What does wine, leather boots, and Lionel Messi have in common?
They get better with age. With La Albiceleste at least, in Messi’s case:
Between the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 World Cup final on Sunday, Argentina won 31, drew nine and lost four in all competitions when Messi played in a period that ended with a Golden Ball for Messi and a third World Cup for Argentina.
Many may have lost faith in Messi's likelihood of obtaining soccer’s holy grail after Argentina's 2018 performance in Russia, when Messi was a 31-year-old, playing in his fourth World Cup.
But out of the 98 goals he’s scored for La Albiceleste since he made his debut in 2005, he scored 34% of them after the 2018 World Cup. He’s made a quarter of his 55 assists in all international competitions after his 31st birthday.
Lionel Scaloni, who took over after a round-of-16 exit in Russia 2018, found a sustainable strategy early on that allows Messi time to rest between plays and get the most out of him and other attacking players when they have the ball.
The genius of it is that it begins when Argentina doiesn’t have the ball. Defensively, Argentina clogs the middle and forces the ball inside from the flanks. Messi disappears if the ball is not near him.
In an interview with Soccer America in November, former U.S. center back Jay Demerit said he played against Messi “three times ... but he's so elusive. He moves everywhere ... I say that I've played against Messi three times but never really got to play up against him.”
Those games were over a decade ago.
In the World Cup final on Sunday, Messi ghosted between lines and defenders so quickly that France’s star-studded midfield couldn’t steal the ball and retain possession on the dribble or pass until fresh-legged Eduardo Camavinga came on.
Ground-covering workhorses in the midfield, often Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo De Paul and Enzo Fernandez who are also supremely technical, win the second ball or steal possession back with a short pass in the middle of the field.
As soon as the ball is won, Messi, on high alert, springs into space. With his sensational soccer IQ and body control in tight spaces (just look at how many steps he takes in between touches), he can advance the ball with two touches when most players would only have time for one.
Watch what he did on Argentina’s scything counterattack to double its lead over France in the final.
Or how he got his feet under him in time for his goal against Australia.
Or how he took two touches and four steps in about one second on his goal against Mexico.
If he isn’t in a shooting situation, Messi can dish to a teammate into space: if he’s in the middle, he’ll spray it wide; if he’s out wide, he can hold a player off to reset or beat his man or play someone inside to switch the ball.
He needs creative players willing to work and especially players in front of him to make good hard runs forward and laterally. Argentina has that in spades.
From a deep position, he can create an attacking movement and run trailer into the box, a play that almost came off in the last minute of extra time in the World Cup final.
When a team has a two-line block set up, he can simply drop into the midfield and combine until something opens further up the field, like how he did against Croatia and Mexico.
One reason Messi can’t play like this for Paris St. Germain is that he shares the field and limelight with megastars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
What’s scary, though — or reason for glee, depending on who you favor — is that Scaloni’s system can work long-term as long as the Argentina camp environment remains competitive and Messi wants to play. There are enough young players of quality who will be around until Messi inevitably retires from Argentina.
In tight spaces, he is just as effective. He jettisoned those long, mazing runs that defined his 20s for playing teammates through on goal with perfectly weighted vertical passes. Or, like he did so often in the tournament, he can beat most defenders one on one from a standing position and create a chance.
In the World Cup, maybe only Lukas Modric displayed vision and deftness as good and as consistently as Messi in the passing category.
After the final, Messi said he wants to experience playing for Argentina as a world champion.
Now we get to see Messi play without the weight of a country on his shoulders.