How Lionel Messi thinks on the field

“One freezing night, I was sitting in the Camp Nou with a Barcelona official, watching Barca-Atletico Madrid in the Spanish Cup,” says ESPN’s author Simon Kuper.
“When the game kicked off, the official said: “Watch Messi.” It was a puzzling sight. The little man was wandering around, apparently ignoring the ball. The official explained: “In the first few minutes he just walks across the field. He is looking at each opponent, where the guy positions himself, and how their defense fits together. Only after doing that does he start to play.”

The stats tell the story. Messi has never scored in the first two minutes of a match. All his 442 goals for club and country came after that. Moreover, his career haul for the third and fourth minutes combined is a meager three strikes. Admittedly the opening minutes of most matches are pretty closed. However, Messi in this period is scoring at less than one-sixth of his normal rate. Instead, he spends the time doing an on-field analysis.

This points to a truth that we often miss amid the frenzy of top-class soccer: It’s a thinking game, much less spontaneous than it looks. Even apparently instinctive creators and goal scorers like Messi are forever making calculations, often very conscious ones. To understand today’s soccer, you need to grasp these conscious thought processes.

In part, great players can do this because they have imagined the situation long before it happens. This is the psychological technique of visualization. The best players tend to have an exceptional visual memory. That enables Messi to store his observations about opposing defenders. It’s like a combination of chess and NASCAR racing. If great players make their decisions look instinctive, that’s only because their pace of thought is so rapid.

Messi is not a scintillating conversationalist. But appearances deceive. In truth he is among the sharpest thinkers around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.