Five reasons why Lionel Messi plays better for his club than his country
The Spoiler attempts to explain the Argentinian’s inconsistency
A strange thing tends to happen when Lionel Messi pulls on an Argentina shirt – generally speaking, he loses the dazzling talent that made him the centre piece in Barcelona’s triple-winning season. But why does this happen? As the Albicelestes prepare for a vital clash with Peru on Saturday, Spoiler correspondent Sam Williams gives five possible reasons for his inconsistent form on the international stage…
Comparisons with Maradona are inescapable, particularly when the manager forces the iconic number 10 shirt on Messi. Before the recent World Cup qualifiers against Brazil and Paraguay, Maradona said of his star player: “We’ve been heaping responsibility onto him. He’s fast, concentrated, totally committed. He knows the chance he has.” Argentina duly lost both games.
Messi is consistently outstanding for Barcelona because he plays in a liberated, care-free manner. He knows how good he is, and if Maradona lets him get on with it, he could help dig Argentina out of the World Cup Qualification hole they find themselves in.
In the aforementioned defeat to Paraguay in Asuncion, Messi was deployed up-front in a 4-4-2 formation. For all his attacking qualities, five-foot-seven Messi isn’t an out-and-out striker and he couldn’t impose himself against the big, physical Paraguayan centre-backs. Alongside a target-man in a 4-4-2, Messi might flourish. But alongside the similarly-diminutive Sergio Aguero, he struggled. Messi is at his best when playing in a fluid 4-3-3, as he does at the Nou Camp, where he can pop up wherever he wants to. (Admittedly, when Carlos Tevez is fit, Maradona usually plays a 4-3-3 formation, but Messi still tends to hug either touchline.)
To restrict Messi to one position on a football pitch is to take the joyous freedom out of his game. It’d be like telling Sachin Tendulakar to only play on his off-side; he’d still be a better batsman than most, but he wouldn’t be the same Sachin Tendulakar that belongs in the pantheon of true cricketing greats.
Xavi and Iniesta aren’t Argentinian
It always helps to play alongside team-mates who are on your wavelength. It helps even more when you have an understanding with team-mates that can only be described as telepathic, and that is exactly what Lionel Messi shares with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta week-in, week-out at Barcelona.
The trio are like kindred spirits. They are all outrageously gifted footballers with quick feet and even quicker minds. They rely on brains rather than brawn, and do so to devastating effect. Individually they are outstanding, together they are pretty much unstoppable. The players who fill the central-midfield area for Argentina (Javier Mascherano, Seba Veron etc) are all exceptionally talented, but none are in the same class as Xavi and Iniesta.
Last season, Barcelona’s front three of Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry scored exactly 100 goals between them. Messi himself leads the way with 38 of those, but with team-mates as prolific as Eto’o (or his over-rated replacement Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and Henry, there is less onus on him to be the team’s primary source of goals.
Carlos Tevez has scored just 8 goals in his 51 appearances for Argentina. With 7 goals in his 20 games at international level, Sergio Aguero is showing signs of being able to share the goal-scoring burden with Messi. However, if Messi has a rare off-day for his club, he has players around him who also guarantee 20-30 goals-a-season that can cover for him. At the moment, he has no such guarantees when he pulls on his national jersey.
He’s only 22
How many players have consistently made a huge impact on the international stage by the age of 22? Pele, after winning the 1958 World Cup at the age of 17, certainly. Aside from him, though? Not many, if any at all. Zinedine Zidane didn’t even make his debut for France until he was 22.
Maradona was 25 when he practically won the World Cup on his own at Mexico ‘86. Even though he’s only 22, Messi has the ability to do exactly the same for Argentina in South Africa next summer. He just has to get them there first.