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Lionel Messi Just Turned in the Performance of 2023 - In the MLS

So, that happened. Lionel Messi did that.

The most impressive part of the first few matches following Lionel Messi’s move to the MLS is that the sentence above could have been discussing any one of them. There was the 94th minute free kick winner against Cruz Azul on his debut, the brace and assist against Atlanta in the next match, the brace against Orlando City in the next match, and the absolutely ridiculous overall performance against FC Dallas, capped off by yet another clutch free kick sailing into the back of the net. The little magician's incredible start at Inter Miami has led to a phenomenon the media has dubbed "Messi Mania." In this case, the focus is on Dallas, where Messi turned in a performance that was pure, vintage Lionel Messi.

Messi’s play was bordering on the mystical. He scored a beauty off of a classic Jordi Alba cutback in the 6th minute, scored a clutch match-tying free kick in the 85th minute, had a hockey assist on Miami’s second goal after sliding a beautiful ball in to Alba for the left back to square, and it was his deliciously curled free kick that was headed by Marco Farfan into his own net in the 80th minute, kickstarting Miami’s furious late comeback from 4-2 down. But, somehow, it wasn’t the 4 goals that Messi scored or created that made the performance supernatural, despite the sheer absurdity of that tally. It was his overall play.

Messi might have opened the scoring in the 6th minute, but that wasn’t his first involvement. Just over 4 minutes into the match, Messi brought down a header from Busquets just short of the center circle in his own half.

The Argentine dribbled once towards midfield, taking just two short strides, before feinting forward towards the Dallas goal and then spinning back clockwise, generating yards of space between himself and the young Argentine Alan Velasco, who had been chasing from behind, in an instant.

Messi then took a touch, composed himself, and sent a picture perfect through ball over the top of the defense towards a sprinting Robert Taylor, whose first-time shot was blocked. By taking his time after sending Velasco flying past, Messi allowed Taylor time to reach top speed and get to a spot where Messi could curl it around the right back, which he proceeded to do in classic Messi fashion.

Moments of subtle genius like this abounded throughout the match. There was Messi, drawing 2 defenders towards him at midfield and then flipping a simple pass between them - and then there was Messi again, turning in his own half and sliding an inch-perfect pass through 3 defenders to Cremaschi to instantly shift possession into the attacking third. There was Messi, spinning to his right at the top of the 18 before delivering a simple flick to an onrushing Busquets to set up yet another scoring chance. And there was Messi, sliding Diego Gómez through on goal with 3 defenders in his face before Gómez fluffed his lines. Dribble after dribble after perfectly placed pass, Messi ripped the poor Dallas defense to shreds. Time and time again, Messi would drop deep, receive the ball, and play a simple one-two to push the ball into the attacking half and simultaneously take 3 defenders out of play, or he’d wait until multiple defenders came up before somehow flicking a pass in between them directly to a teammate’s feet, then accelerating past the defenders from a standstill before they knew what hit them.

Just over a minute after the first through ball to Taylor, Messi’s second involvement came, as he pounded home the match’s first goal from 20 yards out. Alba was played down the left wing, and Messi trailed behind the play, with Dallas focusing on the play and failing to man mark him off the ball. 

Leaving Lionel Messi that kind of space on a cutback from Jordi Alba - not the brightest idea. The ball zipped past Maarten Paes into the net.

Most analysis of Messi's move to Miami focused on how he'd potentially find increased impact in terms of goals and assists in an easier league, ignoring the possibility of the rest of his game doing the same. Messi’s always been a one man ball progression machine, but it seemed impossible that he could somehow get better at it. After all, he was already the best ball progressor in Europe in the 2022-23 season, and did so against the best defenders on the planet in the World Cup as well. Against Dallas, his ball progression hit a new, impossible level. Seemingly every touch placed Miami, a team that had barely scored all year before Messi joined, into a dangerous position. Upon reflection, it was perhaps unsurprising that MLS defenders posed significantly less resistance to Messi’s inhuman ball progression than, say, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, but it was still astonishing watching Messi rip through a midfield composed of professional players with quality track records like wet paper.

