“And you? You don’t shoot?” That’s what Juan Carlos Unzué, goalkeeping coach under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, asked Lionel Messi one day at training during his early days in the first team.
“No,” Messi responded.
Training that day was over but young Messi was sitting and watching Ronaldinho and Deco practicing their free kicks. In one way, Unzué understood, Messi was respecting the hierarchy of the team; Ronaldinho was the leader and as such, assumed the responsibilities he desired. And before he let the club down with his extracurricular activities, Ronaldinho wasn’t too shabby with the dead ball. The Brazilian did it all: over the wall, under the wall, he could blast it or curve it delicately. Messi knew at that time it was not his team. But he continued to watch. Unzué noted that even though Messi was only an observer, he was observing everything. Learning.
Then Josep Guardiola arrived and changes were made. Deco and Rijkaard were sincerely and deservedly thanked for the memories they helped create, but rightly asked to find employment elsewhere. It’s not private information anymore that the club management feared that Messi was being influenced by the lifestyle his Brazilian friends lived and deciding (correctly) that Messi was the future of the club, the Argentine prodigy was made priority. Pep critically changed Messi’s career when he freed him from the constraints of the right wing and essentially gave him a free role, trusting in his genius and effort, and the results have been historical.
As FC Barcelona and Messi flourished hand-in-hand, he has become more and more central to its success. Toward the final years of Pep’s tenure, Tito Vilanova spoke to Messi about taking free-kicks. The Argentine had done it in the youth team, together with Fàbregas, so the implicit ability was there. Messi resumed practicing dilligently and over time has found true confidence in the skill.
Vilanova commented on the subject. “It’s interesting to watch him take free kicks. He doesn’t need much of a run up and his precision is excellent. The key is in his head, he now believes a lot in himself and now you’re seeing it in the games.”
We certainly are. When Messi now steps up, there is an air of expectancy. This season alone Messi has scored two stunner free kicks in clutch moments against Real Madrid. He added another with Argentina exactly five weeks ago in a World Cup Qualifier against Paraguay.
For inexplicable reasons, many like to try and debate Messi’s supremacy. The best part of this has been our number 10’s continual rebuttals.
- “He’s too small and weak,” they said. So Messi, taking Guardiola’s advice, changed his diet and bulked-up tremendously with summertime weight sessions. Messi’s strength on the ball shines through regularly.
- “He’s not an aerial threat.” Edwin van der Sar would probably disagree. In fact, as of March 2012 when Lionel broke the 234-goal record, 12 of those (5%) were with his head. That’s far from a terrible return, especially given his natural height disadvantage. Messi’s sheer effort makes up for that. This year alone we have seen several near-goal headed attempts saved. To put 5% into some perspective, it betters the careers of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, and Robin van Persie, all reasonably to markedly taller in stature.
- “Oh, that Messi kid–he can only use his left foot.” Going back to the breakdown of his 234 goals, 16% he netted with his right, almost a fifth. That ratio, of using the weaker foot, betters illustrious strikers like Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney, and Ruud van Nistelrooy as well as midfielders like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. In fact, the statistic is just 1% less than Cristiano Ronaldo’s left-footed goals while playing for Manchester United. That’s not even considering assists.
- “He’s not good at free kicks.” The most recent feeble chirp.
That’s changing now too and it will benefit FC Barcelona immensely going forward. I can predict that in the 2012/3 season Messi’s free-kick conversion ratio will be considerably better than his counterpart Cristiano Ronaldo. Vilanova said it best, “We don’t know where Leo’s limits are.”