Messi Magic

By John Cartwright

I have never met Lionel Messi, so I have no real knowledge of his character or personality. This ‘blog’ is my consideration and admiration of his playing skills and decision-making.

What has made Messi, the star player he is today? I am fully aware and convinced that his development through the different levels (junior/senior) has been a major influence on his playing style. This progression has followed a somewhat ‘uncontrolled’ yet ‘methodical’  manner to create the all-round playing greatness we see today.


So what does Messi, do that forms the playing qualities we see today.

  1. Messi, is two-footed but tends to favour his left side more in games. He tends to position himself on the right side of his team, between the opposition’s back players and their mid-field. From this position he uses his left foot to control passes to him or runs with it ‘screening’ the ball if a situation offers itself.
  2. SITUATION RECOGNITION. – (Space and Time) Messi, has developed a playing style that is centred on instant recognition of playing opportunities. This recognition has developed throughout his development and senior years in the game. He has acquired through these years, the ability to recognize situations — and if and when to exploit them in either outfield or crowded penalty areas.
  3. Messi, is extremely quick with and without the ball; this sporting asset is crucial in his playing style, for in my opinion, his game does not include ‘trickery’ on the ball. This alliance of situation recognition and speed form the playing qualities that have made him the player he has become.


Messi, has the ability to choose the right decisions — to play simply or to exploit attacking opportunities. The ability to recognize space and time factors in the game provides the chances to use his ability to make passes as required or run with the ball. Messi, according to the situation he recognizes, will play simply or more extravagantly his passing can be basic or thrilling to watch. Similarly, when he decides to run with the ball he has the ability to select options to use along his ‘pathway’. Messi. Does not attack (run at) defenders, he runs across them — mostly from right to left, in so doing he moves opponents and he will create and exploit attacking options accordingly.

I have seen very, very few players in my days in the game who have the subtle brilliance of Messi. In this country, the coaching system seems unable to find a teaching methodology that can produce anything beyond mediocrity, forcing our game and our players towards  ‘roboticism’ year after year.

Lionel Messi, is a standard all should admire for his playing ability and his temperament as well as being great example of the combination of realistic teaching with the playing of the game — something we seem to dismiss here.

31 thoughts on “Messi Magic

  1. We must not forget he played like he does now at 5 years old. A natural talent which he has worked very hard at to become the world’s best player. Messi has a strong mental toughness, moving abroad at a young age to pursue his dream, many boys wouldn’t have the drive to leave friends and family behind.

    Messi and the other players who have come through Last Masia spent hour after hour working in Rondos, his ability to pass the ball in tight areas is down to Rondos and the coaching they received was based on possession. In junior football a kid that is above average can win a game easily on his own. Messi still has that ability to win games on his own.
    Ronaldo (Brazilian) Maradona are the only others that in my opinion could run with the ball like he does, Maradona doing it in Italy the toughest defensive league in the world back then.
    I don’t think realistically you can produce a Messi in our society now. Kids don’t play enough and I don’t mean just football. The western world has a obesity problem, kids don’t run jump climb make their own games up anymore. We are suffering because kids are not aloud out without mum and dad.

    The FA / UEFA coaching badges are seen by many as a badge of honour. Twenty years on and I have attended 7 FA courses and not a lot stuck with me, all the courses were too different. Practice Play ( however struck a chord with me immediately. The work has made me a better coach and I thank you and Roger Wilkinson ( for that.

  2. Hi Dave. Thanks for your prompt reply, all of which i totally agree with. I am so disappointed that the Premier Skills development model was not allowed to reach the football public in a more expansive manner. The FA’s Coaching Progs., after decades of failure, have not created both the ‘player for the game’ and the ‘game for the player’. I believe there should be a national discussion on the future of football in this country. I have said for many years that we are heading for a crisis in our game—-that crisis is already deeply installed.

    • Kids should have been coached first, then showcase the work. Coaches would have then bought into the program of work. You will always have issues with coaches though, when so many are volunteers, many get disillusioned after a few years and quit.

  3. That was an excellent read from John and David too.
    Messi is the best role model football player. He plays with a smile/happy aura 90% of the time and I believe Ronaldinio had a massive part to play with not only with his happy aura but tought him so much more on how to beat his opponent in 1v1in tight or loose situations using rapid movement or change of direction, ball control with both feet and their tenth of a second decision making based on what defenders do also in a lot of cases Messi can create space with his bodylanguage while on the ball as his ability to make you believe he’s going left when he really wants to go right first then left when you go right.

