Anyone who has followed Lionel Messi’s career can, if they really think about it, pinpoint the moment when they realized he is better than any footballer they’ve ever seen. For me, that moment was his five-goal performance against Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League.
These poor souls are not bad players.
Every member of this Leverkusen lineup had a solid pedigree. They started for their respective national teams, or had at least one season when they were considered one of the Bundesliga’s top players, or were eventually sold to a richer club for a lot of money. The midfielders were defensive-minded and the forwards were hard-working. Even if they did not have anywhere near the talent of Barcelona, they should have been very difficult to play against. This is a lineup that should have been, if nothing else, frustrating.
But they didn’t slow down Messi for a second. He sped right through them, as if the game was being played on a sheet of ice and Messi had skates while Leverkusen defenders wore sneakers. It isn’t hard to imagine Messi scoring five goals against a quality opponent, but it’s unbelievable how easy he made it look. This was when I realized there is no one like Messi.
These were goals 44-48 in Messi’s record-breaking 73-goal season, an accomplishment that has never been matched in high level soccer before or after that 2011-12 season. If European club competitions retain their current formats, no one may ever beat it.
But though it facilitated the greatest individual season of all time, Barcelona also found out that winning titles isn’t as simple as giving Messi as many goal-scoring chances as possible. Messi’s most eye-popping season wound up a colossal failure from a team perspective, and Barcelona has learned since that one superstar — even if he’s the best player the sport has ever seen — cannot carry a team by himself.
The how and why
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have posted 50-plus goal seasons so many times now that fans have taken the accomplishment for granted. But when both scored 53 goals during the 2010-11 season, conventional wisdom said that was as high as anyone could go. Diego Forlan, a World Cup golden ball and two-time European golden shoe winner, topped out at 35 goals in a year. Thierry Henry got to 39. Brazilian legend Ronaldo once had a 47-goal season, and never got close to that mark again.
While we assumed we had seen the pinnacle, then-Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola spent the 2011 preseason devising a new system that would prioritize, above all else, feeding Messi as many goal-scoring chances as possible. Messi’s previous season — his first as Barca’s starting center forward — went spectacularly well, but Guardiola believed he could get even more out of his superstar. Guardiola also sensed his 4-3-3 system was beginning to get found out, and he wanted to incorporate new signing Cesc Fabregas into the team.
Guaridola’s solution was to rotate his old setup with a 3-4-3 system that had a diamond midfield and no traditional wingbacks. The team’s shape and the quality of players in the center of midfield meant Barcelona could overwhelm opponents in the center of the pitch. The system was also unorthodox; Barcelona’s opponents had never seen anything like it.
Perhaps we should have known what was coming from Messi based on his performance in the Supercopa de España. He absolutely ragdolled Pepe — a large, tough defender who could knock out most people with one punch — for his first goal of the season.
Messi’s two goals in the first leg, a 2-2 draw away from home, gave Barcelona a great chance to win the trophy. His team struggled to contain Real Madrid’s attack in the return fixture, but Messi delivered two more goals, including an 88th-minute winner.
Messi would keep up this blistering goal-scoring pace for 10 months, almost uninterrupted.
The best of the 73
While the five-goal destruction of Leverkusen is the most famous Messi performance from his record campaign, my favorite is his utter destruction of Atlético Madrid. He got a hat trick — goals 10-12 for the season, all before the end of September — and it felt like he could have scored more. He forced an own goal, and was fouled several times at the end of slalom runs through multiple defenders that felt like they were going to end with shots on goal.
Messi scored his 15th of the season a couple of weeks later against Racing Santander, and showed off everything that makes him so special in front of the goal. He fully embarrassed two defenders and the goalkeeper in three touches. Before they realized what had happened, the ball was in the back of the net.
Goals 34-36 against Malaga were some of his finest work. The first, a header, was out of character for the miniature magician. But the next two were the kind that only Messi scores. On the second, he was surrounded by five defenders, and yet it felt like none of them could get close to him. He might as well have been playing in open space. On the third, he stepped past a hard challenge from his international teammate Martin Demichelis, then turned on the jets and burned the rest of the defense.
In the middle of the season, Messi hit an impossible-looking free kick to score No. 43 and terrorize Atlético Madrid a second time. Atléti complained that Messi shot before they knew play was live, but a perfectly positioned wall and goalkeeper couldn’t have done anything. To this day, it is arguably Messi’s most impressive free-kick goal.