Then, at the end of all of this otherworldly magic that Messi was making seem all too casual, Messi took a free kick short and sent a scorched pass low across the grass to Taylor, who was fouled just outside the upper right-hand corner of the penalty box. It was an impossible angle for a left-footed player - for any left-footed player besides Messi, that is. Messi, meanwhile, curled an exceptional free kick into the top corner, easily beating poor Paes (who was at fault for precisely none of the 4 goals he conceded). To be fair to the Dutchman, it’s hard to say any keeper on the planet would have kept it out. Messi’s 85th-minute equalizer ended up sending the match into penalties, wherein the diminutive wizard stepped up and calmly slotted home the first penalty of the shootout, which Miami went on to win. Messi’s been in 10 career penalty shootouts for club and country, has been the first taker in each, and has scored in 9 of them - an impressive record (the miss, of course, was against Chile in the 2016 Copa América final). Statistical analysis indicates the first penalty is the most important one, and Messi has always been the man who steps up to take it. Since unveiling his new hop technique against Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, he’s yet to miss a penalty when using it (his miss against Poland did not utilize the hop technique), despite taking some penalties under enormous pressure, and this shootout was no different.

Messi’s most underrated aspect, which was on full display in this match, has always been his decision making, in no small part because the right decision for Messi is rarely the right decision for other footballers. For example, take Miami’s second goal. Messi received the ball at the top of the box with a trailing defender, Josef Martínez and two defenders directly in front of him, Benjamin Cremaschi occupying another two defenders just yards away, and Taylor coming over as well from his left wing position.

Most players in this situation try to find a shot, or make the easy pass to Taylor, who’s dropping back to make himself an option. They might try and play a one-two with Martínez to get themselves the shot. If neither option is available, they probably drop the ball back to Busquets, or bait contact and dive for a free kick. But Messi’s eyes work a little bit differently.

Messi, diagnosing the defense in front of him to perfection and what he could do to open it up, opened his body, cut across goal, and then slid a perfect pass into Jordi Alba, who cut it back to Cremaschi for a simple tap-in.

This is a perfect example of Messi at his creative best. No other player even tries that pass, let alone executes it to perfection. What’s crazy about Messi is that he saw that pass the entire time. From the instant he touched the ball in the first frame to the instant the pass was released, he knew exactly how to shift the defense to create a scoring chance, what he wanted to do to make that happen, and the specific actions he was going to take to do that. In just 3 seconds, Messi turned a 10-player logjam at the top of the box into a tap-in for a teammate - with just 4 touches. Control, dribble, dribble, pass - and with that, the little magician turned nothing into a clear goalscoring opportunity, and a 3-1 deficit that felt like a massive mountain to climb was suddenly a 3-2 match, well within reach.

It was quintessential Messi. Nobody in the history of the sport has better understood how to do what Messi does so well - draw defenders to him, then spring a teammate loose, seemingly magically improving his team’s attack in a matter of seconds. Ángel Di María’s goal in the World Cup final is a perfect example. Messi drops towards his goal to receive the ball, takes one touch to control the pass, then with his second touch flicks the ball into the path of Julián Álvarez, sprinting at full tilt in the other direction, setting up an eventual 1 on 1 with Hugo Lloris for Di María. Against Dallas, we saw the same thing time and time again. To play most effectively in possession with Messi, you need to understand just three things: when and how to get him the ball, and where to go once he’s got the ball. PSG players such as Vitinha or Carlos Soler often struggled with this. Inter Miami players, meanwhile, after just a couple weeks with Messi, have for the most part already figured out the proper runs down the right and left, and the proper combinations to play in the midfield. The pass to Taylor in the 34th minute is a perfect example of this.

