I think Messi is already the greatest player of all time. This Saturday in El Clásico, he may break Telmo Zarra’s record of 251 La Liga goals, a mark that was previously thought unbreakable. Given he scores in pretty much every fucking game (including 21 goals in 26 Clásicos, a record), Messi’s a pretty safe bet to make history this weekend in the Bernabéu.
The chatter in Spain is all about whether the Bernabéu will applaud Messi if he does set the mark. The narrative is just too irresistible. It’s pure “Morbo,” as it is known there. It would be a beautiful moment, and I suspect the Bernabéu will live up to it. In fact, it did applaud Zarra in 1954 and more recently, Ronaldinho.
The scary thing for me: It looks like we are currently witnessing a new phase in Messi’s evolution.
The first phase of his career began with his debut in 2004. Barca played a highly recognizable 4-3-3 with Samuel Eto’o as its center forward and Ronaldinho its star and left winger. The 17-year-old Messi began to see some playing time on the right, where he was able to stretch the field and find space before cutting in on his left foot. His second ever goal in league was a fine example of the “classic” Messi goal in this phase.
The conventional wisdom was, given his size, Messi would fare far better on the wing, where he wouldn’t be surrounded by defenders and he could concentrate on making something happen in the final third. Even in this early phase, he was already an unbelievably good player, but he wasn’t yet the total footballer he would become.
The 2008-09 season, the first of Pep Guardiola’s at Barca, saw Messi take a quantum leap. Guardiola recognized the boy’s genius and began to engineer the team around him. The era of Ronaldinho had passed. It was time for the club’s new icon to take center stage.
The definitive moment came in the famous 2-6 game at the Bernabéu. Guardiola decided to play Messi as a false nine instead of on the right, it caught Real Madrid totally off guard. Scoring twice and setting up another, Messi absolutely destroyed the eternal rivals.
Guardiola recognized that the wing was limiting Messi, especially his otherworldly passing ability and vision, but I don’t think even Guardiola could’ve predicted Messi’s goal-scoring explosion. That season he’d go on to score 38 goals. His previous high was 17. This is the period most people associate with Messi – the years where he became a voracious goalscorer, picking up four Ballon d’Or’s in a row.
Last season, it looked like it was all coming to an end. Despite the fact that he scored 41 goals in 46 games, Messi looked lethargic and uninterested. He would drift out of games in a way that he never used to. His nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, easily beat him out for the Ballon d’Or. His controversial Golden Ball win after a largely disappointing World Cup was like a sick end to his annus horribilis.
Enter Luis Enrique. The former Barcelona captain was brought in as manager to right the ship after a rare trophyless season. His first request was to bring in Luis Suárez, the European Golden Boot Winner and one of the best center forwards in the world. This raised eyebrows, as Messi had famously frozen out Eto’o, Ibrahimovic, and David Villa. The center forward channel was his. He knew the most efficient way for Barca to score was if he was the one taking the vast majority of the shots. Would Suárez and Messi be able to play together?
The early signs are very encouraging. The new manager seems to have inspired Messi to change his game. So far this season, Messi hasn’t been Barcelona’s top scorer, something unimaginable for so long. He’s played deeper, setting up play (with Neymar the great beneficiary of his nine assists) while being a lot more active in defense. He still scores a lot of goals (nine so far this season), but goals don’t seem to be an obsession anymore.
Will it work when Suárez is in there? Suárez also has an insatiable appetite for goals. It’s part of what makes him a great player. Will Messi be content playing the set up man for his new teammate and Neymar while doing a lot of the dirty work in midfield?
If he is, we’ll see the final evolution of Messi, one that transforms him into a complete player: A midfielder with an unparalleled ability to move the ball and set up his teammates; one who also scores more than an almost any forward in the world.
If there’s anyone who can do it, it’s him. He’s just the greatest to ever play.