On Saturday night, the best playmaker in the world sparked an attack for his team by stroking a perfectly weighted pass perfectly into the path of the overlapping full-back.
When the cross came into the middle, the best goalscorer in the world was in the right position to finish off the move with a crisp and decisive finish, catching out the opposition goalkeeper by imparting so much pace on the ball despite meeting it so early.
What a great goal it was, and all made possible by the brilliance of two superb players.
Oh, wait a minute…it wasn’t two players. It was one player.
The best playmaker in the world, the man who delivered the initial pass for Jordi Alba, was Lionel Messi. And then the best goalscorer in the world, lurking in the box to beat home keeper Kepa with his adroit finish, was…Lionel Messi.
Of course, watching Messi score goals is nothing new. He’s been doing so at a rate of 50+ per season for the last decade, and the sight of Barca’s talisman wheeling away in delight after netting a crucial match winner for his team is nothing new.
However, the increased responsibility he is taking for creating chances – playing in the traditional ‘number ten’ role – is a relatively new development, and has three main explanations.
Firstly, there is the necessity. Pep Guardiola’s Barca teams were orchestrated by the relentless control over possession exerted by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but since Xavi left and Iniesta entered into age-related decline, nobody has really stepped up to fill their boots in midfield.
Of course, directly replacing a player like Xavi is impossible but by allowing Thiago Alcantara to join Bayern Munich and failing to recruit stellar playmakers such as Isco, Barca left themselves with a massive hole in the role that Xavi and Iniesta used to fill. So Messi is having to do it himself.
Secondly, along with the necessity Messi also had the opportunity to become a goal-maker as well as a goal-taker when he played in the now-defunct ‘MSN’ front three alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Being part of a forward line with scintillating chemistry alongside two superb players who were both capable of finishing off the chances he created, Messi – after his move to the right wing – became more and more adept at delivering perfectly weighted and angled balls into the penalty box, where he knew they would be met by his hungry teammates.
Of course, that triumvirate has now been broken up but it accelerated a shift in Messi’s approach to the game, which has been retained now that he has returned to his ‘false nine’ position as a deep-lying forward with the freedom to drop into midfield.
The third and final reason for Messi’s evolution into a playmaker is personal: his age.
Now 30, Messi knows that he cannot forever continue to make darting runs all over the pitch and in behind defenders, and he will have to adapt his game in response to the inevitable slowing down of his body.
Playing in the hole in front of a solid midfield block and behind a striker like Suarez rather than leading the line himself, Messi can reduce the physical workload he undertakes and therefore – let us all hope – extend his career by at least another couple of years.
It’s similar to the change in position adopted by Cristiano Ronaldo, who is no longer a flying winger surging from end of the pitch to the other, and instead contents himself with playing almost exclusively in and around the opposition penalty box.
Messi can be seen as currently going through a similar transition as he becomes an attacking midfielder, chiefly responsible for building his team’s attacking moves rather than finishing them off.
Because he is close to superhuman, however, at the moment he’s able to do both those things: starting moves and then scoring goals he has helped to create.
But even Messi can’t continue to do that forever, and in the coming years it’s likely we’ll see a gradual decline in his scoring figures as he focuses more on creation than execution.
The good news is that he’s more than capable of doing so. In fact, he’s already the best in the business.
A much-changed Barcelona made light work of third-tier Real Murcia to take a commanding 3-0 lead into the second leg of their Copa del Rey last 32 tie on Tuesday.
With the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta handed the night off, Paco Alcacer, Gerard Deulofeu and Jose Manuel Arnaiz, on his debut, took their chance to grab the goals for the holders.
“I’m happy because today we played with people from the B team and those that haven’t played as much and it was a good test for them,” Barca coach Ernesto Valverde told BeIN Sports Spain.
Barca have now won 12 and drawn one of their last 13 games in all competitions, but took their time to break down their humble hosts.
Indeed, Murcia should have gone in front when Fernando Llorente blasted over from inside the area midway through the first half.
Alcacer headed home his first goal since netting in last season’s Cup final a minute before half-time from Deulofeu’s looping cross.
The former Everton winger scored his first Barca goal against Malaga at the weekend and quickly added a second with a fine individual run and finish seven minutes after the break.
