DOHA, Qatar — The conceit was simple, ahead of Argentina‘s final group game against Poland: What if you simply watched one player for 90 minutes? And that player, one of the undisputed GOATs, might well be playing his last World Cup game ever. So, pen and pad in hand, I did what I’ve never done before: chronicle one guy’s every moment on the pitch.
Spoiler alert: Argentina beat Poland, 2-0, which means this wasn’t Lionel Messi‘s final appearance at a World Cup. You’ll get to see him again, maybe once, maybe two, three or even four times in Doha. And, yes, there is a chance — never say never — that he may turn up in 2026, although he turns a venerable 36 this summer.
Despite having watched Messi for the past two decades — perhaps 500-plus times on television and at least a hundred times in person — when you zero in on him and nothing else, you pick up things you don’t otherwise see, as well as getting confirmation of things you suspected. Here are some I picked up against Poland:
1. Messi walks around most of the match
It’s the nature of the game to be walking when the ball isn’t near you, but Messi does it far more than most. This, we knew: Bobby Gardiner’s seminal analysis of Messi walking through the 2018 World Cup is a tremendous read. When you look only at him, though — something you can really only do in person — it is absolutely remarkable how disengaged he appears to be from everything else.
He doesn’t track runners, he may stick out a leg if an opponent is nearby, but mostly he just strolls around. Sometimes he’s looking in the general direction of the ball, sometimes not.
You’re tempted to think it’s energy conservation — after all, the man is 35 years old — and walking means you can save up energy for when you need to sprint. Except Messi, especially at national team level, has been doing this for a long time.
2. Messi has two other speeds: the seldom-used trot and the rarer-style sprint
The trot is what he uses when he needs to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry, usually to avoid being offside or to take a set piece. The sprint is unleashed 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 not something we see often, but, when it happens, it can be devastating.
I counted four occasions, there may have been more. He sprinted towards the far post to win a header (and the generous penalty, which he then missed). He took off as soon as Wojciech Szczesny parried Julian Alvarez‘s shot, as if he knew Alvarez would recover the ball and cross it. On the other occasions, he whipped a ball over the top of the defender to the flank and took off into space, confident that he’d get a return cross (sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t).
3. Most of Messi’s dribbling runs are generally all the same
What I mean here is that the vast majority of the time, he receives the ball either at a standstill or at a trot and then either stops before taking off again or spins into space. He’s deceptively quick with the ball at his feet, which seems counterintuitive, and he takes on opponents all the time. He doesn’t seem to mind losing the ball, which happened quite a bit against Poland, perhaps because he’s giving it away in spaces where it won’t hurt Argentina (and perhaps because his teammates adjust to the possibility). Whether he loses it or whether he beats three or four opponents, the effect was the same: opposing defenders converge on him, whatever defensive shape was in place is now warped, which means openings are created elsewhere.
4. Messi’s passing party trick is extremely tough to defend
There’s a classic Messi pass from central positions, which, like a Garrincha dribble, opponents know is coming but simply can’t stop. He gets the ball centrally, he fakes a dribble and then twists his body to uncork a a curving left-footed pass that dinks at pace over the defensive line and into the left wing position. Marcos Acuna was the beneficiary of this on three different occasions, but, perhaps, the most stunning version of the pass was the one that found Alvarez late in the game.
Once Messi receives the ball there, it’s a classic triple threat. He may dribble and draw the foul, he may take a touch and shoot or he may 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 might say, are the “least bad” ones.
5. Messi spends 90% of the game in the same two areas
One is approximately a third of the way between the “D” at the top of the opposing penalty area and the center circle, the other is wide on the right, just inside the opposition half.
When it’s the former, the outcome is almost always a shot, the aforementioned pass or a dribbling run that results in a foul or a shot (or, if defending well, a turnover). When it’s the latter, at least in this game, it was mostly one of two things: a simple layoff, as if to say, “Nope, not feeling it, you have a go,” or the classic dribbling run, usually from right to left. Again, you know what’s coming.
6. Even when Messi doesn’t get the ball, he wreaks all sorts of havoc as a decoy
His mere presence is disruptive, because if you’re an opposing player, you’re well aware of who he is and what he can do. When he’s not at the top of the “D,” the center-backs wonder where he’s gone. And when he shows up on the right, the opposing team’s left side has an overload to think about.
7. All of the above are obvious Messi patterns, but then he’ll break them without warning
It’s as if he lulls you into a sense of security.
Take the header that led to the missed penalty. You don’t’ expect to see Messi at the far post challenging a 6-foot-4 keeper like Szczesny in the air. Or Argentina’s opening goal: the play unfolded down the right, the cross came from the right and Messi was all the way next to the left touchline. Or two other occasions when he picked up the ball deep in his own half, from his own central defenders.
And there are the moments when he forgets his age — and tricks his body into forgetting it. too. Look at the counterattack where he received the ball in his own half and raced with it into the opposing half, a half-dozen Poland players converging around him like a white cloud and Messi emerging from it to shoot on goal. It was blocked, but still.
This is obviously just a 90-minute-plus-injury-time snapshot of what Messi does at this stage of his career, but it’s typical (missed penalty aside) and it’s still a lot while often appearing to be little. And while it’s familiar, it’s the moments of unfamiliarity that he can still conjure up that give an added layer of threat.
Enjoy it while it lasts.