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Lionel Messi the sun king makes
Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain. Here’s an unexpected World Cup statistic. With the opening seven days of Russia 2018 now done, one outfield player has run less over 90 minutes than anyone else in any position in any team. His name? Why, it’s Lionel Messi!
Yes, that Messi: many people’s choice as the most gloriously talented player at his tournament; and a man consumed with a sense of voracious personal destiny that he might still drive Argentina on to win this World Cup.
But only, it seems, at his own speed, and in a way that reflects both his extraordinary status within this Argentina team, and a sport that is geared more than ever toward the cult of the star.
Argentina play their second Group D game against Croatia on Thursday. For now that opening fixture against Iceland stands as a genuine curiosity. Messi’s penalty miss took the headlines. But
behind it are a set of numbers that sketch out a performance of bizarre and sedentary monotony.
Messi ran 7.61km. Five days on this is still less than any other outfield player to complete 90 minutes. Unsurprisingly Messi has also run less without the ball
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than any other outfield player, less even than Kasper Schmeichel and Hugo Lloris who are, of course, goalkeepers.
Run more, move more: it is an English footballing obsession, a recipe for success that has harvested precisely zero World Cups over the past 50 years. But in that time even the most gifted of World Cup winners has tended to show some degree of urgency.
Against Iceland Messi made 17 sprints, half as many as Philippe Coutinho and Mesut Özil in their opening games. The word “sprint” is used advisedly here. The quickest player at the World Cup so far is Cristiano Ronaldo who clocked 34kph against Spain, perhaps while he was running off to celebrate one
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of his goals. Messi’s top speed is 25kph, slower than David Silva, Andrés Iniesta and even Sergio Busquets.
On the flipside the things Messi did he did a lot of. These were mainly shooting and dribbling. Despite playing only one game Messi still has four more World Cup 2018 shots than the next player on the list, Denis Cheryshev. Messi is still top of the dribble charts with 15. And despite not running much, he still has more runs into the attacking third than anyone else.
There are mitigating factors. This will surely be a one-off
in terms of sheer degree. Argentina had an unusually large number of shots as a team and
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an unusually high ratio of possession. But Messi still ran than less in a whole game than his teammate Lucas Biglia in 53 minutes, and made seven more sprints than Cristian Pavón mustered
in 20 minutes.
It adds up to a team geared to an extraordinary degree around their star. Anyone who has watched Argentina over the last decade knows about Messi-dependence. But this felt like reductio ad absurdum, an entire game spent shooting and dribbling, portered around the pitch in his gilded sedan chair, a talent that seemed to have overwhelmed his own team.
There has been a shift a little further out at this World Cup. The the climate of tearful piety around Messi is striking, with an entire hand-wringing science devoted to speculation over how to get the most out of his precious gifts.
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