January 30, 2023

It was as if the first half hour of the game, the first half of this World Cup even, was part of his long deception. A setup. In a similar situation shortly before, Lionel Messi had shot wide. For much of the tournament, that pass was swept wide to the left.

Daley Blind thought he knew what was coming and was one step behind Nahuel Molina. Virgil van Dijk was only guilty of putting his weight on the wrong foot, mirroring Messi’s movement. Messi never looked, but instinct told him the inverted ball was on.

The pass was played. Netherlands was played.

Argentina's Nahuel Molina, center, celebrates with Lionel Messi, right, after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup quarter-final football match between the Netherlands and Argentina, at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, December 9.  2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Nahuel Molina celebrates with Lionel Messi after a goal against the Netherlands

Lionel Messi's passes for Argentina against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the World Cup

Argentina’s quarter-final win was fraught, laced with drama, suspense, panic and anger. It eventually needed two penalties from Emiliano Martinez and a winner from namesake Lautaro. Spurred on by their tremendous support, the emotional energy expended is incalculable.

But above all, this moment was the goal that showed us why Argentina can win this World Cup. There is a simple relationship between a genius and the 10 men who seem willing to do whatever it takes to help him.

Lionel Messi's zones of action for Argentina at the 2022 World Cup

Messi can still manipulate a football like no human, but at 35 years old his movement is now truncated. He spends more than half of his time on the field at walking pace. The old adage that a team full of Messis would be unbeatable no longer holds true. He needs runners.

Molina made that run believing that Messi would find him, but knowing that he might not. Together with Marcos Acuna, the full-back on the opposite flank who won the penalty kick from which Messi scored Argentina’s second goal, their energy is the driving force behind this team.

When they couldn’t run anymore, they were replaced by two others who wanted to do the same. Argentina tried to stay compact behind Messi and they tried to run ahead of him. Julian Alvarez, a display of youthful enthusiasm as he ran ahead of two.

To dismiss the talent of the rest is to miss the point.

Lionel Messi celebrates during Argentina's World Cup victory over the Netherlands
Lionel Messi celebrates during Argentina’s World Cup victory over the Netherlands

Messi has, of course, been part of brighter squads than this one, even at international level. His World Cup debut came as a substitute in a memorable six-goal victory over Serbia, which included one of the great team goals this tournament has ever seen.

The talent that has come and gone since then is astonishing. But what Messi couldn’t do with Juan Roman Riquelme and Hernan Crespo, Carlos Tevez and Juan Sebastian Veron, or Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, he could do with this Argentina.

There are echoes of the country’s 1986 victory that go beyond the obvious similarities to the man whose name Messi evoked as he celebrated this victory post-game. The player he is forever compared to when wearing an Argentina shirt.

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Will Lionel Messi finally match Diego Maradona and win the World Cup with Argentina?

Diego Maradona played at the 1982 World Cup with those heroes from four years earlier, Mario Kempes and Daniel Passarella. He forged a bond both on and off the field with Claudio Caniggia in 1990 and in 1994 he was joined by the brilliant Gabriel Batistuta.

But he won the trophy with none of them. He did it alongside an initially maligned but eventually more functional group of players that became a band of brothers. In a 3-5-2 system, similar to the one now adopted by Lionel Scaloni, they found a way to make it work.

“The team was based on a very solid architecture,” said Jorge Valdano, perhaps the closest thing to a star player among the rest of that 1986 World Cup-winning squad. He and she recognized that there was one man apart – That was the secret of their success.

“In the middle, a genius who was given the privilege of freedom. The influence of Maradona was so great that it seemed to spread to the whole team, but the team was very structured from a tactical point of view and each of us had very precise obligations.”

Speaking to Pedro Pasculli, Maradona’s roommate and the goalscorer of the 1986 winner against Uruguay, he said the same thing. “We were not favorites, but the collective was crucial,” said Pasculli Sky Sports. “We had that hunger and that humility to play and win.”

They say that Maradona only beat England and Belgium. He needed others. Tightly marked against West Germany, it was Jorge Burruchaga’s run he saw for the winner. “He was the ace of spades,” said Burruchaga later. “But the team helped him a lot.”

And so it is in 2022.

Lionel Messi celebrates during Argentina's World Cup victory over the Netherlands
Lionel Messi celebrates during Argentina’s World Cup victory over the Netherlands

Argentina doesn’t need 11 like Messi. They only need one. Ten willing workers around him. Ten men willing to do their own work, running faster and smarter than the opposition, knowing they have something – someone – others don’t.

It is a mindset but also a skillset.

Sergio Aguero is a close friend of Messi and was a much bigger player than Alvarez is now. But was his style such a natural fit? Ever Banega was a fine playmaker, but he didn’t cover the ground Rodrigo De Paul was willing to cover in Qatar in 2018.

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with teammate Rodrigo De Paul, left, after Nahuel Molina scored the opening goal in the World Cup quarter-final match between the Netherlands and Argentina, at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, December 9.  , 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Rodrigo De Paul has put a squad behind Lionel Messi in Argentina’s midfield

Germany’s World Cup winning captain Philipp Lahm has noted the “unusual and exciting division of labor” in this team. He sees a difference with the one who lost the 2014 final. That side was waiting for Messi to solve everything. This one plays to help him do that.

To his credit, Scaloni recognized this from the start. Messi was not even in his squad for the first part of his time, given his future. The coach thought that was positive. “We needed the group first to be strong,” he said. It’s strong now.

That could be missed in all of this. “Tactics are also important”, argued Dutch defender Jurrien Timber in advance, as if he assumed that this was to the advantage of his team. Scaloni also has tactics. He’s a solid side built to get the best out of the very best.

Lionel Messi's World Cup for Argentina in statistics

The proof is there. As Messi left the pitch exhausted but triumphant on Friday night, the stats showed he had attempted more shots than anyone else in the World Cup – almost double anyone in tournament bar Kylian Mbappé.

He is his team’s scorer and their creator. Only Antoine Griezmann has created more chances at this World Cup. In fact, Messi has completed more successful dribbles than all but three other players. It’s extraordinary. It is also facilitated by the people around him.

This Argentinian team works in more ways than one.

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