Analysing Lionel Messi's Positional Play and Movement off the Ball

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2013

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  Cristian Zapata of AC Milan and Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona #10 compete for the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between AC Milan and Barcelona at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 22, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

There are few in the football world who are by now unaware of Lionel Messi's talent with the ball. You would have to have been hiding out in a cave for the last four years, or perhaps returning from an extended stay out on the International Space Station, to overlook the Argentine's sparkling skills when going forward. 

But the game, of course, is not all about what a player does while in possession. Movement away from the ball, losing markers and making yourself available for teammates are just as important to an overall display. 

After all, even the best player in the world will be shut out of a game if he merely stands near the penalty spot, surrounded by three defenders and waiting for the ball to reach him. 

It is time, then, to look slightly beyond the jaw-dropping dribbles, swift turns and impeccable finishing for which Messi has become regarded as one of the greatest players on the planet. When his team-mates on possession, what exactly is the little wizard from Rosario doing to aid the effort?


Conserving Energy

One thing that should be clear to most seasoned football observers is that "La Pulga" does not like to waste his energy running too much without the ball. Playing in the centre of the pitch, Messi picks up possession often from a standing position, or on the trot, and uses his fiendishly quick acceleration and agility to burst away from the marker and start the attack. 

If you see Messi running during the match, more likely than not it will be with the ball firmly glued to his feet. 

For Argentina's recent friendly victory over Germany, an Adidas micoach chip was added into the captain's boot for the duration of the 90 minutes. Following the game, in which Messi scored once and made a rare error from the penalty spot, the sporting apparel giants released their results (via Sportige). 

Messi covered a total of 8.5km over the course of the match, which on the face of it may seem a fair distance. But as a point of comparison, Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta (based on this year's Champions League fixtures) moves an average of 2km a game further than the Argentine ( 

Rival Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, had prior to Wednesday's Juventus clash covered 20,742m in his 180 minutes so far in the Champions League. Messi, in the same time, just 16,399. 

Data from that Germany test also revealed that Leo walked for a full 70 percent of the time he was on the field, covering just 1km at full sprint speed. That top speed is a pretty rapid 30.71 km/h, which proves that Messi's relative immobility is not a question of being slow and off the pace. 

How then, does the seemingly lethargic superstar compensate for his lack of movement?


Here, There and Everywhere

Watch Barcelona or, for an even better example, the Argentine national team very closely across any given 90 minutes, and pay special attention to Messi. The No. 10, despite going out of his way to waste energy, has an impeccable read of the football pitch and is rarely further than 10 or 15 metres away from receiving the ball in opposition territory. 

Credit: Zonal Marking
Credit: Zonal Marking

The accompanying visuals from tell a great deal of the story. Harking back to Barcelona's impressive 2-0 dismissal of Real Madrid in the 2010/'11 Champions League, the first demonstrates Messi's position as a "false 9" in the Blaugrana's distinctive 4-3-3 lineup. The emphasis is on the "false" here. 

The Argentine's position is almost akin to that of an orthodox No. 10 or playmaker, such as compatriot Juan Roman Riquelme. Messi does not sit in the area waiting for the ball to come to him. He can track back as far as the halfway line in search of possession, afforded time by Barcelona's patient passing game to find his spot and make himself available. 

The second graph is the most impressive. All 66 passes made to Messi during the Clasico were completed, a phenomenal success rate of 100 percent given the magnitude of the match and the ferocity of the likes of Xabi Alonso in marking the little Rosario native. 

This speaks highly of the star's ability, despite playing much of the game as if it was a round of golf, to open himself up and attract the pass. Of course, Barcelona's La Masia-honed philosophy of short, careful passing from net to net aids such statistics. But the fact remains that, if only based on this game, Messi is the perfect receiver. 

The particular demands of that game required Leo to play deeper than he is accustomed in the Blaugrana, a role in fact more akin to that which he performs for his country, as the axis between Fernando Gago and Angel di Maria in the midfield and Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain up front. In that Madrid clash he received just four passes in and around the penalty area, as he preferred to probe the Spanish giants from distance. 

The fact he ended with two goals, then, shows just what an outstanding talent we are witnessing. 

Messi will never rack up the miles on the pitch like some of his contemporaries. He has no need to. An intelligent reading of the game means that, even at half pace, he is almost always ready and waiting to take the pass and make a beeline for goal. Perhaps the fact that he takes the ball stationary, in full control, makes him even more dangerous going forward. 

In a sport that has become full of athletes with the physique and attributes of racehorses, Messi's brilliance on the trot is a breath of fresh air and a sign that brain can still triumph over brawn.