    I’ve had the privilege of being able to see messi live and I must say what stood out for me was his off the ball movement after passing a ball. He’s also looking for a quick 1-2 to beat a defender and advance into space or he checks his run which again creates space for him or team mates.

    I was at the Arsenal Hub for Barry Quins passing session last night and I must say it was excellent.
    Now Im off to solve this issue of the how to defend the space between the free kick and goal keeper…

    Many thanks Mike

  4. There is film of Messi as a boy of about 10 – 12 years old, playing on some rough ground in Argentina. You see him scoring from movements almost the same as he does now for Barcelona. He learnt the importance of space in those hours spent playing in these rough, tight areas as a child. He learnt how to recognise space, how to use it, and how to create it, both for his own use and that of his team mates.
    I have never seen statistics produced that show how many ‘keepy-uppies’ he can do or videos of extravagant step overs that we see from the likes of Ronaldo. I have no doubt that his ability to keep the ball up off the ground in individual practice, is considerable, but opponents fear him because when he runs across the front of them with the ball, as John describes, they don’t know whether to follow and leave space, or stay in their position and see him run free. Defenders are in a never-ending state of indecision and confusion and he can tear great holes in the most organised of defences.
    Unfortunately, in England we too often equate great play as being a God-given talent which produces unbelievable tricks and spectacular skill. So too often we emphasise ball-juggling as a practice and a result of great talent. Street football, or rough-ground play in the case of Messi, produced a player of genius and our coaching should be aimed at drawing this great awareness of space and how to use it from our young players. We have continually failed to do this with our coaching methods since the disappearance of street play, which has produced the ‘sameness’ in the majority of our young players, which John talks about.
    Everyone who has done the Premier Skills courses knows that this methodology does address these issues in a way that the FA Coaching Scheme has failed to do for many years.

    • It’s obvious messi is an exceptional talent a stellar kind that is just that bit more special than others. The documentaries that exist show us that messi plays the same way now as when he was a kid in Argentina and there is an interesting interview with santi solari in which he says that the way messi plays by dribbling is very argentinian. There is no pressure to pass the ball as young players they enjoy dribblers ..Where as in England we cannot wait to take the ball of them and “change them” I heard it said by might be one player in a squad who dares to dribble. You hear it shouted by parents “pass,pass,pass the coach should tell him. Extinguishing a star before its had a chance to shine. We are lucky messi is not English or we probably would never have heard of him. Will we learn from his example or neymar, Suarez, ronaldo, … Where are our equivalents ???
      Knights in shining armour

  5. It is a sad endicement of england womens football when fran kirby was called out as ‘mini messi’
    How can this be ?
    Lets go back to girls centre of excellence run by the county FA,2 x 2 hour sessions of which 1 hour per session with the strength and conditioning coaches, 1 hour with the ball bar 15 minutes of stoppages aka coaching at low but sometimes if you are lucky medium intensity.discouraged from playing other football at schools.
    Further up the age chain you have the wsl development teams,which for young players to be selected priority is given to you if you are one the said clubs b tec course for football but then all the wsl 1st team players are registered in the development league so they can play winter football, so you have squads of 30-40 players. No wonder the wsl is bereft of young players and the national team is full of oldies who play the physical skilless game.

    So dave is right , young players dont play enough particlar at primary school age, add in FA playing time restrictions etc .
    Overseas at small sided football age groups a player would get 3 sessions a week always with a ball, 30 -40 games plus 40 games of futsal in the off season.

  6. Watching the England team in the U17 World Cup showed again that we seem to be getting nowhere in our hoped-for improvement in young player development. From what I have seen of the tournament, we are no better, perhaps inferior, to New Zealand, who were very unlucky to be be knocked out by Brazil in the round off 16.
    If it’s any consolation, I have seen little evidence from other countries that they are solving the problems that are being set by the disappearance of street football, in the production line of young talent. Brazil have been most disappointing in their matches, both against England and NZ. From what i have seen in match play, youth coaches are emphasising to their players that they should build their game around ‘safe’ passing. Messi’s brilliance at spotting space in opposition defences and accelerating though it with the ball, is a lost art to almost everyone except the little Argentinian genius. We seem to be developing the mindset that retaining possession with numerous ‘safe’ passes, regardless of the lack of penetration, is somehow good football and how young players should be taught.
    One country that does seem to retain some ‘fantasy’ in their play is France, having seen some of their round of 16 match against Costa Rica. Whenever i see France, whether in the male or female game, they have a game style that is instantly recognisable as theirs, stroking well weighted passes along the floor, intelligent movement and imaginative, inventive play on the ball. They don’t have a Messi, (there’s only one!), but you feel confident that if one appeared then he would be allowed to fully blossom.

