Celebrating 15 years of Lionel Messi - Chapter 5: Identity Change (2017-present)

Andy West 15:34 16/10/2019
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Lionel Messi

We’re celebrating 15 years since Lionel Messi made his official debut for Barcelona by chronicling his career so far through five chapters. Here’s is chapter five, all chapters can be read here:

Magician Appears (2004-08)

Evolution Under Pep (2009-11)

Statistical Phenom (2012)

Stocking Trophies (2013-16)

Identity Change (2017-)

‘La Liga de Messi’…a new catchphrase was born in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, which saw Lionel Messi lead Barcelona to consecutive title triumphs after dominating the competition in a manner few players have ever achieved.

Leading scorer; most assists; most chances created; most dribbles; most free-kick goals, most passes in the final third…think of any attacking statistical category you like, and Messi probably led it for two years in a row.

In a way, Messi had no choice but to be so dominant because the quality of his supporting cast had declined sharply from previous years. Whereas once there was Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, or Xavi and Andres Iniesta, or Neymar and Luis Suarez, now Messi was being asked to prop up a declining team containing a bunch of fading stars, temporary makeweights such as Aleix Vidal, Paco Alcacer and Paulinho and under-performing costly imports Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho.

Of course, there has still been plenty of quality within the Barcelona ranks over the last couple of seasons, but the fact that – by common consensus – the team’s second-best player during their back-to-back titles was goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen shows just how much Messi had to do.

And he did it brilliantly. Helped by a pair of shocking seasons for Real Madrid, Barca were able to wrap up the title with room to spare in both 2018 and 2019, finishing 14 and 11 points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid despite their obvious shortcomings.

Those two seasons have also seen the latest evolution in Messi’s career, as he adopted a deeper position to become more of a playmaker than ever before.

The departures, one after the other, of Xavi, Dani Alves, Iniesta and Neymar essentially forced this reinvention, with Barca of the late 2010s possessing neither the control in midfield nor the cutting edge on the flanks they had in the past, while the arrival of conservative coach Ernesto Valverde served to further evolve a more stable and cautious team, relying on individual brilliance rather than consistent collective pressure for their attacking breakthroughs.

More often than not, of course, those sparks of individual brilliance came from Messi – often ably supported by his close friend Suarez, despite the Uruguayan’s gradual loss of consistency as he headed towards the end of his career.

Logically, Messi should also be slowing down as he passes through his early thirties, but so far there has been no real sign of any deterioration. His goal haul over the past two seasons – 45 in 2017/18 and 51 a year later – more or less matches anything he has achieved over the course of his career, barring the improbable and unrepeatable abnormality of the 2012-13 record-breaking goalscoring blitz.

His goals seem to be getting more spectacular, too. For one thing, his set-piece prowess has developed remarkably as shown by his astonishing eight free-kick goals in the 2018/19 campaign, including the unforgettable Champions League semi-final effort against Liverpool which was named UEFA’s goal of the season. A similar strike past Atletico’s Jan Oblak was the match-winner in an effective title decider the previous season.

Messi’s open play strikes have also frequently been breathtaking in their individual quality, including (to name just four highlights of many) a caressed chip at Real Betis which truly defied belief and a stunning hat-trick at Sevilla – left-footed volley, right-footed curler and cheeky dink over the keeper – in the spring of 2019.

It cannot be overlooked that he has done all this from a different position, playing deeper than ever to spark attacking moves from midfield and create chances with geometrically flawless through balls – notably with the recurrent delight of perfectly-timed raking right-to-left diagonal balls dropping behind the defence and neatly into the stride of onrushing left-back Jordi Alba.

From right wing to false nine to inside right, Messi is now evolving again to become more of a traditional ‘number ten’, creating play from an advanced midfield position, and it seems likely that he will spend the remainder of his career in that role being just as brilliant as ever, but in a slightly different way.

The nagging worry, though, is that Barca are often too reliant on Messi, allowing their overall levels of collective play to drop in the (often justified) belief that he will conjure something remarkable to rescue them.

This is a criticism he has faced regularly over the years, and it has never been more relevant than the last couple of seasons as the skipper inspired Barca to a pair of comfortable title triumphs despite the team rarely looking convincing.

In the end, those frailties prevented Messi from lifting the Champions League trophy as pressure situations at Roma and Liverpool proved too intense to endure, and the biggest challenge facing Ernesto Valverde is allowing Messi to remain the chief protagonist without forcing him to become the only protagonist.

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In theory, the pieces should be in place for that to happen. The acquisitions of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, the emergence of Ousmane Dembele, Arthur and Ansu Fati, the brilliance of ter Stegen and the ability of old guard Suarez, Busquets, Pique and Alba clearly give Barca the tools to compete for any trophy.

And as Messi reaches his 15th anniversary, the good news is that his appetite for the game appears to be undimmed. Those Champions League failures in Rome and Liverpool hit hard, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that Messi is launching a personal crusade to restore his team to European ascendancy before he retires.

How much longer will he go on? We can speculate, but in truth nobody knows – not even Messi himself. Judging by the way, however, that he has constantly succeeded in reinventing himself and confronting new challenges over the last decade and a half, we can be confident that his story is by no means over.

The magic goes on.

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