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Saying goodbye to Andres Iniesta, a true genius

The Spain midfielder announced his retirement from international soccer on Sunday. Let’s remember his greatness.

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Spain v Switzerland - International Friendly Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

If you wanted to understand the greatness of Iniesta, who announced his retirement from international soccer after Russia beat Spain in the World Cup Round of 16, there are plenty of supreme performances to choose from.

When Iniesta helped Barcelona beat Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final, Wayne Rooney said “Barcelona are a brilliant team and in my opinion Andres Iniesta is the best player in the world.” When the teams met again two years later, Iniesta replicated his previous performance and Barcelona won, 3-1.

In November 2015, Lionel Messi had to start an El Clasico on the bench due to returning from a knee injury. It was the worst situation possible for Barcelona, so they won, 4-0. Iniesta scored one of the goals and won man of the match. He was unplayable and was applauded by the infamously hostile Bernabeu faithful. Messi and Ronaldinho are the only other Barcelona players to receive an ovation at that stadium.

As far as critical games go, Iniesta scored the iconic last-second winner against Chelsea in the semifinals of that 2009 Champions League that sent Barcelona to the finals. The next year, he scored the winning goal in the World Cup, a goal that turned him into a beloved figure all over Spain. He was applauded in every stadium that Barcelona visited that following season.

In the Euros 2012, he won man of the match in the group games against Croatia. The lasting image from those games is of Iniesta being surrounded by five defenders. Messi, Maradona, and Johan Cryuff have been subjects of similar photos, which capture how nearly impossible the players are to stop.

None of those games are my personal favorite. Mine is Iniesta’s man-of-the-match display against Italy in the the group stage of Euros 2012. Spain drew, 1-1, though they would beat Italy, 4-0, when the two teams met again in the final. Iniesta won best player of the tournament.

It’s not his best game, but what’s has always stuck with me about it is how well it epitomizes what makes Iniesta so special. When I want to appreciate him, I always go back to it.

His first pass is a simple one to David Silva on the left wing. As soon as the ball was away, he’s jogged five yards deeper to give Silva an option with Mario Balotelli running to pressure Silva. He got the pass back from Silva and immediately sent the ball to Xabi Alonso in the middle, who was then free from being occupied by Balotelli to hit a long ball.

Constant movement while looking for spaces is a natural habit for any great midfielder. Iniesta is one of the best at it. He uses his intelligence to overcome his physical limitations. There’s no need for him to be fast when he can beat defenders by preying on their inattention. It’s a skill that afford him time to express himself, and an ability that was praised by Johan Cruyff, mentioned in his autobiography:

“I like technical players who can also think in terms of the team’s interests. I’ve already mentioned Iniesta and Xavi, who disprove entirely the theory that only physically strong footballers with a lot of running ability can play in their positions.”

Iniesta does beat defenders with the ball at his feet, but it’s in a way particular to him. One that relies on guile and timing more than speed and explosion.

In the early parts of the game, he won the ball from Claudio Marchisio. Thiago Motta waited for him a few yards away, near the center circle. Iniesta dribbled the ball up slowly towards the left wing, and as Motta tried to shuffle over to block his path, he pushed the ball and ran beyond the defender, whose hips were too square to do anything but grab at him. He also managed to beat the covering Danielle de Rossi with Motta still draped all over him.

When Iniesta got to the final third of the field, the two defenders and Italy’s defense in general was so scared of him they dropped off and afforded him space. Yet they were so distracted by Iniesta that Silva was able to make a run across the face of the defense and into the box, where Iniesta found him with a pass and then Silva one-touched it to Cesc Fabregas, who was running into the box from the left.

Even after he beats defenders by catching them on their heels or when he uses their momentum against them — he likes to settle the ball and take a hard step to the side as soon as a defender gets close to him — Iniesta is still slow enough that defenders can recover. He addresses this by leaning his body in front of the defender as they’re running, so they’re either forced to slow down to avoid falling over or they foul him.

Spain v Switzerland - International Friendly Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

It’s a smart trick, one that’s both pragmatic and directly opposed to the powerful, strong athletic archetype Iniesta has battled against for his whole career. Everything that Iniesta does — from putting his body in front of defenders, confusing defenses by passing and movement, the quick one-touches, the recycling of possession, and composed retention of the ball — is an act of mental, rather than merely physical, genius. It’s a very pragmatic approach for someone who is not big, strong or fast.

In a 2012 interview with Sid Lowe, he said of Spain’s “tiki taka” style of play: “People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.” Spain is famously composed of players with similar builds and strengths to Iniesta.

Four years later, he described his own ability in a similar way: “I’ve never seen being small as a disadvantage; everyone has his qualities. Don’t ask me to beat a guy who’s 1.80m in the air: ask me to do other things I’m better than him at.”

Iniesta is wonderful because he’s entertaining and instructive to watch. If one wants to learn how to play in midfield, he’s one of the top examples. He always has the game under control and makes life easier for his teammates by providing them with both structure and the right passes to dictate their next move.

He is also a great example that genius exists beyond the stereotypical. A living argument against the idea that a great soccer player has to certain physical characteristics. Iniesta proves that if the player is good and smart enough, they can find ways to make up for the attributes that they lack.

You can’t expect Iniesta to beat someone in the air or muscle people off the ball, that’s not who he is. In the group game against Italy, he doesn’t once try any of those things. What he does instead are the things he’s good at. Passing, moving, dribbling, controlling the game. Skills he’s better at than almost anyone else. In acknowledging his limitations and finding freedom within it, he was the best player in that game, in that tournament and has been one of the best midfielders to ever play the game.