    • Hi Steve. Well said mate. It’s about time that the FA reconized that their development methods have not produced highly talented players and a game-style that allows these players to display their ability. Let me say once again; first create a playing vision, then follow this with the necessary ‘stepping stones’ towards achieving it.

  7. Having only watched half an hour of the Brazil- New Zealand match, and not having seen any of England’s in the 17s if Steve Haslam’s claim that they England were ‘perhaps inferior’ to New Zealand is a totally awful indictment because the Kiwis were abysmally dreadful as a ‘football team’. Pathetic rubbish.

  8. Hi all. As i watch game after game here i continually see our players disregard opportunities to run with the ball. From every position (including GK’s) there is a ‘pass the ball neurosis’ that seems to avoid runs with the ball at all levels of our game. Even when players do break out of this passing ‘strangelhold’ there is a tendency to pass sideways or even backwards from whence they came!
    We must produce more positive playing habits into our game and this must begin at the youngest levels. The variations within the game of football here are not being exploited correctly and this is forcing our game towards a ‘robotic’ game-style. The great game of football deserves to be played using ALL the skills and tactics possible; we should be constantly searching for new playing methods and encouraging more individualism from our players to make the game exciting and unpredictable. ………Brazilian Teams of the past and Messi of the present !

  9. Hi John…Watching Brazil lose 3-0 to Nigeria last night in the 1/4 finals of the U17 World Cup, made me realise how much the Brazilian game has changed over the years. When I think of Brazil, I think of their World Cup teams of 1958, 1970 and 1982. They still produce technically sound players and, of course,countless numbers of them ply their trade in all corners of the globe. But the individualism is gone, many of them are athletic and powerfully built but they have no-one to compare with Pele, Garrincha or Socrates. I get the impression that they are mass producing players for the global market, to bring much needed funds into their economy and who are able to fit into a hard-running, pressing style. So many of the Brazilian players leave their country at a very young age and so there has been little chance to develop a Brazilian mentality into them. There are still moments of ‘fantasy’ from players like Neymar and Coutinho but these type of Brazilian players are becoming fewer in number.

    • Ronaldhino, Ronaldo, Neymar, Douglas Costa, Oscar, Kaka, Hulk, Jesus, Alves, Marcelo, Silva, Paulinho, Ramires, Pato to name a few of their successes, Not all bad Steve. Is it the brand of football they are playing or have other countries caught them up?

  10. The pressing-style was also used to great effect by the lightweights of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.

    Surely during the ‘golden age’ of football learning – before they leave Brazil on the street – they will have ingrained the fantasy as you put it, so maybe the selection process is at fault…the players they choose to represent Brazil are the stronger athletic types!! Thoughts??

  11. Hi Dave and Brazil94….
    Brazil are still major players on the world stage but the brand of football which they served up in the World Cups of 1958, 1970 and 1982, was a world away from what we see from them today. Brazilian club football is littered with violence, both on and off the pitch.
    From 1950 – 1970 Brazilian football was a delight for the purist. Wherever they played, whether at international or club level, the grounds were packed to the rafters to see their brand of magic. I remember going to Stoke to see them play Pele’s Santos in a friendly and having to queue from dawn for a 7.30pm kick off. People climbed on to the stand roof and up the floodlight pylons to see the game; that would never be allowed now.
    Brazil were kicked out of the 1966 World Cup in England but won it again four years later with what some consider perhaps the greatest team of all time. In 1974 and 1978 they were influenced by Brazilian coaches who had studied how the game was being played in Europe and they began to place too great an emphasis on physicality. The result was that their performances in both the West Germany and Argentina World Cups produced ugly football.
    In 1982 Brazil reverted to be being true to themselves again and they played some great football with some great players, but they could not defend and were knocked out in the 1/4 finals by the eventual winners, Italy. But, for me, that was the last great Brazilian team and though they have won the World Cup twice since then, in 1994 and 2002, their football in those tournaments never compared to what they produced in 1982, never mind 1958 and 1970 when they became World Champions.

  12. Hi all. The last World Cup in Brazil and the latest u/17 World Cup in Chile showed a disturbing future for Brazilian football; —- they are not producing the natural players that were common to their game. The reasons for this are not clear, but Brazilian football may be going in the same direction as many nations who lose natural playing being forfeited for organised coaching. As a country’s economy develops the streets become Parking lots and not football areas and ‘ learning by the book ‘ and not ‘ practical playing hours ‘ becomes the development format .

