Some may say that there are players with greater flair and speed, more inventive tricks and flashier stepovers, but there is simply no denying that Lionel Messi is one of the most difficult footballers ever to defend against. His moves are seemingly simple, yet dazzling, as Bayern Munchen’s Jerome Boateng, along with many others, can testify to. His skill and technique on the ball are more than evident, but there is a deeper layer to Messi’s game that needs to be understood in order to fully appreciate the Argentine’s otherworldly talent.
Top Eleven takes a look at how Barca’s star performs his signature dribbling moves, breaking it down to as many details as possible.
In a sport where the most talented players on the pitch are the targets of the most brutal tackles, Lionel Messi should be in a world of trouble. His height and strength are below average in comparison to his colleagues, yet he uses his low center of gravity and keen perception on the pitch to his advantage.
“It’s all about looking at what the defender does”, Leo explains. “I like to play one on one because as soon as an opposing player stops, I can choose where to create an advantage. I run straight at him, he tries to tackle, and that is precisely the moment I find the most crucial one.”
At other times, when opponents try closing him down aggressively, it’s Messi’s spectacular vision that makes all the difference. “Multitasking is tough, but when I find myself receiving the ball, I can shield it with my body, fend off the defender with my arms and use my first touch to do the unpredictable. I have a clear advantage.”
Messi spends hours practicing the process with the inside and outside of either foot, but in an ideal situation he tries to switch it to his left. He can turn in the blink of an eye due to his nimbleness, and his solid long range shooting ensures that his opponents are kept guessing at all times.
“When I try and push forward through the wings, there is a precise moment in which defenders spread their legs – it’s because they are moving laterally. I find it easy to go past them in these kind of situations.”
Easier said than done for most people, but these are not the only factors to consider when unmasking Messi’s dribbling magic.
Footwork is one of the most important aspects of a trickster’s arsenal, and the Argentinian, unsurprisingly so, excels in this category as well. There is only so much you can practice in training, but Lionel’s natural ability to switch directions in extremely tight spaces creates havoc in opponents’ minds.
‘Ankle-breakers’ are a phenomenon typical for basketball; the term signifies a defender falling over after trying to move in two different directions at the same time – it was Messi’s lesson to Boateng that brought attention to it in football. His reaction time is quicker and his body more elastic during sudden movement changes, allowing him to alternatively cut inside and outside to great effect.
“Stepovers can be an important part of the attacking game, too”, continues Lionel. “If you practice often enough, you can mask your intentions and feint successfully whenever you wish to. Once again, perceiving what the defender intends to do is of the utmost importance. It gives you time to adapt and make the correct decision.”
When analyzing the ingredients of what makes Messi’s dribbling unique, one can only explain so much. His quick and precise timing in decision-making, extremely high footballing IQ and the ability to do the unexpected are what makes him one of football’s all-time greats.
He was officially the best dribbler in Europe last season, completing 258 successful dribbles, four more than second placed Chelsea star Eden Hazard and 14 more than Liverpool’s Brazilian signing Roberto Firmino. Unsurprisingly, he was a key factor in one of Barca’s most dominant seasons ever.
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