It was the 92nd minute of El Clasico – a star-studded rivalry between world superpowers FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Barcelona had just conceded what looked to be the final goal of the game and the goal to effectively bring the La Liga title back to the Santiago Bernabeu.
At least that looked to be the case until Lionel Messi, the man who continues to drop jaws and defenders to the floor, curled a bullet into the bottom corner of the Madrid goal and through the hearts of Madridistas around the world.
With the last kick of the game, the Argentine international successfully and dramatically secured a crucial 3-2 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Messi had a master class at the Spanish capital scoring two brilliant goals – one a classic slaloming run from the edge of the box and the second being the aforementioned game winner.
The diminutive Argentine took this game by the scruff of the neck, something that has not been said often this season when compared to previous seasons.
In the 29-year-old’s younger days, he would often be seen finishing off his own show-stopping individual runs into the box, whereas now he will often be seen scoring from late off-the-ball runs into the box.
Messi has taken his most shots from outside of the box per game in his past two league seasons, per WhoScored. Inversely, he his taken his least amount of shots from inside the six-yard box per game while also attempting his least amount of dribbles per game in his past two league seasons, per WhoScored.
It is clear that Messi has decided to take a more conservative approach to the game as the years have passed, but what is interesting is that he has also taken a more selfless approach to the game.
Instead of cutting inside and shooting or running at goal, we have often seen in these past two or three seasons that he will cut inside and spray a pass towards the left or play an incisive diagonal ball into the path of a player running into the box.
In his past three league seasons, Messi has averaged his career highs for most completed long balls per game, per WhoScored, indicating that the Argentine playmaker has altered his game to a deeper role farther away from the opponent’s penalty area.
More space, freedom, and chances are created for those up top by Messi dropping deeper, which is precisely why the La Masia graduate has made this change to his playing style.
In a deeper role, Messi will create more space for his compatriots up top by dragging oppositions players farther away from their goal, which will, in turn, give the players up top more freedom to roam. The team will also have more chances to score as they will directly profit from the five-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner’s service.
It is no coincidence that this change in the Argentine’s play occurred around the 2014 – 2015 season as that was the first season Barcelona’s vaunted “MSN” trio of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar played together.
With the addition of former Liverpool star Luis Suarez to the squad and Neymar entering his second season with the Catalan giants, Messi had to start sharing the ball more and began to adapt his style of play to suit his fellow superstars.
This change was initially wildly successful as Barcelona went on to win their second-ever European treble, the UEFA Super Cup, and the Club World Cup in 2015.
Following this success, Messi started to drop even deeper and play more selflessly to further the success of both the team and, more specifically, his teammates up top.
This selflessness was exemplified when the Argentina captain audaciously passed the ball from the penalty spot to an onrushing Luis Suarez who was, at the time, chasing the spot of La Liga’s and Europe’s top goal scorer.
However, despite Barcelona’s domestic success since Messi’s change, they have found themselves knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive season with Messi only scoring twice in any Champions League knockout stage past the round of 16 since 2013.
In his knockout stage dry spell, Barcelona have only made it past the quarterfinals once, while the five-time European champions have never gotten knocked out of a Champions League round that Messi has scored in.
Prior to his heroics yesterday against Los Blancos, Messi had failed to score in a Clasico since a hat-trick at the Bernabeu in 2014. In that Clasico goal drought, Barcelona won twice, drew once, and lost twice.
It is all well and good to share the glory and get the best out of your fellow teammates, but it is in big occasions such as these that Barcelona need someone to step up when Suarez and Neymar are not firing on all cylinders; Messi needs to remember that someone is him.
Before the MSN, Messi was always the man to bail Barcelona out of trouble pulling off classic performances such as his brace against Real Madrid in the 2011 Champions League semifinals or his four-goal stunner against Arsenal in the 2010 Champions League quarterfinals.
In fact, Barcelona’s excessive dependence on the Argentine talisman grew to the point that the media ended up coining the phrase “Messidependencia“.
The Catalan club has since lost that dependence on Messi after the emergence of MSN, but when Neymar and Suarez are not having the best of games, the Argentine magician must stop trying to help them find a way through and instead must conjure his own path to victory just as he did last night.
Barcelona are not having their worst season by any means as they won the Spanish Super Cup at the start of the season, they are in the finals of the Copa del Rey, and they are currently tied at the top of the table with Real Madrid, despite Madrid having a game in hand.
However, if the Catalan giants want to end the season on a high and have a more successful season next year, then Lionel Messi will need to be more selfish and aggressive and dominate his opponents just as he did in last night’s magical performance against the European champions.