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Lionel Messi

FIFA Best Men’s Player, 2019

Lionel Messi was rewarded for the remarkable 36 goals he scored in 34 Liga appearances during 2018/19, ultimately inspiring Barcelona to the Spanish title, when he was named the best men’s player at the Best FIFA Football Awards. The 32-year-old Argentinian, perhaps the finest player of all time, had won the award’s predecessor, the Ballon D’Or, in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015. His team’s La Liga and Spanish Cup double means he now has 34 winners’ medals with Barca, contributing to him being recognised ahead of, among others, Cristiano Ronaldo and Virgil van Dijk.

That Messi also recorded his 600th goal for the Spanish champions, and 400th in La Liga, means that he continues to break and set new records. He has surpassed Xavi as the Barca player to win most matches, and gone past Iker Casillas’ record in the Spanish top flight. His 10 La Liga titles also means he remains on course to surpass Francisco Gento’s total of 12, set with rivals Real Madrid.

Tactical analysis
Since being used on the right by then manager Frank Rijkaard in an attempt to fit him into the same attack as Ronaldinho, Messi has excelled at cutting inside on to his stronger left foot. If he started his career as an agile, tricky winger at his best beating defenders one-on-one, he has since had to steadily adjust. His change of speed, particularly from a standing start, remains essential to his game – he often becomes still when receiving possession in an attempt to hold his opponent and then burst beyond them, often with a shoulder feint (below) to leave them off-balance. Even given his incredible ability and vast range of tricks, he favours a combination of exceptional balance, speed and strength when protecting possession and overcoming being marked by two players.

Even if those runs have become less common, Messi’s incisive passing has not. After moving past an opponent, his ability to break lines with accurate forward passes is outstanding, largely owing to the vision that rivals some of the finest midfield passers in the world – a particularly rare trait in a wide forward.

Messi breaks lines from any position to create for his teammates, usually those moving to receive in behind, regardless of whether he is feeding a striker running across a defence, an overlapping full-back, or a central midfielder running vertically through a block. The timing of his release complements his accuracy, and encourages the receiver to ease into their next action.

Messi’s deceptive body movements when dribbling with or manipulating the ball disguise some of his passes – which in turn invite further penetrations, even against the most compact defence. As he cuts a pass across his body – most commonly between the opposing right-back and central defender – opponents become uncertain about the intended direction of play and are forced to defend reactively.

Further forward, Messi’s low finishing technique, using the inside of his left foot, is devastating. He combines power and precision, and can convincingly finish while dribbling at speed or while almost static, also doing so with an element of disguise – shooting across goal to deceive the goalkeeper or while one-on-one, when he is as capable of rounding a goalkeeper as he is of gently lifting the ball over him and finishing into the bottom corner (below).

Role during 2018/19
In addition to being La Liga’s leading goalscorer for 2018/19 – he became the first ever to surpass 20 goals for 11 successive seasons – Messi’s 13 assists were the joint highest, equalled only by Sevilla’s Pablo Sarabia. Left-back Jordi Alba also regularly creates goals; his relationship with his captain continues to flourish.

When the Argentinian occupies the right inside channel, Alba advances high to provide attacking width from the left (below) while Sergio Busquets withdraws into a defence that spreads to cover Alba’s absence in the event of a loss of possession. A number eight would also move inside to join Luis Suárez in attacking around the defending right-back and central defender, inviting Messi to move horizontally across the pitch, with or without the ball. With Alba’s penetrative runs on the left and further attacking teammates occupying defences, the left-back is encouraged to receive in behind and continue to assist from low crosses – another move inspired by Messi and his fluid movements between the lines.

On occasions when Busquets withdraws into defence, Messi also adopts positions in central midfield in an attempt to create from deeper spaces. If opponents adopt a lower block, he carries possession forward and then provides incisive passes to his potent teammates – including the advancing Alba (below).

Even if opponents surround Messi with a compact, narrow block, Alba’s width, and Suárez’s ability to withdraw to receive to feet, often lead to the Argentinian penetrating in behind.

Under Ernesto Valverde, Messi’s out-of-possession role has increased his transitional threat. Valverde does not encourage the same aggressive counter-press favoured by several of his predecessors, so Messi has occasionally been used as the first line of pressure in a flat 4-4-2, alongside Suárez. They provide the Barca midfield with attacking options in the event of midfield regains.

This contributes to numerous counter-attacks, as Suárez withdraws to protect possession or bounce it towards a midfield runner. As the quicker attacker, Messi spins into spaces in behind before being released to run at goal and finish. His presence in the centre also means he can directly attack central defenders, and then slide in supporting runners.

Lionel Messi

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