  13. Hi All…It has been said that it was not what Barcelona did for Messi when he left Argentina to join their Youth Acadmy as a young boy, but what they did NOT do for him. That is to say, they did did not take away any of his skill or invention which he had learnt on the street, but allowed his creativity and football intelligence to develop through the game relevance of their coaching. It is not only in England that the coaching methodology is resulting in a ‘sameness’ in players and producing automatums and robots rather than real footballers.

  14. Hi all. After watching the decline of the game’s skillful qualities here and the ordinary performance of Brazil’s u/21 team in Chile recently, i believe that we need to have an instant discussion on the problems with present playing qualities that have occured since the introduction of ‘organised coaching’. THERE ARE PLUSES –fitness has improved drammaticaly, but individualism and game intelligence has not made the same progress — WHY? Is the continuance of present development methods with the frequent ‘tweakings’ to it going to make the necessary improvements? I think our coaching dev. and playing infrastructure is a mess. The teaching of the game is unrealistic and does not have a clear and progressive structure. The playing of the game—- the ‘examination’ of teaching and learning— is incorrectly constructed; it is fashioned too much on results and not on the proviision of progressive, age-related, game-playing models that should reflect the practical work that players have already acquired and are in the process of learning at the time. As adults, we have not taught the game in a considered manner. It is time that our concerns with the poor playing qualities we see are addressed and a better, more game-based productive development formula is introduced or we will continue to let Media ‘hype’ direct the standards for our game to follow.

  15. Hi all. The two finalists in the FiIFA u/17 World Cup in Chile are Mali and Nigeria; two African nations where ‘ natural game learning ‘ would be high on the list of player development.
    The days of ‘ natural game learning ‘ in countries with flourishing economies is gone — their streets have become Parking Lots and open spaces are Building Sites. ‘Unnatural learning ‘ of the game — modern coaching methods — have not replaced the loss of ‘ practice-playing time ‘ that contained competitive realism along with constant decision-making.
    CLASSROOM COACHING methods have failed to produce the necessary playing qualities the game requires for it to ‘ blossom ‘ as a skilful sport ; a sameness of performance standards is the result. Teaching of the game must change ; players at all ages must play and learn the game more in a ‘Practice-Playing ‘ format or lost time and unrealistic practice will continue to bring a boring ‘ sameness ‘ to the game.

  16. Hi John…Yes,I agree it is significant that two African countries, Mali and Nigeria, will contest the Final of the U17 World Cup tomorrow night. However, even in Africa i feel that modern fitness conditioning methods of preparation are now being prioritised over the natural skill development of their players.
    It is noticeable that many African players today are powerfully built and a greater physicality is evident in their play than it once was. In Nigeria’s semi final the other night against Mexico, the central Americans played some delightful football in the first half hour, the best I’ve seen in the tournament, until the Nigerians asserted themselves and took advantage of Mexico’s weak defending, especially the keeper. But Mexico’s second goal was a brilliant piece of individualism, reminiscent even of Messi! The way that he weaved his way around the Nigerian defenders with the ball semingly glued to his boot, was absolutely superb.

    • Hi Steve. It looks like to me that The African Nations are reaching a point in their football where many things are coming together ; Skills – Physicality – Tactics – Organization -Discipline.
      If they contiue to move in the right direction African nations will begin to make a serious impact on World footbal over the next decades. We must not exclude the importance of physical qualities in the game. The combination of all the factors i have already mentioned should be the ‘goal’ for all our coaches as their players move through from early development to senior status…….and we’re not seeing it done very well here !!!!!

  17. Maybe there are one or two bright points on English football’s horizon. Dele Alli is gradually establishing himself in Tottenham’s midfield and played well in their draw against Arsenal yesterday. On Saturday Ademola Lookman played the last 10 minutes for Charlton against Sheffield Wednesday. Even in that short time he set up two chances which weren’t taken and showed an awareness of space, good pace and displayed skill and composure in possession.
    The test now is to ensure that the development of these players continues so that they can achieve their full potential. Too often in the past players like these have burst on to the scene but have failed to become the players that they had promised to be. They must be coached to fully blossom as players of creativity and skill, because they have shown that the basic raw material is there and this must be fully encouraged and developed.