With nearly 34 full minutes gone, Messi latched onto a pass from Dixon Arroyo in his own half, dribbled 20 yards at full tilt, cut left, then slid a gorgeous ball to Taylor, who was through on goal. Taylor’s touch took him wide and his low driven shot rebounded back off of Dallas keeper Maarten Paes towards the upper left-hand corner of the box, where Messi delicately chipped the rolling ball over a desperately leaping Paes before center back Nkosi Tafari, who had wisely continued tracking back after Taylor’s shot, cleared the goal-bound strike off the line with his head.

To start the break, Messi receives the ball in the midfield. At this point, he’s already scanned the entire pitch in front of him and to either side. Messi knows Martínez is ahead on the right and that Taylor is running at full speed over to his left, and that there’s a defender coming hard from behind him. Messi immediately diagnoses that Taylor has a clear lane to goal with Martínez occupying the two Dallas center backs, so he works to position his body so that the ball will be on his left foot when it’s time to play Taylor in, with Facundo Quignón (the midfielder chasing him) on his right.

Chased from behind, Messi uses his body to shield the ball, enabling him to slow down and give Taylor the time to run ahead, as well as placing Quignón to his right instead of his left. With Martínez having the proper awareness to continue his run, causing the center back’s hips to be facing away from Taylor, Messi knows that the pass is on. All Messi has to do is time the pass properly.

Of course, being Messi, he does this to perfection, sending Taylor through on goal from a manageable angle. Messi’s reading of the moment doesn’t stop with the pass, however - he has the awareness to follow the play, giving himself a look at goal after Taylor’s low-driven shot was saved by Maarten Paes.

Had it not been for center back Nkosi Tafari tracking back even after Taylor’s shot, Messi’s perfect chip over Paes would have ended up in the back of the net.

This sequence, again, demonstrates Messi’s seemingly superhuman ability to read the play and make the right decision nearly instantaneously. From the moment he first received the ball to his release 3 seconds later, he knew the ball he was going to play and what he would have to do to make it work.

Due to playing alongside Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets for years at Barcelona, Messi has a near-telepathic connection with the two of them. This was seen in the 56th minute, when, trailing 2-1, Alba sent yet another cutback into Messi’s path, a pass which so often ends with a Messi strike.

Messi, however, reading the mass of humanity in front of him intent on preventing his shot, opted to open up counterclockwise as he received the pass from Alba, sending Jáder Obrian flying in an attempt to block a shot that never came.

Busquets, meanwhile, read Messi’s intentions perfectly as he so often does, moving to his right to give himself a shot on goal, with the defense completely focused on closing Messi’s shooting angle. Messi tapped a simple right footed pass into his path, which Busquets hit first time and blazed just over the bar.

The shot didn’t go in, but it was yet another display of Messi’s absurd decision making and creative brilliance. He’d already scored once off of an Alba cutback, and most players probably take the shot there. Instead, he used his earlier goal as a decoy, setting up Busquets for a much better look - a look that didn’t even exist until Messi pulled it out of thin air. This is a prime example of how Messi’s best option, which he nearly always chooses, doesn’t always exist for other players.

Moments later, Messi received a pass from Busquets in a dangerous position. Somehow, with his back to goal, Messi diagnosed the play and knew immediately to look for Diego Gómez on a run into the box.

With a simple body feint, Messi put Tafari on his heels and opened up a passing lane to Gómez, then delivered a perfect pass to the Paraguayan midfielder, who miscontrolled the ball and wasted a golden scoring chance.

And then, of course, there were the Messi classics - the curling ball down the left hand side to Jordi Alba, which he typically plays multiple times per match. Messi’s second one, in particular, was impressive.

How does one kickstart an attack here? Why, play an inch-perfect switch to Alba on the left wing, of course. What else would you do?

Not too shabby, as far as pinpoint switches to the other side of the pitch go.

