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Lionel Messi is still the best player in the world

He might not be the physically dominant player he once was, but Lionel Messi is just as effective as he’s ever been. He does it with his brain, not his legs.

Lionel Messi jumping over a defender for a goal
Lionel Messi is still impossible to defend

It always has to be Lionel Messi.

He has found the back of the net to change the results of games against Valencia, Sevilla, and Real Sociedad in the last six weeks. Sometimes it’s Luis Suarez who wins these types of hard-fought games, other times it’s Neymar. Once in a while Ivan Rakitic rises to the occasion to head in the winner, but it always feels like it has to be Messi.

By virtue of his ability, and regardless of circumstance — like returning from injury or even struggling in the game up to that point — he is always the most dangerous player on the field.

Minus the Super Cup, Messi has scored 19 goals and assisted five in 16 games so far. He’s failed to score in four matches — two were against Athletic Bilbao and Granada, and the others against Alaves, when he came on as a sub in the 59th minute, and Atletico Madrid, when he suffered a groin injury in the 60th. Beyond that, when Messi’s on the field, a goal from him has looked like a sure thing.

For so long he has been like this — this towering figure on the field, a calming and reassuring presence to his teammates and fans, an impossible goal for other players, and an immediate threat to his opponents. As long as he’s on the field, victory is possible for Barcelona.

But he has changed a lot. Messi is no longer that vibrant, goofy-looking, long-haired boy from a decade ago who used to cover 60 yards and take on five or six defenders en route to goal. He’s now the bleached blond, bearded father of two who lopes for most of the match before making his lethal strike the second attention is turned from him — like he does for his first goal against Valencia:

That penchant to stroll is one of the biggest differences between Young Messi and Messi now. As little as two or three years ago, he was much more active. In the same away game against Valencia in 2013-14, Messi looked ferocious and all-conquering. He took on and beat multiple defenders with frightening ease. He tracked back and still made those long, draining runs with and without the ball. He was a force of nature.

Now he walks a lot.

He walks when he doesn’t have the ball. He walks when he does have it and his defender isn’t immediately closing him down. He walks back after losing the ball. He walks when his team is defending, and he walks and jogs up when the attacking play is developing without him. Many times he gets the ball on the right of midfield, darts inside and sends a long diagonal ball to the opposite side to Neymar or the fullback, and then disappears off-frame as the camera follows the action, and he takes his sweet time to get into the attacking third.

His walking has become so normal that one of his rare sprints against Valencia took commentator Ray Hudson by surprise.

Neymar had won the ball in midfield a few minutes after Messi’s opening goal. He combined with Andre Gomes down the right, and the midfielder passed it to Suarez in the middle. The striker then sent the ball into the left side of the box, ahead of a streaking Messi. The angle was tight and Messi’s shot was blocked, but Hudson described the sudden bout of energy as if Messi were “jumping out of slumber.”

A minute later he created a chance for Suarez with a long through-ball after Sergio Busquets poked the ball away on the left midfield. And for the rest of the half, he drove at the defense and took on players reminiscent of his younger self.

Ten minutes after the half, he was still living out his younger days. He chested down a Marc-Andre ter Stegen clearance for Rakitic near the halfway line. Rakitic backheeled it to Gomes, who was staggered under him. Gomes settled it for Messi, who had overlapped Rakitic.

Messi then drove the ball 40 yards forward — between several defenders — before passing it off to Neymar to shoot. The ball was parried by the Valencia keeper and fell to Rakitic on the far post. Messi, who had brought the ball up from midfield to the edge of the box, passed it to Suarez, who gave it to Neymar for the initial chance. He continued his run into the box so that when it fell to Rakitic, he was wide open in the middle if the Croatian chose to pass instead of shoot.

Rakitic shot and somehow managed to hit the outside of the right post, to Messi’s dismay. The Argentine lambasted Neymar for not passing to him in the first place.

Then he walked, and jogged slowly, and walked some more. He walked when Suarez equalized from a corner, and he walked back after Enzo Perez thwarted a great opportunity for him to put Barcelona ahead.

He laid the ball off, dribbled sideways a few times, attempted some long passes, and walked for the next 30 minutes.

* * *

Movement is paramount for any great soccer player, and there’s the cliche that a player who doesn’t move, who’s not always active and looking for space, marks themselves out of the game. And it certainly seemed that way for Messi. For a lot of the game he did nothing, and the defense didn’t worry about him.