Goal No. 61 might have been the most aesthetically pleasing of the bunch. It was vintage Barca, with Messi and Iniesta playing a perfect one-two combination, and Iniesta providing a backheel assist.
Throughout that season, it felt like Messi produced at this level every week. Unfortunately for Barcelona, Messi’s teammates weren’t nearly up to his caliber.
Messi can’t do everything
No matter the formation, Barca was set up to feed Messi shooting opportunities. Guardiola rotated playmakers Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara, and on rare occasions put all four on the field at the same time. For opponents, focusing on slowing down Messi was nearly impossible, because so many different players could hit him with creative passes from any angle.
But there was a problem.
I believe that Messi’s 2011-12 is the greatest individual season anyone has ever had in professional team sports, but one person can only take a team so far in soccer. An expertly constructed team with no stars can stifle a team with the greatest player on Earth and a bunch of mismatched parts.
By the time El Clásico rolled around in December, Barca lagged well behind Real Madrid, despite Messi’s heroics. Pep’s 3-4-3 lacked defensive solidity, and Barca didn’t have another ruthless finisher to take pressure off its superstar. The Blaugrana’s highest highs were much higher than Real Madrid’s, but Ronaldo’s and manager Jose Mourinho’s team was much more consistent.
Real Madrid had lost one game and drawn one up to that point, while Barca had lost one and drawn four. But Barcelona cut their rival’s La Liga lead to three points thanks to a Messi masterclass away at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Messi didn’t score — in fact, he rarely even got into the penalty area. But he was universally acclaimed as the best player on the pitch. He turned playmaker for his teammates, setting up Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez to finish off his moves. The match showed how Messi is arguably at his best: sitting in a deeper position, picking passes for runners in front of him, and arriving late in the penalty area to clean up the garbage after an initial save or block. But that strategy can only only work if the players in front of him step up.
Fabregas and Sanchez delivered on that day at the Bernabeu, but they never had the lethal finishing touch of Messi’s previous teammates, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, or his future teammates, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
One match later, Barca threw away the points gained in El Clásico. Fabregas scored in the first half against local rivals Espanyol, but didn’t attempt a shot in the second half of what ended as a 1-1 draw. Sanchez looked like he couldn’t finish his dinner, and was hauled off. Another draw against Valencia and a loss to Osasuna followed, effectively ending the La Liga title race by February.
But at least Barcelona still had a Champions League to play for ... ah, dammit.
The legacy of the best season ever played
Barcelona won Copa del Rey at the end of the 2011-12 season, but Barca supporters don’t exactly look back on this season fondly. Instead, it is remembered as the season when Chelsea dumped Barca out of the Champions League and Real Madrid posted a record 100 points.
The season fell apart for Barca one week in April when Mourinho and Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo came to the same conclusion: they had to shut down Messi at all costs, even if it meant leaving other talented players wide open.
And so, in both Champions League games against Chelsea and in El Clásico, Messi did not score. He played well in all three games, regularly finding open teammates for shots, but they couldn’t score, either. Fabregas, Sanchez and Pedro choked.
Guardiola’s idea to start the season made sense: if Messi is the best goal-scorer in the world, let’s surround him with good, unselfish supporting players who can give him as many shots as possible. But without a secondary finisher, teams could get away with swarming Messi and ignoring his partners. Barcelona had no plan B.
The failures of 2011-12 Barcelona, and the subsequent successes of Messi teams in which he plays a deeper role while others act as goal-poachers, suggests that we may never see anything like his 73-goal season again. Even if another Messi-level player emerges, they likely won’t be used in the same way he was. The lesson of that season is that it’s easy to gameplan against a team with just one focal point, even if that player is the best the sport has ever seen.
That’s why Barcelona would eventually buy Neymar, even though he was unproven in Europe, and the deal to sign him would put them in legal trouble. And it’s why they had to sign Luis Suarez in the immediate aftermath of him biting an opponent for a third time. With those two playing alongside Messi, Barcelona won a treble in 2014-15, capturing the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey in the same season.
Messi can carry average players to title contention, but he is at his best when the opponent also has to respect his teammates’ goal-scoring. He’s too good in a deeper, playmaking role to be a goal-poacher.
Which is saying something, given that when he was asked to play as the primary striker, he scored 73 times. Messi couldn’t help Barcelona overcome its structural deficiencies, but he still performed the job he was given to near perfection. He was in the wrong role, with the wrong players around him, but the 2011-12 season was Messi at his absolute best.