Lionel Messi – Player Analysis – World Cup 2022

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Written by Charlie Ellis & Rhys Desmond

After coming desperately close in 2014, Lionel Messi now has another shot of World Cup glory, in what could be his final act at the prestigious tournament. The 35-year-old has been absolutely brilliant at the 2022 showcase, scoring 5 goals with 3 assists in 6 matches, and coming up with some of the most significant single-handed efforts we’ve seen from anyone at the tournament. While a World Cup win does not define his career, it would add a nice cherry on top to one of the greatest sporting careers we’ve ever witnessed, and Messi will be doing everything he can to turn the thought of World Cup triumph into a reality. Here is our analysis of Lionel Messi at the 2022 World Cup.

STYLE OF PLAY & ROLE

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While this Argentinean team hasn’t completely been a story of Messi alone, the 35-year-old’s 8 goal contributions paints a picture of him having played a crucial part in nearly 70% of his team’s goals. He’s trusted to completely unlock any opposition defense, whilst playing as more of a ‘Creative Ten’ off a truer ‘number 9’ in the form of Julian Alvarez or Lautaro Martinez. From that freedom of role, Messi loves to operate in the right-half-spaces. He can then use his two-footedness to go inside toward goal, or to bamboozle his opposition defender down the touchline.

Lionel Messi’s heatmap at the 2022 World Cup (after semi-finals).

Regardless of Scaloni’s tactical plan, Messi has more of a free role, and fewer defensive responsibilities than any other player in the side. Having defensively-minded warriors in behind him therefore becomes a priority, and Scaloni even doubled up by putting Rodrigo de Paul on the right-side of midfield against Croatia. The likes of Paredes, Fernandez and De Paul will all be key in any combination that Scaloni’s willing to concoct in the final, ensuring that Messi has fewer defensive responsibilities than he might if the wing slot was to be fulfilled by Angel di Maria instead.

Capturing so much attention as he moves about the pitch, Messi naturally opens up space for others to pounce. Even defenders attempting to man-mark him out of the game must be warned about getting too tight to the Argentinean, as he can easily shuffle from one foot to another and break the best of defenders. Simultaneously, if you give him room to get on the ball and enact his brilliance, you’re only creating more room for disaster. Unsurprisingly, Messi has then found even the tightest of spaces to win 2.5 dribbles and 3.3 fouls per game, constantly injecting fear into every opposition he comes up against.

With these moments of brilliance on the ball, Messi has never just been in it only for himself. He’s been one of the most creative players at the tournament with 3 key passes per 90, constantly benefiting the running power of players like Julian Alvarez. Add in his 4.5 shots per 90, and you get a player that has been a complete nuisance for every opposition side to contend with.

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In every sense of the word, he’s led the way from an attacking perspective for Lionel Scaloni’s team. His constant energy and endeavour just spurs others to raise the bar and rise to the occasion in trying to compliment his brilliance – which has seen the best come out of players like Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez. He’s more than just a leader by nature of the armband, but in what he puts into motion on the pitch.

THE CASE FOR CONSERVING ENERGY

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Since the defensive side of Messi’s game hasn’t been of much importance to Argentina at the tournament, we’ve chosen to focus our analysis on the discrepancies between his “off the ball” actions, in comparison to the key features of everything he accomplishes with the ball at his feet. In particular, how those two agendas actively work to benefit the other.

It’s worth noting right off the top that Messi has made an active effort to conserve his energy for those high spikes of on-the-ball brilliance. He’s done more walking than any other player at the tournament, illustrating a desire to keep moving, albeit at a slow and steady pace. It’s paid off in more ways than one. He’s played every minute of the tournament at the age of 35; and more obviously, has been brilliant just about every time he’s touched the ball. As an immense, driving force for the team, Messi must conserve his energy in this manner to ensure that he lasts the entire ninety to the same heights.

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Finding space in between three defenders is never an easy task, even if Messi makes it look more effortless than any other footballer around. But that effortless expenditure of energy requires him to be smart about when to push and probe, and when to walk.

Lionel Scaloni understands this too, and this has meant that the 35-year-old’s defensive responsibilities have been few and far between. He’s still been a key figurehead every time Argentina have possession, coming up with 72 touches per game. But his defensive stats have been practically non-existent. He’s yet to make an interception, block or clearance, and significantly more likely to foul (1.3 per game) than successfully make a challenge (0.5 tackles). Argentina’s pressing structures therefore become more limited in that he’s more of a bystander than an active presser, and they may only ramp up the pressure when they see the opposition really on the ropes with their possession.

Instead of putting the pressure on, Messi spends time scanning the field, assessing the complexion of the game, and searching for the spaces available that he can cause pandemonium toward. Without taking away the complexity of constant scanning, this is one of the ways in which the Argentinean forward is able to make such lightning-speed decisions when he receives the ball.

It’s not just instinct, but an active effort to assess the evolution of the match in those moments where he appears to us as onlookers as ‘disengaged’ in the action. Moments like the dribble on Josko Gvardiol or this insane pass to Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands have then been able to come about more seamlessly.

Since making his debut in 2005, Messi has been known as a player capable of producing tremendous magic. He’s never lost that brilliance, and now at the age of 35, has enjoyed arguably his best tournament. Only Antoine Griezmann has completed more key passes than Messi at the World Cup, and no one has contributed to more goals. He remains their free kick, corner kick and penalty kick taker, playing a pivotal role in every phase of the game (except maybe defensive ones; but even that has a purpose).

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The loss at the start of the tournament to Saudi Arabia would have been a harsh lesson for Argentina to learn, but it’s been a lesson they’ve learned from, bouncing back stronger by the game. The 35-year-old will now be prepared to give it his all to close off the tournament in the right way, and come out as a champion of the World Cup for the first time in his long-standing career.


So there it is! Our analysis of Lionel Messi by Charlie Ellis and Rhys Desmond. Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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