Arnaiz was the only one of Barca’s youngsters who have shone for Barca B this season in the second division, a tier above Murcia, to be handed a debut by Valverde from the start.
And the 22-year-old showed why when he cut inside to fire into the far corner from outside the area four minutes later.
“He’s a confident player,” added Valverde.
“He’s good in one-on-one situations, has a good shot and for him to debut with the first team and score a goal is great for him and the team.”
With the second leg at the Camp Nou in just over a month’s time now a formality, Barca can concentrate on maintaining their four-point La Liga lead and securing a place in the last 16 of the Champions League before the Cup continues in January.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 24, 2017
Valencia, Barca’s closest challengers in La Liga, continued their fine form as Rodrigo and Dani Parejo, from the penalty spot, struck in the final nine minutes to secure a 2-0 first-leg lead at Real Zaragoza.
Sevilla shrugged off three straight defeats to cruise towards the last 16 with a 3-0 win at Cartagena.
Eduardo Berizzo’s men had shipped nine goals in being thrashed at Spartak Moscow and Valencia in the past week.
However, first-half goals from Pablo Sarabia and Joaquin Correa settled their nerves before Luis Muriel rounded off the scoring six minutes into the second period.
Malaga’s search for a win this season continues, however, as they conceded twice in stoppage time to lose 2-1 at second-division Numancia.
Recio’s free-kick had put the top-flight side, who have just one point from their first nine league games, in front.
Numancia didn’t level until the 93rd minute through Nacho Sanchez, but there was still time for Alberto Escassi to hand them a lead to defend at La Rosaleda in five weeks’ time.
Another late goal from Christian Santos handed Alaves a 1-0 win at Getafe.
And a double from Sergio Leon secured a 2-1 win for Real Betis away at Cadiz.
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100 – BARCA QUICK TO GO AHEAD
The amount of seconds it took Barcelona to open the scoring. Rapid.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 21, 2017
1 – DEULOFEU’S FIRST STRIKE FOR BARCELONA
Gerard Deulofeu’s first Barcelona goal, a tap-in from a few yards out, shouldn’t have counted after Lucas Digne’s cut-back to the six-yard box came after the ball had clearly gone out of play.
But, nevertheless, the officials allowed it and that made for a sweet moment for the former Everton man, who re-signed for the Catalan club in the summer after Barca activated his release clause.
The goal, in his 16th appearance for the club, is an important confidence-booster for the Spanish international who is still trying to establish himself at the Camp Nou.
17 – UNSTOPPABLE ON HOME TURF
Barcelona have now won their past 17 games on the trot at their famous stadium – which is of course the longest run in La Liga currently.
2 – INIESTA ENDS LONG GOAL DROUGHT IN LA LIGA
It may have been a long time in coming (roughly two years), but it was worth the wait.
The sight of seeing club legend Andres Iniesta, who recently signed a new lifetime deal at the club, score his first goal of the season lifted the spirits of everyone.
The veteran had Lionel Messi to thank as well for the assist, with Iniesta scoring for the first time since November 2015.
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) October 21, 2017
500 – HALF-CENTURY FOR MESSI
The legendary Argentine has now been directly involved in 500 La Liga goals for Barcelona.
His assist for Iniesta’s goal was the 140th he has provided in his career.
Lionel Messi has now been directly involved in 500 LaLiga goals.
391 games 🏃
360 goals ⚽️
140 assists 🅰️
Out of this world. 👽 pic.twitter.com/uWJWIiycGl
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 21, 2017
9 – MESSI AND INIESTA ON CLOUD NINE
More on that assist…
In all competitions, it’s the ninth time Messi has turned provider for his long-term team-mate.
4 – BARCA STRUGGLE TO SCORE AGAINST MALAGA AT HOME
Believe it or not, Barcelona have scored just four times against Malaga in their past four home La Liga matches with the Andalusian side, taking into account Saturday’s result.
In the previous three clashes between the two teams, last season’s match ended goalless, an unlikely source in Thomas Vermaelen got the sole winner back in 2015-16 and Malaga actually won by a single goal during the 2014-15 campaign.