Regardless of what happens to Argentina at this World Cup, Messi needs to free himself of the burden of being the Albiceleste’s only hope and play his own game – with the ferocity we have come to expect from the Barcelona great.
Lionel Messi is a mythical creature. When he takes flight, he is a superhero in human form. He is complex math and unfathomable magic at the same time. He skips past challenges like light passes through stained glass.
An almost supernatural being, Messi’s technical skills are so embedded it might appear to us as a scene from a sci-fi movie. He is at once light and wind, wobbling and bouncing off defenders before he appears from one side to the other as if by teleportation.
Ask any of the national team coaches that will face Messi at the Russia World Cup whether they would set their team up without first deciding how to stop the Argentine playmaker? Absolutely none of them would go on to argue that Messi is not the deciding factor -- the one who will dictate how the game will be played regardless of the opponent Argentina are facing.
Iceland’s game plan revolved around thwarting Messi. Tracked by atleast four Iceland defenders whenever he made his way up the pitch, Messi got away plenty of shots but could not find the net. His best chance came when Argentina were awarded a penalty, which he then missed.
Things were not going Messi’s way but can he be considered a loser with the national side? We may have never seen a player more joyfully gifted, more alive to the creative possibilities that flow through a football match. Yet with Argentina, though he often plays brilliantly, Messi often looks dour as well.
Against Iceland, we did not see the energetic Messi we often see when Barcelona are behind on goals or looking to get back the lead. Messi usually takes matches by the scruff of the neck much in the same way that he did against Ecuador in the do-or-die World Cup qualifier to drag Argentina to the Russia World Cup, scoring a mesmerizing hattrick under pressure.
For us, Messi is that mythical creature who has to always thrive under pressure. But maybe that is not exactly how things go in real life. Unlike Ronaldo, who simply wants to obliterate his opposition, Messi is a kind of connoisseur of the game from within the game. Maybe Messi gets irritated having to haul his team all the time. He does not enjoy the imperfect passes from teammates. Much less the chaos and lackluster passing sequence that results in a lack of dynamism. Messi likes structure, the kind that his club side Barcelona provides and the kind that Argentina failed to provide him.
But it’s Messi’s turn now. He must excel above everything else. This is not about becoming the best. This is really about Messi being Messi. Free, floating, analysing and then going past several players in the blink of an eye. He needs to be on fire to feel himself and let that winning mentally come to the fore. Why get angry? Because he is Messi and the World Cup is the biggest stage there is. It (The World Cup) may not have the greatest quality in terms of competitiveness but because it is the biggest football event, Messi will be judged. Fairly or unfairly. The Diego Maradona comparisons would not stop and the criticism coming out from Argentina of him being a traitor will not stop.
His teammates have not shown an affinity for finishing off goal-scoring chances. Messi may just be alone. The Diego Maradona era does not exist anymore. Messi is a mythical creature from a lost world. The game has stopped producing soloists who dribble with the pace and magic of Messi. Before him there was Maradona. This is why Messi has kept on fighting Maradona’s legacy, even if he did not intend to. But the game has changed. Another reason to be angry.
Defenders are more athletic and teams are better prepared tactically than ever before. Messi is studied a lot more too. In 1986, even then Argentina coach Carlos Billardo had to travel to Europe to watch Maradona play. In 2018, one can find Messi videos (and full matches) with the click of a button. This means that opposition coaches have a much better idea of how to set their teams up structurally in order to stop Messi.
Even Maradona did not win the World Cup alone despite what the narrative around the 1986 World Cup suggests. Argentina's team featured several superb players including Jorge Valdano, Oscar Ruggeri and Burruchaga, while coach Carlos Bilardo devised a 3-5-2 setup with three centre-backs and two wingbacks – a defensive setup which yet allowed Maradona to thrive.
Maradona still needed Burruchaga to finish off the chance in the final which saw Argentina lift the trophy.
Messi cannot do it all alone but he will still have to play for pride and resurrect his status with the national team. With all these setbacks, Messi now more than ever needs to get angry. Because an angry Messi will attack when he gets attacked. He does not lose his cool but only gets more energized to play his game. During a game against Real Madrid in 2017, Marcelo elbowed Messi in the face causing a lip injury. Messi proceeded to take the game by the scruff of the neck and Barca won at the Bernabeu 3-2.
Sampaoli might device a similar plan as Billardo did for Maradona in 1986, but without the help of his teammates, Messi cannot scale the same heights as king Diego. Now more than ever he just needs to get angry. Forget the missed penalty and focus on being himself. It’s time to see an angry Messi and let the nerves fall by the wayside.