Yet his first goal came exactly because of that. Whether intentionally or not, he had lulled the defenders into a false sense of security.

This same thing happened in his most recent goal against Real Sociedad, though he was more in-frame this one.

The Icelandic author Sjón on the first page of his novel The Blue Fox highlighted the importance of not falling for this trick. He writes about a blue vixen who is curled up in the snow next to a stone, and because of the color of her fur it’s impossible to tell her apart from her surroundings. But as the fox lies there in peace, she makes sure to keep her eye on a motionless man who took cover under an overhanging drift “some eighteen hours ago.”

The snow had covered the man so that as she looked like the stone she was up against, he looked like a hump of ruined wall. The passage ends with: “The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.”

The Valencia defenders made that fatal mistake in the 21st minute of their game against Barcelona, and they would do it again, repeatedly.

Messi had walked back toward the right of midfield to receive the ball from Sergi Roberto. But with a defender on his back, Roberto made the better choice of sending it down the right channel to a running Rakitic.

Rakitic, faced up against two defenders on the right side of the box, tried to squeeze in a low cross to Suarez, who was waiting in the middle with a third defender beneath him. The highest man closest to Rakitic slid and deflected the cross as it came in, and the ball cannoned off the leg of Suarez’s man and bounced back to Rakitic.

At that moment, nine players were in the frame: three Barcelona players (Rakitic, Suarez, and Gomes, who was coming in on the far side) and six Valencia defenders (two near Rakitic, one near Suarez, two recovering through the middle, and another on the far post).

As soon as the ball came to Rakitic, he one-touched it to the empty space at the top of the box. Out of nowhere, Messi appeared. And before the midfielders could recover, he took a touch inside and blasted the ball into the near post.

Messi had been walking and jogging as the play developed. As the defenders faced Rakitic and Suarez and totally forgot about him, Messi sprinted through and past them to score the goal. In an attempt to deal with the immediate threat, they took their eyes off the most dangerous player on the field, and he made them pay.

Lionel Messi walking.
Lionel Messi walks for most the game, now.

His walking doesn’t seem to be part of this master plan to trick teams, though. He just does it. After the World Cup Final in 2014, in which Messi walked a lot, FiveThirtyEight questioned if he did it because he was exhausted.

Indeed, over the course of the World Cup, Messi had the lowest work rate among non-goalkeepers when his team is on defense and the second-lowest among forwards when his team is on offense (among players with 150 minutes on offense/defense combined).

And since the conclusion seemed to be that he played badly because of that supposed laziness — a criticism that would come back the following season, when Barcelona lost 0-1 to Atletico in the Champions League in a game in which Messi ran less than the goalkeeper — the article made sure to state that “there’s not really any relationship between a player’s work rate and their production, either for forwards or for midfielders.”

He could be walking because he’s tired or as a means to conserve his energy now that he’s older. Or it could be the effect of the injuries that have started to pile up and have made him cautious with his body. Before the 2013-14 season, he had suffered only one major injury — the one that kept him out of the 2006 Champions League Final. But that year he finished with a measly 41 goals after dealing with four muscle injuries in eight months.

Then it was a hamstring strain in July 2014, a knee ligament tear in September 2015 that kept him out for two months, another hamstring strain in January of this year, a kidney stone surgery in February, a ruptured adductor in May, and most recently a groin injury suffered in early September with Argentina and aggravated against Atletico later that month.

For whatever reason, he’s not as ever-present as he once was, which is in opposition of the thought that Barcelona are dependent on Messi. They almost seem to play around him most the time, as if he stands outside the realm in which the game takes place, intervening a few times to send a ball across the field or to give the pass back to Rakitic and Busquets. Then he returns to being a spectator.

He walks and walks around until suddenly, when the game seems to call for him, he appears. He becomes Barcelona’s deus ex machina — like he did in the 91st minute against Valencia, taking the ball around one defender, dribbling up, playing a one-two with Neymar to get past two men, and then trying to do the same with Suarez before the striker was fouled.

It was a random spark of action that took Valencia by surprise and created the penalty, which he scored to seal the game.

It’s frightening that Messi can go from being omnipresent and irresistible, as he was a few years ago, to almost lazily walking about the field and remain as decisive. The younger Messi would have his way — you just had to find a way to succeed within that truth.

This Messi is striking because he doesn’t seem that urgent of a threat — until the defense makes the fatal mistake of taking their eyes off of him. Then he makes them pay for it.