  18. Confronted by a very good Spanish team made up of technically excellent players England’s don’t look very good: they can’t stay on the ball, they are not good at screening, they didn’t show individual subtlety, they can’t play in little groups, their passes are too heavy, they still play in straight lines, they are still too direct, their defenders are poor in possession and can’t play into midfield, they pass poorly in wide defensive areas, they can’t keep the ball…But they are ‘bloody’ good at giving it away…and work hard to get it back – even then mostly down blind alleys…are they footballers one might ask? Does the FA have a clue…probably not as per usual!

    • One of the concerns for me with watching England play is the tempo. I agree with some of the things you say although have to disagree about us working hard to win the ball back. It’s almost if that part of our game is in the past.

      While there are many facets of the game we need to improve, one of the positive things of English football was that we would put teams under pressure and play at a quicker tempo. With that said part of the problem was that we tended to only play at one speed….100mph. The worrying thing that I have noticed in recent years watching the national team is even that part of our game seems to have been slowly disapearing.

      Watching England against Spain was very similar to watching us at the world cup. We seemed to play lethargically and have no idea about when to play quickly and when to play slowly. We were told that Hodgson’s tactic was to play on the counter attack. Yet every time we got the ball numbers up players made poor decisions and more than often the next pass was either sideways or backwards.

      Likewise when Spain had the ball we seemed to just sit off them and give them space to pass the ball around without any pressure whatsoever. The same happened at the world cup and it’s a worrying trend for me.

      We do however seem to be the masters of passing the ball slowly around the halfway line with no idea about what we are going to do next!

  19. No one takes care of business

    09 nov 2015

    “Despite the fact that Feyenoord-Ajax was a real match, it gave no reason to look away from the real issues. And no one takes care of business,” Johan Cruyff writes in his weekly column in ‘De Telegraaf’.

    “The results of Holland and the Dutch clubs in Europe are not good. The only exception is the youth team of Ajax who won nine points from three matches against the German and Russian champions Schalke 04 and Spartak Moskva and scored 8 goals, while conceding only two. The team are virtually guaranteed a place in the final phase of the Champions League for youth teams. But if only a youth team is doing well, it tells us something.”

    “It shows that the current problems come from poor technical development. And with that I mean passing, receiving the ball, ball control, positions, asking for the ball, too many things to mention. A first step would be to study the video of Bayern München – Arsenal and look carefully at how the Germans play in midfield, how efficient their passing is over eight metres. All this can be developed in training.”

  20. I don’t think that England’s recent matches against Spain and France showed us very much that we did not already know, particularly the match against France which, although England got a boost from recording a victory against one of the favourites for Euro2016, was overshadowed by the events of a few days previously and, given a choice, I think that a number of the French team would have elected not to play.
    But I think that the contributions being made to the national team at the moment by both Tottenham and Man Utd should be recorded. They are both providing first team opportunities to young English players and a number of these are now being ‘capped’ in the senior England team by Roy Hodgson.
    Both Tottenham and Man Utd are coached by foreign coaches but it seems to me that both Pochettino and van Gaal realise that the best players in the world go to either Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. I doubt that they feel a duty to provide the national team of the country in which they earn a living with quality players but van Gaal, in particular, has enjoyed great success earlier in his career from teams with predominantly home-produced players. With so much money having been wasted on so-called ‘world stars’ since he arrived at Old Trafford, van Gaal seems now to be reverting back to type and England can reap the benefit. Pochettino also promoted promising young players into the first team whilst at Southampton which he continues to do at Tottenham.
    Foreign coaches are often criticised for taking jobs which could be filled by those born, bought up, trained and qualified in England, but Pochettino and van Gaal provide examples of how to develop and promote your own home-grown talent.

  21. From recent comments which I have heard, there seems to be a realisation on how to beat pressing. Because the opponents, who are pressing, commit numbers on and around the ball they therefore leave players unmarked in areas away from the ball. So having regained possession we must first keep the ball with a simple sideways or backwards pass and then strike a longer pass to someone away from the ball who is unmarked.
    From Slaven Bilic’s comments after the match yesterday, this was what West Ham intended to do against Tottenham but without key players, particularly Payet, were not good enough.

  22. Ron Greenwood used to say – “There is nothing new in football, just new ways of looking at things”.
    We are now committed to playing out from the back. Naturally, opponents will strive to close down and press high up the pitch in an attempt to prevent this. To play beyond the pressure will take advantage of this and not persist with a playing plan which, though maybe more attractive, plays into the game plan of the opposition. Slaven Bilic knew what to expect from Tottenham last Sunday, had worked on it in training during the previous week and had been pleased with how the players had executed his ideas on the training field. Human nature being what it is, together with playing deficiencies, can often derail the best laid plans which was what happened at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

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