In the build-up to Barcelona’s trip to Tottenham on Wednesday night, a British newspaper devoted a prominent article to the idea that Lionel Messi has entered into an age-related decline, and that his club will soon have to learn how to deal without him.
Well, that theory soon got blown out of the water, didn’t it?
Messi was simply sensational at Wembley, with the splendour of his performance nowhere near reflected in the plain statistical return of two goals.
They were two important goals, of course, one of them coming to restore his team’s two-goal advantage shortly after Harry Kane had pulled one back for Spurs, and the other securing the outcome in the final stages after a dogged fightback from the hosts.
But if the only thing you know about Messi’s game in London was that he scored twice, you’re missing out. He did so much more, starting in the second minute when his delicious through ball pierced the home team defence, allowing Jordi Alba to run on and – with a fair amount of help from panicking Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris – tee up Philippe Coutinho for the opener.
Messi also played a central role in his team’s second goal, again bypassing the defence with a perfectly placed pass into the run of Luis Suarez, who combined with Coutinho to give Ivan Rakitic the chance to blast home an exquisitely executed volley.
He could easily have bagged more than two goals, as well, having hit the post twice in the space of two minutes at the start of the half in a sequence of plays which were so similar the only possible reaction was bemused laughter – even from Messi himself.
DON'T TALK, JUST WATCH: 137 seconds of Messi at Wembley last night. Nearly wore out that goal post. pic.twitter.com/0NOcDmQca7— Neal Collins (@nealcol) October 4, 2018
There’s a lot more we could examine, but you get the idea. Messi was spectacular, and Spurs had no answer. And the good news – especially for Barca fans but more generally for any lover of football – is that he will continue to deliver era-defining performances of that nature for many years to come.
Decline? The only people who could possibly think that Messi has entered an irreversible downward spiral are those who haven’t watched him play in the last 12 months, other than for Argentina during the World Cup Finals where he had the misfortune of playing for a team so badly structured it would be impossible for any individual player to shine.
Unfortunately, there seem to be plenty of people who don’t watch Messi, judging by the way he was left out of the top three for the recent FIFA award for the world’s best player, despite producing one of his best ever seasons to lead an otherwise moderate Barca side to a comfortable league title.
Without reopening the wounds of that tired debate, though, it is at least crystal clear from Messi’s performance against Tottenham on Wednesday that he is not even close to being finished yet, and even the faintest hint of the word ‘decline’ should not be allowed to appear anywhere near his name.
And the reason he has many years ahead of him (praise be to your chosen deity) is that on top of all his other talents, Messi is incredibly adaptable.
Over the course of his career, he has operated as a right winger, a centre forward, an inside right and now, in this latest stage of his development, he is morphing into a central midfielder – with the added bonus of being a central midfielder who averages a goal per game.
Against Tottenham, Messi had 95 touches of the ball, more than any other player except Jordi Alba. The vast majority of those were in a condensed space 20 yards either side of the halfway line, with just a few coming near the Tottenham goal as he made well-timed surges into the box.
This means, happily, that Messi can still be the best player on the pitch – or any pitch – even by restricting his expenditure of energy and covering a relatively small amount of ground.
By playing in this way, holding the game together in the centre of the field and making the occasional devastating burst towards goal, Messi can delay the effects of ageing and keep on doing what he’s currently doing for a long time to come. And that’s something to really celebrate.
A diamond emerged from the Wembley rough on Wednesday night as young Brazil midfielder Arthur excelled in Barcelona’s thrilling 4-2 victory over Tottenham.
The summer signing from Gremio shone upon his first Champions League start, helping to set the platform from which forwards Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez ripped the hosts to shreds.
Here, we review the 22-year-old’s breakout European display:
Goals – 0
Shots – 0
Touches – 79
Passes – 70
Pass accuracy (%) – 91.4
Fouled – 3
Key passes – 0
Dispossessed – 2
Tackles – 3
Arthur was the beneficiary as – stung by three-successive winless matches – Barca head coach Ernesto Valverde chose to cement his central midfield in a 4-3-3 formation.
Coutinho’s shot into an open goal and Rakitic’s stupendous volley earned them a deserved 2-0 half-time lead.
Harry Kane’s expert low finish gained hope for the hosts, but that was soon stubbed out by Messi’s close-range finish. Nerves caused by Erik Lamela’s deflected strike were then soothed by Messi’s calm second.
Fitting in nicely – Rakitic and Busquets boast more than 700 Barca appearances between them. For midfield colleague Arthur, this run-out was just a sixth in the club’s famous colours.
You would never have guessed the scale of the disparity in experience on show. In particular, the movements between Arthur and Rakitic were perfectly synchronised.
This exhibited the tactical nous and intrinsic understanding that attracted Barca to the Brazilian.
