Ousted from the Champions League by a single heartbreaking away goal, Paris Saint-Germain’s David Beckham was philosophical in an interview with Télam News from Argentina (wish he’d slipped an Iron Lady reference in somewhere). He ruminated on the effect Lionel Messi had on that game, which seemed to break firmly in Barca’s favor when their hobbled star made a 61st minute appearance.
To Beckham there is no greater player than Leo Messi. And like the oracle at Delphi, he pronounced that it was so:
“He [Messi] is alone in his class as a player, it is impossible that there is another like him. He, like Cristiano Ronaldo, who is not at his level, are both above the rest.”
I wonder what the wonderful midfielder, Wesley Schneider of Galatasaray, would say to that having just seen Christiano score 3 of Real Madrid’s 5 goals in their excellent quarterfinal series. Madrid advanced on a 5 to 3 goal superiority after splitting home victories. I am not here to debate Messi’s greatness, which is as close to a settled fact as you will find in this kind of conversation, but at the moment, Christiano is playing at his absolute best and very possibly a fraction better than Messi. So now I am the Oracle, I guess, except I am using my Yarrow sticks with the I Ching hexagrams as evidence for this assertion (my regular fortune teller is in Reno for the week).
Point here is that reducing soccer to a system of binary oppositions like Messi vs Christiano is fun, especially after a few beers, but deadening. It kills a real exploration of the game, which is Gordian and resists flip analysis. Beckham’s pronouncements were made on the heels of Messi’s decisive influence over PSG’s demise. They followed a proof that looked more or less like this:
1. PSG is winning and in tenuous control.
2. Messi enters.
3. The game shifts decisively in Barca’s favor.
4. ergo Messi’s contributions were decisive.
5. Messi is the greatest Q.E.D. (for Beckham anyway).
Except for one thing… statement two is only half true. Events were not simply that Messi entered, but that Fabregas exited. Messi’s greatness overshadows an obvious flaw in the premise of this proof. The absence of Fabregas might have had as much to do with the shift in the game as Messi’s presence. Or if not as much, enough to have been essential to its outcome.
I think this was exactly the case. Messi is not just a great player technically, he is one of the most sophisticated players tactically in the world. he is very sensitive to the effect his position on the field produces on the alignment of his opponents as well as his teammates.
Specifically, in the last 24 months, Messi has been drifting further away from the goal moving up the field and out to its right side. The effect is to open of critical spaces in the middle of the field, especially in the box, for players like Iniesta to exploit with timed runs and combinations. When Messi is on the field, the penalty box is anyone’s territory as long as they duck in an out to receive passes or make dribbling attacks, as Messi does himself to such effect, rather than setting up inside it. This is essential to Barca’s style of play. That space needs to be the vacuum that pulls players in at key moments. Messi does more to keep that space open than anyone. One almost feels that it his primary objective these days.
Look at the heat map and “action areas” on CNNFC’s analytical tool for this match and you will see that Fabregas kills that space by occupying it. He uses it twice as much as Messi on a percentage basis. Not only that, and this was obvious to anyone watching, With Messi out and Fabregas in, David Villa sees himself as the key scorer and competed with Fabregas for that space. There they were, clogging it up for chunks of time, like a hairball in the shower drain. The difference is stark for Villa’s positioning after Messi’s arrival. Villa vacates that central area in front of the goal and the game becomes much more dynamic offensively for Barca. Before Messi, Barca suffers from stasis as Fabregas and Villa battle it out for that lovely goal-front property with the excellent back-of-the-net view.
No one benefited from Fabregas’s departure more than Iniesta. He became the primary offensive cog in Barcelona’s works, using the penalty area again and again to dart in and threaten the goal. And it was ultimately Iniesta, combining with Messi, that sprang Pedro for that decisive goal.
So I would argue that Messi’s presence was decisive, but by taking Fabregas out, Barcelona removed the wrench from their works, and their machine could resume it’s normal smooth operation.