Lionel Messi broke Aussie hearts as he led Argentina to a victory in the 16th round of the World Cup – and he ran most of it.
The 35-year-old superstar, seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or for the best player in the world, may be getting older, but he remains as cunning as ever.
Statistics from the FIFA Post Match Summary reports show that Messi is the best player in this World Cup for the most distances covered at walking pace (0-7 km/h).
All four of his games are in the tournament’s top 10 for distance, but considering he’s won two Man of the Match awards, it’s safe to say that’s not exactly an indication of ineffectiveness.
Lionel Messi, pictured celebrating after Argentina beat Australia to advance to the quarter-finals on Sunday morning, proves what’s in the mind is just as important as total distance covered
Quite the opposite, in fact, with the England legend turned commentator Rio Ferdinand describing his performance against the Socceroos as ‘by a mile the best we’ve seen at this World Cup so far’.
In a match-winning performance that included the opening score and six shots on target, Messi covered 8.59km – the second lowest of the starting side – with 4.75km running.
That number is significantly higher than that of his teammates, who have covered much more distance in total.
An image on BBC Sport ahead of Argentina’s match against Australia shows Lionel Messi having three of the best overall running distances – and he added a fourth during the Round of 16 match
His three other running distances for the tournament, 4.99km, 4.73km and 4.62km, were all in the top 10.
So is Messi lazy, or just smarter than everyone else?
The latter is absolutely true.
The Paris Saint-Germain superstar does nothing when he walks, his former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola explained.
Lionel Messi, pictured at the peak of his Barcelona career, never sits still, even when he walks, former mentor Pep Guardiola explained
‘He is [Messi] look now, he’s walking. That’s what I like best. He’s not out of the game, he’s involved,” he said in Amazon Prime’s documentary “This is Football.”
He moves his head: right, left, left, right. He knows exactly what’s going to happen. But his head is always like that [Guardiola turns his head left and right]. He is always moving.
“He doesn’t run, but he always looks at what’s happening. He smells where the weaknesses are in the back four. After five, ten minutes he has the map in his eye, in his head to know exactly where the space is and what the panorama is.
‘It’s like I’m in the jungle and I have to survive. And he knows if I go here I will have more room to attack,” said Guardiola, who Messi has previously said has been one of the biggest influences on his incredible career.
Messi (centre) came to life on the edge of the box during Argentina’s victory over the Socceroos on Sunday morning, curling this ball through three defenders to score the opening goal of the match
That’s not to say that Messi isn’t playing when the situation calls for it, as Ferdinand pointed out after his performance against Australia.
“He almost pretends he’s not interested and then he comes alive,” Ferdinand said. “What he can do is open the game from any position in the park and that’s the difference between him and everyone else,” he said on BBC coverage.
Surprisingly, it is also not related to his age. This is a Messi trait that spans many years and emphasizes that what’s between the ears is just as important as GPS data.
During the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2014 tournament in Brazil, numerous articles at the time pointed to Messi’s approach to the game; walking but never being lazy in his mind.
Lionel Messi, who has seven Ballon d’Or gongs to his credit, walks more during the game than almost any other player on the planet – and even has time to smile in the heat of battle
“Messi has discovered how to win games by moving less than everyone else,” said prominent football expert Ken Early at the 2018 tournament.
Research showed that his effectiveness as the world’s best player came from creating space and spending time in the most valuable locations on a pitch.
Can we say that Messi gets a lot of his space by not chasing the game? Yes, that’s exactly what our research shows,” said Luke Bornn, a data scientist at Messi’s then-club Barcelona during a conference on sports analysis.
Messi’s running distances at this World Cup have only been surpassed by Polish striker Robert Lewandowski.
Tired of walking with Leo? Messi sucks the greats down in Argentina’s victory over Australia
The 34-year-old Barcelona superstar is the only player besides Messi to feature multiple times on the list of the top 10 distances covered during a match, although he covers far more miles than Messi.
The Poland captain, who has so far refuted rumors that Monday morning’s (AEDT) 3-1 defeat to France will be his last World Cup match, has been the most consistent player of the entire tournament.
The lanky striker, who scored 78 goals in 138 caps for Poland, covered an impressive 10.84km in his side’s 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, including 5.20km at walking pace, the highest in the tournament and a impressive performance for an elderly striker.
He really leads from the front, but he does it in different ways that many would expect in the age of fans plunging into GPS data and stats like sports scientists.
Poland’s captain Robert Lewandowski is the only player besides Messi to feature multiple times in the top 10 of distances covered during the match. That said, he covers a much greater total distance than Messi
In this case, Ferdinand believes that Polish coach Czesław Michniewicz is doing his striker a disservice by using him incorrectly.
“We watched the match against Argentina. You have the best striker in the world… give him the chance to get chances on goal,” he said on BBC coverage.
I really feel sorry for Lewandowski against Argentina. He was so isolated. That is the approach we need to see tonight,” top manager Mauricio Pochettino added.
Either way, it shows there’s more than one way to skin a cat — and both veterans thrive on it.