signing of Luis Suarez and his integration within the Barca forward line has had a devastating effect.
Despite initially remaining in a central role, with Suarez on the right of the front three, Messi’s move back to the right, with the Uruguayan playing as the central striker, has seen his career come full circle – but with the added intelligence and maturity of a decade’s worth of experience.
Cutting in off the right – as well as drifting across the entire front line – he has become not just a goalscorer, but a playmaker supreme.
In 53 games this season he has managed an astounding 55 goals, registering 28 assists.
Last night’s performance against Bayern was his season in one 15 minute spell: a belting 20-yard finish in off the right wing; a jaw-dropping, slaloming dinked finish over the best goalkeeper in the world, finished off with a magical defence-splicing pass for Neymar’s last-gasp goal.
2015 will be known as the year Lionel Messi evolved into the greatest player that ever played the game. And the good news is, we still have years left of this other-worldly gift to salivate over. It’s not football, it’s magic.