Just for (free) kicks: Messi shows his in-swinger is refined to divine perfection


In the 93rd minute of Argentina’s Copa America quarterfinal against Ecuador, Lionel Messi began his familiar ritual. He put the ball on the floor, twisted it several times, stepped back and calmly stood over the ball, hugging the thick white line of the penalty box, half a metre from the centre, contemplating the possibilities in front of him. He had already conceptualised both of Argentina’s goals, one of which featured a no-look pass. Now he had the chance to scrawl his name on the night, as he had done across the world over the last 15 years.

Goalkeeper Hernán Galíndez carefully assembled the human wall, surveying and resurveying the angles, imagining and reimagining the trajectory, whip and curl, before taking his position, a fraction left of centre. An almost full view of Messi, through the space between the Ecuadorian wall and two isolated Argentine shirts. He had a defender sprawled on the turf, in case Messi attempted a grass-cutter. Ecuador had already lost the match. There was just honour to defend.

Galíndez was ready, or so it seemed. He could pre-empt the shot and its destination. The in-swinger. The top-left corner. But it’s one thing seeing, another thing stopping. Then blew the whistle and Messi stepped in, two simple steps, a swipe of his left foot and the ball traced a long, sharp arc towards the top corner, swerving past Galíndez’s flailing left claw.

Terrific trio

The free-kick goal against Ecuador was Messi’s 58th for club and country, 20 fewer than free-kick virtuoso Juninho Pernambucano, and one more than Cristiano Ronaldo.

There could not be a more divergent trio. The Brazilian was almost supernatural, an alchemist who had different techniques. Sometimes the two toes behind the ball, sometimes three, sometimes the whole set of five. Depending on mood and mischief, he would choose instep or outstep, in-swinger with an out-swinger’s technique or the other way round, bend, burn or wobble. A free-kick-pedia, so to speak. Ronaldo is the scientist, whose deceptions dwell in his proficiency of angles, in imparting the perfect ounce of weight according to the angle, distance and wall, and using different parts of his boot for the swing he wants to generate.

Messi, comparatively, is the commoner. A one-trick pony. The ball, more often than not, swings one way. Into the ’keeper. He rarely brings the outside of his boot into play. But his genius lies in refining and redefining the in-swinging free-kick to a degree of perfection. The accuracy, precision, devotion and beauty are unmatched.

Perhaps, Messi’s mastery of a single weapon is so consummate that he doesn’t need other strings to his bow. With the same technique, he could coax the ball into doing what, when and where he wants. He does not have a shot for every angle, but one shot for every angle.

READ | Argentina staff member wanted to hug Lionel Messi… instead head-butted him

Evolution

Messi’s free-kicking genius blossomed late. It took him five seasons to register his first goal from a free-kick for Barcelona, and it was from 2015/16 that free-kick goals began to stream in frequently. As many as 33 of his 58 strikes have arrived in the last six years. His accuracy percentage, too, has spurted — from 5.5 per cent in 2012/13 to 13.6 per cent in 2018/19. There could be several reasons for his evolution; one could be a genius’ quest for perfection, another could be that he has taken more free-kicks than ever before. In his early days, Barcelona had several free-kick takers. Ronaldinho, Dani Alves, Xavi were considered better with dead balls.

Interestingly, Ronaldo’s threat with free kicks has tapered off in recent years. In the last six years, the Portuguese has winkled out just seven. In 58 shies for Juventus, he has not rippled the net even once. His career conversion rate is 6.7, while Messi’s is 8.7. Juninho was a freak — 44 out of 100 attempts for Lyon alone.

It’s unlikely either Ronaldo or Messi would surpass Juninho. But Messi’s lighting up the sunset of his career with twinkling free-kicks. His free-kick legacy would be different too. Not as an alchemist or a scientist, but a commoner, who refined one tool to divine perfection.

Illustration by Suvajit Dey

Master’s technique

The near slip: Lionel Messi gives the impression that he’s about to slip and twist his right ankle just before he touches the ball. But it’s his way of planting the entire boot on the ground, at almost 50 degrees, before he hits the ball. The technique, he has said, gives him more balance. Before employing this method, his shots lacked both sting and swerve.

The coil: It is as if he coils himself before pulling the trigger. He hunches his body and arches his shoulder so that he’s in a more compact position. Previously, he had struggled with too much weight on the non-hitting foot (the right foot in Messi’s case), and hence an imbalanced posture. The way he paces in and strikes with the instep, it’s almost certain that he’s looking to curl the ball in. He then wraps his foot over the ball, to get the required bend. There is no concealing his intentions.

Hip movement: According to some researchers at the Barcelona University, Messi shifts his hip to the right, when he’s opening up his left leg to strike the ball. The weight, resultantly, transfers to the outside of his right leg, which in turn ensures a fluid swing of his left foot. It’s not the prettiest of sights, Messi looks inelegant by his artful standards, but it’s finding the target more than ever before.

The targets: Usually, the top right and left corners. Sometimes around the wall, often above the wall, but with different degrees of bend and dip. It’s how Messi tricks goalkeepers, not with variety but subtlety.





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