“Messi needs a better team”
“Messi needs a better coach”
“Messi got Argentina here”
“Messi is still the greatest”
“Messi. Messi. Messi.”
One could go on. But in the moment his team needed him most, Messi went missing. He was far from the only Argentina player to have an absolute stinker - but given the heights he has scaled in his career, he was undoubtedly the biggest under-performer.
The Argentine superstar had 49 touches against Croatia but only two came inside the opposition box. In the first half, he had just 20 touches, spending huge swathes of time on the right flank, watching the game from a distance; watching like someone who didn’t want to be involved.
He seemed to try to pick up the pace in the second half but it didn’t last long. Another 29 touches followed in a second half that saw a nervous and broken Argentina lose the plot completely. It took until the 64th minute for Messi to have a shot in the match.
But this was a moment where Messi needed to lead by example and pull the team together... prevent it from breaking apart because that is what leaders do... not in the dressing room but on the field... with everyone watching but instead, he seemed so distant – getting in only six touches in the final quarter hour.
It almost felt like he gave up... on this game at least. If this was a game of hide-and-seek, Messi would have won hands down.
In the post-match press conference, Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli tried his damnedest to defend Messi.
“After they scored on us we lost our way and were emotionally broken. We had no footballing arguments to make. I am extremely hurt by the defeat but I probably didn’t understand the match as I should have,” said Sampaoli.
But even more strangely, he went on to pin the blame for Messi’s non-performance to the squad, saying, “The reality of the Argentine squad clouds Leo’s brilliance.”
Just for a moment, think of the impact those words will have on the rest of the squad. The World Cup still isn’t over. But he has basically called them out. By some strange twist, it may get them to perform but it is more likely to make them not like him or Messi too much. The result, a fragmented Argentina will break up even more. Well done.
Messi seemed out of it from the start. While others belted out the national anthem with pride and passion, Messi rubbed his forehead, refusing to look at the camera. His body language had seemed to be pretty relaxed in the tunnel – he had a chat with Rakitic and the awestruck kids, who couldn’t stop looking at him.
But then as he stepped onto the field, something didn’t click. Messi is a shy guy at the best of times, his friends describe him as an introvert but he – better than most – knows that you can’t show weakness on the field.
No doubt, Argentina were bad on Thursday but a lot of that came down to how they were set-up too. Sampaoli tweaked the formation settling for three centre backs as against the regular four. It was an aggressive move but it was a huge tactical change – one that Messi has said in the past (when Luis Enrique tried it at Barcelona) doesn’t work for him.
“We felt that the line of three (defenders) would lead to distribution of pressure and we were also counting on our wingers. We didn’t count on their positional play in the second half,” said Sampaoli. “We were very ambitious at the start of the game but after this result it is harder for us. We thought this would be the match in which we would take off.”
Initially, the plan seemed to work. Croatia defended deep as they didn’t want to concede but as their midfield including Modric and Rakitic grew in confidence, Argentina’s defence grew jittery, unsure and it seemed like only a matter of time before the error would come.
Caballero’s error was unexpected and Argentina should have treated it as that. But Sampaoli – who probably looked even more nervous than the players in the second half – made wholesale changes; aggressive changes (Higuain, Dybala, Pavon); changes that destroyed their shape even more.
Croatia picked up the pieces. Modric’s strike from distance made the result a formality and by the time, the third came along – Messi and his Argentina squad were just statues on the field. Just standing around, hoping to get off the field (which Messi did as quickly as possible as soon as the game ended) The 3-0 defeat hurts because goals scored for/against could come into the picture in case of a tie. It was a terribly naive way to go down.
A lot of people seem to be making this about Messi and Ronaldo. But this was more about Messi, Argentina and the uneasy, fragile relationship that they share. It was also about whether Messi can play a different system where he is one of the players or whether he can only play in a system designed with him at the heart.
Now, Argentina will hope that the the Iceland-Nigeria match has a favourable result for them. But if the Croatia game happens to be Messi’s last meaningful match at the World Cup, is this how he would have liked to be remembered? The thought alone is tinged with an unimaginable sadness.