Lionel Messi has scored 616 career goals, only five per cent of which have come in the opening ten minutes. To watch him at the start of a game is to watch a player doing little but discerning where space exists, why it comes into being and how best it can be exploited. It is a reconnaissance mission in plain sight of the enemy, who know what he is doing, are fully aware of the threat and almost always powerless to contain it. Almost always, that is.
Iceland, Moscow, the opening game of Messi’s final World Cup while at his peak. Minute one. After the kick-off, a head spin, left, right, over the shoulder. There is space on the nearest flank. His next glance takes in Hordur Magnusson, five years his junior yet eight inches taller. Having moved a touch too close to Iceland’s left-back, he retreats. He is a safe five yards away from any white shirt already, facing his own defence as they safely circulate possession.
Minute two. The first leisurely jog comes soon after the first touch, a simple lay-off to Eduardo Salvio. The ball is nearby now but so too are opponents, so he abandons the right flank and moves centrally. Suddenly, he finds he has inadvertently become one point of a triangle involving Salvio and Maximiliano Meza. He shows little desire for possession and he does not receive it. Once play is switched to the left and the congestion clears, he can reassume his spot.
Minute three. The subtlest of nods half-encourages, half-chides Salvio – indicating that he should move on the overlap. Messi himself drops in at right wing-back, forming part of the defensive line. He only advances again once the ball is progressed well down the far side, but the nascent opening dies out and, eyes forward, he is shuffling back again.
Minute four. Nicolas Tagliafico is fouled near the far touchline. The ball is dead and Messi is at his quickest. Having reached the designated spot for the free-kick, he realises the ball does not have enough pressure. A complaint, presumably about time-wasting, from one Icelandic spectator in a red baseball cap does not register. A new ball eventually arrives from a ball boy. He can ready himself for his second touch.
Minute five. That second touch is a cross for Nicolas Otamendi, who glances a header wide of Iceland’s goal. Argentina’s supporters coo, but Messi is unmoved. As soon as the ball had left his foot, he was making his way back out to the right. Iceland win a free-kick near the halfway line in the very next passage of play. There is an obvious defensive position he could occupy, but the ball is already alive again by the time his stroll takes him there.
Minute six. Iceland work the ball back to a player Messi could perhaps press. He does not. Instead, his focus is on the space directly in front of the defender. It tempts him back into the centre, where once again he could show for the ball but chooses not to. Nevertheless, his third touch arrives. The ball is swiftly moved on. Lucas Biglia, the recipient of his pass, loses it.
Minute seven. An expression of discomfort on his face eases after a sharp tug on the back of his shorts. Iceland are tight centrally, he realises, so he moves right again where he is soon fouled by Emil Hallfredsson. The free-kick is sent to the other side of pitch, Marcos Rojo taking up possession. As play shifts again to that flank, Messi is the furthest from the ball again.
Minute eight. Another free-kick, and with it the sense that the stop-start nature of these opening exchanges could be affecting the search. Messi, nevertheless, takes the ball again. He has taken more set-pieces than open play touches. The kick is low this time, perhaps slightly mis-hit, but still finds the head of Tagliafaco, whose unsighted effort curves around Hannes Halldorsson’s far post.
Minute nine. Willy Caballero is caught out attempting to play from the back. Iceland have an opening, Birkir Bjarnason fires inches wide. Messi, throughout, is unmoved. He is wiping his nose, still tugging at his shorts, then the back of shirt. Another glance over the shoulder at defenders too close, still focused on his threat despite their team’s advances.
Minute ten. From here on, he is supposed to pick up. Over the course of his career, that goal percentage suddenly jumps. By this point, he has usually isolated the space and prepared at it. Instead, there is a first sign of real frustration. Biglia and Salvio are both told how to their jobs properly, both shown space which is supposedly obvious. The truth, however, is that Messi is yet to find it himself.
Minute eleven, minute twelve, minute twenty-three – the reconnaissance mission extended well past its usual duration. A lead, established by Sergio Aguero, was quickly lost. It was not enough to search anymore, something soon had to be found. Minute forty-five, still nothing. Minute fifty-five, the familiar sense he would have to do it all himself. Minute sixty-four, a penalty saved.
Having made three efforts at Iceland’s goal before the spot-kick, an increasingly desperate Messi made seven after it. The last was the final kick, another free-kick, won after a wriggle past several Icelandic players ended in Emil Halfredsson bringing him down. It was beaten into the wall, battered away. Minute ninety-six, the final whistle. Mission failed.