His general operating pace is so slow that the fleeting injections of urgency make those decisive moments even more spectacular.
Walk, walk, walk, look left, look right, walk, walk, walk, jog… bang. Find the space and then exploit it.
No player in the first round of group-stage matches at this World Cup walked more than Lionel Messi. He walked 4,625 metres in Argentina’s 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia; pattering around the pitch with arms swinging by his hips, taking those distinctive, short, staccato steps.
He is always looking, always aware of what is going on around him and waiting for that moment to pounce. He can seem peripheral and yet on Saturday night we saw why this Argentina side, some of whom grew up idolising the 35-year-old, is set up to get the best out of him.
A defeat against Mexico would have seen Argentina eliminated from the World Cup, but Messi provided the magic when it mattered. He tried to up the tempo several times during a frustrating, stodgy first half littered with fouls — “speeding up” as he put it — but space was in short supply.
“Then in the second half we started playing our own game,” he said afterwards. “We started doing what we stand for, having the ball (and) long possessions. That’s when I started to find space between the lines, closer to the area.”
Against Mexico, The Athletic watched the man and not the ball to discover how Messi walked his way to deliver “euphoria” for Argentina once again.
Messi led his team onto the pitch at Doha’s Lusail Stadium, prompting a huge roar from the capacity crowd. This was the start of the Messi show.
Rumours had swirled in the build-up to this game about a possible ankle injury, and there was certainly a sense of him going through the motions in the warm-up, jogging, stretching and side-stepping. He did not take part in the rondo — a one-touch piggy-in-the-middle with the players in a circle — but walked his way through a passing drill instead. He then largely stood on the side of a 3×3 game in a tight space, feeding the ball back in when required.
Messi was the only one of his group wearing a blue zip-up jacket, so he already stood out. Then he wandered over to the edge of the box and thumped a shot into the top right-hand corner with his first attempt.
After standing on the periphery of another passing drill, he jogged back down the tunnel in his gold boots.
The Argentina captain led his team out to line up for the anthems and eventually took up a position on the edge of the centre circle for Mexico’s kick-off.
He ambled about 15 yards inside his own half, then out to the left. There was a little zig-zag sprint to show Andres Guardado he was there, then back to strolling. Rarely still but rarely moving very quickly. It was nearly two minutes before he had his first touch.
A little check to the left before he received the ball from his right. He did not initially get involved when Gonzalo Montiel lay stricken on the floor but eventually sauntered over and had a quick chat with Rodrigo De Paul.
Messi came back to the edge of his own box as Mexico attacked down the right, walking to “defend” a corner and providing a one-man wall for a Luis Chavez free kick. Then it was back to the halfway line, just on the shoulder of Hector Moreno.
After 10 minutes, he broke into a jog — a diagonal run out to the right to create space in the centre. He stayed there and then received the ball with his back to goal. A touch, a 180-degree turn and he tried to up the tempo with a pass and go that didn’t come off.
Back towards the centre circle. This was a position Messi would occupy time and time again, with the majority of his touches coming in that central area.
When the ball switched sides, Messi’s movement to turn his head and body to face it was so slow it was almost exaggerated. But he kept trying to make something happen.
He received the ball on the left after a dart out wide, passed and did not get it back. Then a burst to win the ball off Nestor Araujo, who was then booked. Messi could not quite react to a backheel from Lautaro Martinez or get on top of a header from a cross that had already gone out of play.
After a pass out to Gonzalo Montiel on the right, Messi ran diagonally into the box but the cross was wild. Frustration marked his trudge back this time.
A free kick was taken casually, then he walked to the edge of the area after taking a corner. His left-foot free kick was punched away. Messi didn’t move from the point of impact, staying still to inspect his work. Then back to the centre circle again.
More pacing, arms by his sides. A run to escape Moreno took Messi to the right and he stayed there, putting his arm up to signal he wanted the ball. He got it, even if others were better placed. A dribbling run fed De Paul who took it out of play, prompting a little skip of frustration from his captain, who had drifted towards the six-yard line. A run into the box to get on to a Montiel cross.
After 44 minutes, the first sustained sprint. Messi received the ball from his goalkeeper and drove down the right before being tackled.
He was jogging gingerly on his heels when the half-time whistle blew. He immediately stopped, walking back to the tunnel.
The second period began much as the first had ended, with Messi largely on the periphery and rarely breaking out of a stroll.
There was an early mazy run to the left before he wandered over to the edge of the box. When Hirving Lozano had a shot blocked, Messi was still walking back to the centre circle.
He did flare into life when he jogged to receive the ball before turning and running straight at goal, prompting a reckless foul from Erick Gutierrez, who was booked.
This was prime Messi territory — 20 yards out, almost dead centre — and he stood over the ball for a long time, bending over like he was doing a half-forward fold in yoga. “Messi” chanted the crowd. A three-step run-up but his left-foot shot was high. His shoulders sagged.
Another walk back to the edge of the centre circle and then another free kick won.
He hovered on Araujo’s shoulder with his arm up, gave up and moved towards the centre, 10 yards or so outside the box. Look, look… ah, space. Lots of it.
The ball came to Messi, a clever touch took it out from underneath him and he rifled it past Guillermo Ochoa. Cue jubilation — and relief.
He ran to the Argentina supporters in the corner and was engulfed by his team-mates. Eventually, he walked back to the middle and looked to the sky.
Slow and steady suddenly becomes a virtue when defending a lead. Messi was bundled over by Gutierrez but eventually had to get up and walk back to the centre circle, a bystander as Mexico attacked.
But then a sprint, with arms pumping, from inside his own half to the penalty box as Argentina attacked down the right. Another attempt was saved at the near post.
He directed Julian Alvarez to run while he stood on the right, then trudged 25 yards to stand in front of Alvarado’s free kick and was unable to capitalise on a chance to counter-attack.
A pointedly slow walk over to take a corner. So slow, in fact, it was played short to him instead. Almost dismissively, he laid it off to Enzo Fernandez, who finished quite superbly for 2-0.
A beautiful little touch to turn and come back on himself brought cries of adoration from the crowd. Then the relief of the final whistle.
Messi walked over to the team of officials at the end while his team-mates huddled, then walked to receive his man-of-the-match award and then did numerous press interviews.
By now, though, he was walking tall.
(Top photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
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