A tale of two Lionel Messis
Why has the FC Barcelona star been unable to duplicate his club form for Argentina?
It's one of soccer's most perplexing, ongoing mysteries.
There's no denying that Lionel Messi is the greatest player on the planet. The Argentine ace scooped up every major individual award in 2009 after leading FC Barcelona to a record-breaking season in which the Catalan club won six trophies — including the UEFA Champions League, Spanish league championship and the FIFA Club World Cup.
Still only 22, Messi is on top of the world, the crown jewel of a glittering Barcelona side. But for some reason he hasn't been able to duplicate his outstanding club form for Argentina's national team.
Argentina manager Diego Maradona labelled Messi his "successor," based on his skill and playing style. The Barcelona icon has it all: speed, vision, a blistering shot, sublime passing skills, deft dribbling and the ability to make the impossible look routine.
And yet, he's under-achieved for Argentina — aside from helping the Albicelestes win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — and failed to wield the same form of on-field magic and wizardry for his country that he has for his pro club.
It begs the question why?
One answer could be that Messi is surrounded by better players at Barcelona, and that he benefits greatly from the service provided by teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, both of them regarded among the top midfielders in the game today.
"If you look at Messi playing for Barca, he's got Xavi and Iniesta behind him, giving him the ball with quality. He's got Dani Alves bursting outside him, creating space for him, stretching the opposing defence and creating space for him to dance through the middle," Tim Vickery, a Rio-based reporter and expert on South American soccer, told CBCSports.ca.
"He's got a forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic with whom he can exchange passes when cuts in on the diagonal. So it's a collective structure at Barca that houses him and lots of players doing the work setting up the play and Messi defines the movement."
Vickery added: "Xavi and Iniesta make the cake, Messi provides the cherry."
Indeed, the collective play of Barcelona is so good that Messi is allowed to concentrate on what he does best — run at defenders and cause chaos in the final third of the field.
With the national team, it's another story. While Messi is the fulcrum of the attack for both Barcelona and Argentina, he has a stronger supporting cast in Spain, and thus doesn't feel obliged to try to do everything himself like he does when he represents his country.
"When he plays for Barcelona, he's surround by friends and allies. When he plays for Argentina, he's just surrounded," Vickery stated. "He turns past one opponent and he runs into three more. He doesn't have that same collective structure around him."
Messi hasn't been able to forge creative partnerships with any of his Argentina teammates on a regular basis because neither Maradona nor his predecessor Alfio Basile have been able to house their star player in a collective structure that brings out the best in him.
"Other than Juan Sebastian Veron, there's nobody else for Messi to link up with," Vickery explained. "Apart from that, Argentina has no collective team structure and that's why he hasn't shined. That's one of the biggest challenges that Maradona faces: to find a collective structure to get the best out of Messi."
Furthermore, Messi's contrasting experience with Barcelona and Argentine underlines the fact that soccer is a team game, and that teams can't rely on one star player to pull the strings.
"There's so much individualism in football, and it's not really relevant because it's a team game," Vickery said. "The stars tend to shine when the collective balance of the team is correct."