DOHA, Qatar — Imagination was easy ahead of Argentina’s final group game against Poland: what if you just watched a player for 90 minutes? And this player, one of the undisputed GOATs, may be playing his last World Cup game ever. So, pen and pad in hand, I did what I had never done before: record every moment of a player on the pitch.
Spoiler alert: Argentina beat Poland 2-0, meaning this wasn’t Lionel Messi’s last World Cup appearance. You will see him again, maybe once, maybe two, three or even four times in Doha. And yes, there’s a chance — never say never — that he’ll show up in 2026, though he’ll turn a venerable 36 this summer.
Although you’ve seen Messi over the last two decades – maybe more than 500 times on TV and at least a hundred times in person – if you focus on him and nothing else, you’re taking in things you don’t otherwise see as well as confirmation from things you suspected. Here are some I overheard against Poland:
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1. Messi runs around most of the game
It’s the nature of the game to walk when the ball isn’t close to you, but Messi does it far more than most. We knew that: Bobby Gardiner’s groundbreaking analysis of Messi’s journey through the 2018 World Cup is a great read. However, if you just look at him – which you can really only do in person – it’s absolutely remarkable how detached he seems from everything else.
He doesn’t chase runners, he might stretch out a leg if an opponent is nearby, but most of the time he just saunters around. Sometimes he looks in the general direction of the ball, sometimes not.
One is tempted to think it’s energy saving – after all, the man is 35 years old – and walking means that if you have to sprint, you can save energy. Except that Messi, especially at national team level, has been doing it for a long time.
2. Messi has two other speeds: the rarely used trot and the less common sprint
The trot is what he uses when he needs to get from point A to point B quickly, usually to avoid an offside or suffer a set piece. The sprint is triggered when the ball is with someone he knows can deliver it to him or when he needs to pull a defender out of position. It’s something we don’t see often, but when it happens it can be devastating.
I counted four times, maybe there were more. He sprinted to the far post to win a header (and the generous penalty he then missed). He took off as soon as Wojciech Szczesny saved Julian Alvarez’s shot, as if he knew Alvarez would win the ball and cross. On the other occasions, he whipped a ball over the defender’s head for a cross and flew into space, confident he would get a back cross (sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t).
3. Most of Messi’s dribbles are generally all the same
What I mean by that is that most of the time he gets the ball either standing or trotting and then either stops before taking off again or spins into space. He’s deceptively quick with the ball on his feet, which seems counterintuitive, and he’s constantly taking on opponents. He doesn’t seem to mind losing the ball, which has happened quite often against Poland, perhaps because he’s giving it away in spaces where it doesn’t harm Argentina (and perhaps because his teammates are bracing themselves for the possibility). Whether he loses, or whether he hits three or four opponents, the effect was the same: opposing defenders are running towards him, the existing defense form is now distorted, meaning openings are being created elsewhere.
4. Messi’s passing party trick is extremely difficult to defend
There’s a classic Messi pass from a central position that opponents know like a Garrincha dribble but just can’t stop. He comes on the ball centrally, feigns a dribble and then twists his body to uncork a twisting left pass that dunks across the defensive line and into left wing position at pace. Marcos Acuna was the beneficiary of this on three separate occasions, but perhaps the most impressive version of the pass was the one Alvarez found late in the game.
Once Messi gets the ball there, it’s a classic triple threat. He can dribble and pull the foul, he can take a touch and shoot, or he can pull off that pass to the left. You can’t really defend the pass because you have to be aware of the other options, which you could say are the ‘least bad’.
5. Messi spends 90% of the game in the same two areas
One is about a third of the way between the “D” at the top of the opponent’s penalty area and the center circle, the other is far to the right, just inside the opponent’s half.
In the first case, the result is almost always a shot, the pass mentioned above, or a dribble leading to a foul or a shot (or, if defended well, a turnover). If it’s the latter, it was mostly one of two things, at least in this game: a simple laydown, as if to say “No, don’t feel, you’re trying,” or the classic dribbling run, usually right-to-left. Again you know what’s coming.
6. Even if Messi doesn’t get the ball, he wreaks havoc as a decoy
His mere presence is disruptive because when you’re an opposing player you know exactly who he is and what he’s capable of. When he’s not at the top of the ‘D’, centre-backs wonder where he went. And when he comes up on the right flank, the opponent’s left flank has to consider an overload.
7. All of these are obvious Messi patterns, but then he will break them without warning
It’s as if he’s lulling you into a sense of security.
Take the header that led to the missed penalty. They don’t expect Messi to challenge a 6ft 4 keeper like Szczesny in the air at the far post. Or Argentina’s opening goal: the game unfolded to the right, the cross came from the right and Messi was just off the left touchline. Or two other occasions when he picked up the ball deep in his own half from his own centre-backs.
And there are those moments when he forgets his age — and makes his body forget it. to. Look at the counterattack where he received the ball in his own half and smashed it into the opponents’ half, half a dozen Polish players who gathered around him like a white cloud and Messi emerging from it to shoot forward to score a goal. It was blocked, but still.
This is obviously just a snapshot of 90 minutes plus injury time of what Messi is doing at this stage in his career, but it’s typical (apart from the missed penalty) and it’s still a lot, although it often seems little. And while it’s familiar, it’s the moments of unfamiliarity he can still conjure up that add an extra layer of threat to him.
Enjoy it while it’s there.
https://www.espn.com/soccer/argentina-arg/story/4821129/the-seven-tendencies-lionel-messi-displayed-against-poland The seven tendencies Lionel Messi displayed against Poland