Barcelona forward Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Barcelona’s opening goal against Levante on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (AP)
For young sports fans, one of the first lessons in mortality comes when their favorite athletes begin to age. That player who dominated while they first became cognizant of the sport loses a step, isn’t quite so effective anymore and eventually calls it quits. It makes for an arresting realization about the inevitability of time.
Yet there are 13-year-olds who have never lived in a world in which Lionel Messi failed to score double-digit goals every season for FC Barcelona. There are 10-year-olds who don’t know what life was like before Messi started bagging at least 40 goals every campaign.
A little under two months before his 32nd birthday, Messi is in his 15th season on Barca’s senior team after the family resettled in Catalonia in pursuit of his career when he was just 13. Ten La Liga titles, four Champions League trophies and almost 600 goals later, Messi hasn’t slowed down.
Players who play significant senior-team minutes as teenagers tend to break down in their mid- to late-20s. Messi somehow hasn’t. At all. The last time he had an injury that kept him out for a month or longer was late 2015. Before that, it was late 2013. And before that? March 2008. His durability has been remarkable, posting 11 straight seasons with at least 44 club appearances – not counting his 129 career Argentina caps – in spite of getting kicked and kicked and kicked by hapless defenders.
In fact, you might argue that Messi is in the final stretch of his best season ever. Or, at the very least, the year in which he’s done the most, carried the heaviest load. And the most telling evidence of his transcendence this year is that while Barca was wrapping up its fourth La Liga title in five years, Messi was … a substitute.
For the third time in Barca’s last six league games, manager Ernesto Valverde rested Messi on Saturday at home against 15th-placed Levante, even with the title within reach. It was the second game in a row he’d started on the bench, in fact, a rare concession to his age with a Champions League semifinal against Liverpool awaiting on Wednesday. But then the fact that his club can afford to rest him, on the eve of its first semifinal since 2015, is a testament to the kind of gap in the league table Messi led his team to.
Messi came on at halftime, since his peers hadn’t managed to breach a stubborn Levante’s goal yet. Sure enough, within 17 minutes, Messi bagged the winner. He cushioned Arturo Vidal’s pass in the box, shuffled his feet as two defenders sailed by, and scored with a habitually clinical finish.
Messi fashioned a few more chances to run up the score as Levante gave Barca a tougher night than it had anticipated, with a few late escapes. But the lone goal would suffice to win 1-0.
And so Messi clinched his 10th La Liga title with Barca. After 35 out of 38 matchdays, the Catalans have a nine-point lead over Atletico Madrid but control the first tie-breaker in head-to-head points — with four to Atletico’s one, after a 2-0 Barca win on April 6 and a 1-1 tie Nov. 24. Thereby, they are champions again.
Messi has never worked this hard for any of his 10 league titles. This hasn’t been his most productive goal-scoring season, although his 34th goal put him 13 ahead of his nearest followers among league leaders – his 13 assists are also tied for the most in the league. But he’s had less help shouldering the attacking load than ever before.
Xavi, perhaps Barca’s best-ever playmaker, is long gone. So is Andres Iniesta, a generational attacking midfielder. Neymar has been at Paris Saint-Germain for two seasons now. Long-time attacker-in-arms Luis Suarez is merely a striker now – a very efficient one, but no longer the spark plug who created room and opportunities for Messi with his toil and movement. Philippe Coutinho has been a bust. Ousmane Dembele is young and inconsistent, still coming to grips with the expectations on him as a professional.
So as Messi has gotten older, he’s had to do more.
This is obvious in watching Barca the last few seasons, but the numbers bear it out as well. In 2018-19, Messi posted the highest average of long balls in his career: 3.5 per game, per Opta. He’s also had the highest number of key passes this year at 2.8 per game. Meanwhile, he’s taken the most shots from outside the box – 2.8 per game – in his career and the fewest from inside the 6-yard box – 0.2 – while his dribbles are down. In other words, Messi is having to create more than ever, and has been less able to rely on others to tee him up for scoring chances.
Year by year, Messi has continued to evolve, going from a winger, to a false 9, to a 10, to his current, do-whatever-he-likes role. But all the while, he has remained unfathomably efficient. This season, Messi has outshot his expected goals by more than 13, by far the biggest margin among Europe’s top goalscorers, per WyScout. (Messi’s nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, since moved on from Real Madrid to Juventus, was listed at -1.6, for the record.)
After all these years, there is still no stopping the diminutive Messi, celebrating the title a ways back from his teammates on Saturday, in keeping with his introversion. His story grows ever unlikelier. But Messi refuses to slow down, confusing an entire generation about what it means to age.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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