Getting up to speed – The pace and physicality of the game in South America cannot compare to the Champions League.
Centre-back Yerry Mina’s toils – shipped out already after arriving from Palmeiras last January – is evidence of this steep step-up.
Arthur’s acclimitisation has gone far better this term. But he was twice left chasing shadows as Spurs countered at rapier speed for their first.
56th min CHANCE CREATED: There seemed little on when Arthur picked the ball up 30 yards from goal, faced by a static and entrenched Spurs defence. The Brazilian then switched up a gear, brushed off a challenge from Argentina playmaker Lamela and catalysed a move that was eventually finished off by Lionel Messi.
An ability to quicken the pace and crack open tight spots is the hallmark of a classic Barca midfielder.
86th min SUBSTITUTED: Arthur’s work is done and he makes way for Arturo Vidal with the match won.
It says everything about the promise and technical excellence of Arthur that he was favoured over experienced Chile battler Vidal in this Group B-battle.
Valverde’s faith was rewarded on a pitch ruined by last month’s prize boxing fight between Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin.
That the controlled Arthur – he boasted pass accuracy of 91.4 per cent – can only get better should make Barca and Brazil fans salivate.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com.
Barcelona delivered an occasionally dazzling display to defeat Tottenham and maintain their 100-per-cent record in the Champions League, with Lionel Messi scoring twice in a 4-2 win at Wembley.
The home team were somehow still alive until stoppage time when Messi completed the scoring. But there was no doubting the superiority of the Spaniards, for whom Ivan Rakitic struck a stupendous second-half volley, whose progress to the knockout stages now looks close to assured.
In contrast, Spurs have now lost both Group B-matches and need an instant recovery in the imminent double header with pointless PSV Eindhoven.
Here, we pick out three main talking points to arise from the game.
BARCA ENJOY WEMBLEY’S WIDE-OPEN SPACES
If you give plenty of space to Barcelona to play in midfield, you will die.
That’s a pretty simple lesson and one that many teams have learned in the past, so it’s very surprising that Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino allowed his players to grant so much green grass – well, actually brown dust considering the shocking state of the Wembley ‘turf’ – to the visitors.
The double-pivot central midfield duo of the hectic Victor Wanyama and overshadowed Harry Winks were situated just in front of the back four. Nothing wrong with that.
But the problem was that Tottenham’s front four – especially the advanced midfield trio of Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min – allowed themselves to be bypassed so easily.
Any team will take advantage of that kind of room, and when you’re talking about Sergio Busquets, Rakitic, Philippe Coutinho, Arthur (more of whom later) and of course Lionel Messi, your chances of escaping unhurt are close to zero.
Despite the apparent closeness of the scoreline, this was at times a severe footballing lesson from the Catalan giants – who passed their way through midfield with remarkable ease.
Two goals against the run of the play kept Tottenham in it, but they need to learn how to better control space if they want to compete with the best.
27 - Lionel Messi has scored more goals (21) and provided more assists (6) against English clubs in the Champions League than against sides from any other nation. Slay. pic.twitter.com/oV8KWr3nHV— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 3, 2018
ARTHUR COMES OF AGE
“He’s just like Xavi!” they said, in excited tones. Just like Xavi? Are you serious?
How can anyone even begin to resemble one of the greatest players in Barca’s history and arguably the finest midfielder of all-time?
But Arthur, upon arriving at the club from Brazilian side Gremio in the summer, was eliciting that kind of comparison from day one.
At Wembley, we saw why. The first hour, in particular, was hugely impressive from the 22- year-old, who showed maturity beyond his years and really did look like a passable version of Xavi as he coolly snaked his way into space in the centre of the field.
Aided and abetted by the equally impressive Busquets and Rakitic, Arthur was able to shake off the attentions of the intensely hard-working opposition and an awful playing surface to play with calmness personified, always seeming to find time and space to release astute and well-judged passes.
He was far less influential in the final half hour, understandably tiring in an unfamiliar environment on his first-ever Champions League start.
But for much of the game he was simply outstanding, and if he can learn to last the pace for a full 90 minutes, Barca appear to have found themselves a very special talent.
MESSI DOES ANOTHER MESSI
How can new words be found to describe Messi? They cannot.
New words would have to be invented to capture his magnificence, so we’ll just have to settle for some old words, even if they can never truly suffice.
This was an outrageous display from the Argentina icon, whose brilliance was perhaps best summed up not by his goals, but by his two shots against the post, from almost identical positions, early in the second half.
Messi has now hit the woodwork nine times this season, and although that appears to be unlucky there is also an explanation: he is so precise with his shooting, aiming unerringly for the very corner of the goal, that he only needs to be out by a fraction and the post will get in the way.
Sometimes, the post is the only thing that can stop him.
But most of the time, as with his two later goals, he prevails in the end.