After Messi’s brilliant free kick from an absurd angle to tie the match in the 85th minute (his 3rd clutch free kick goal in the last 6 months in the 85th minute or later), he had time for one more dazzling moment. Messi received a pass from Busquets in the attacking third, and immediately opened his body to get the ball onto his left foot and drive towards goal.

Again, Messi accurately diagnoses the play in front of him. After stopping on a dime and sending poor Pomykal to the ground, Messi sees that there’s an opening to his right to drag defenders with him, and does so, pushing in that direction.

With room to maneuver and FIVE defenders surrounding him, but no options to his right, Messi spins back around clockwise, intending to get the defenders to his right and the ball on his left foot.

After leaving all 5 defenders in the dust and creating tons of space for himself, along with drawing half the defense to him in the same breath, Messi has the ball on his left foot - and his telepathic connection with Jordi Alba to help him out.

Surprise, surprise - the pass ends up directly at Jordi Alba’s feet. In just seconds, Messi drags half the defense to him, then switches the play entirely, opening up three possibilities for Alba - drive forward and look for a cross, drive forward and look for a cutback, or send the ball back and allow play to circle back to Messi, but this time with more space.

One final moment stands out. Messi picks up a pass from Busquets at midfield on the right wing, with seemingly no real options to advance the attack. There’s nothing there, but as always, Messi immediately sees a path forward where no one else does.

Messi controls the pass, then slowly works up the pitch, subtly positioning the ball onto his left foot and drawing two defenders on to him. Then, as soon as the defenders come, Busquets makes a run and Messi flicks a pass through the defenders, landing it at Busquets’ feet in a pocket of space that didn’t exist until Messi created it.

With 2 defenders all over Busquets, Messi follows behind his pass and moves towards the middle of the pitch, receiving the ball some 20 yards further up the pitch in a more central area with room to operate, then rolls a pass directly into the feet of Benjamin Cremaschi, who read the play and moved up into the new space Messi created, just 30 yards from the goal with options to play.

Here, at last, you can get a glimpse of Messi’s true magic. In seconds, Messi turned a standstill buildup into a dangerous attack in the center with just 4 touches, touching the ball just twice in the half-space. It’s not about the 4 goals he created or scored. His impact lies far beyond that. There’s an argument to be made that Kylian Mbappé is still the best player in the world, and it’s not an entirely untrue one. However, what is absolutely untrue is the idea that Mbappé is capable of producing a showrunning performance such as this one. Mbappé is absolutely lethal around the goal, and is a world class dribbler and creator, but his impact does not lie in the areas of the pitch Messi dominates, nor does it come through the same mechanisms. Messi, playing nominally as a right winger but dropping as deep as Busquets at times in the buildup, sliced through the Dallas midfield with ease. Nearly every Miami buildup that got the ball to Messi turned from decent buildup into a dangerous attack in seconds.

Messi’s capabilities in the buildup, though drastically underrated, are simply extraordinary. Nobody on the planet is anywhere close to as good as Messi when it comes to improving a team’s position in possession with just a few actions. Each of these sequences showcases the exact same thing - Messi on the ball, Messi diagnosing the play in an instant, and Messi correctly choosing the few actions necessary to improve the position, before carrying them out to perfection. Each sequence shown here ends with Miami in a more dangerous position than before Messi got involved, and that’s the power of the man. It’s like a chess player, constantly working move by move to slightly better their position - except, instead of stagnant pieces against one opponent, Messi is doing it with 21 other moving parts to think about. The staggering level of sheer footballing genius required for this cannot be over-exaggerated. He created 4 goals, yes, but he could have created about 6 more with his play. There has never been a player who can do what Messi does, even at 36 years of age. He’s on the ball as much as anybody, and yet his average on-ball action carries approximately the attacking value of the typical penalty box action of a world class striker. Simply put, that is not humanly possible - but Messi isn’t human. As he showed once again against FC Dallas, Lionel Messi is anything but.

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