For many, Lionel Messi is the world’s best player. Both now, and of all time. The Argentinian has everything in his locker. He can score goals from various angles. He can create, he can pass, he can dribble. He can even score free kicks.
However, as far as the last skill on this list goes, it wasn’t always so. He was even considered third-choice free-kick taker at Barcelona youth level, according to former teammate Roger Giribet, who told Goal in 2018: “Victor Vazquez, who was amazing, and the left-footed Juanjo Clausi used to take them. Messi almost never.”
Vazquez now plays for Qatari club Umm Salal, Clausi for Paterna CF in Spain’s third tier.
This is not so much a problem if you have teammates like Ronaldinho and Deco, as was the case for Messi upon breaking into the senior side in 2005. But even after they moved on, and Messi became Barcelona’s MVP, it was not until October 2008 that he scored his first direct free-kick.
The occasion was a 6-1 win in La Liga against Atletico Madrid. The method was a quickly-taken strike which bounced over the line while Gregory Coupet was still organising his wall. A smart move, albeit not the pinnacle of technique we associate with Messi these days, and this is reflected by his set-piece goalscoring record around the turn of the decade.
Direct free-kicks scored by Lionel Messi (out of total goals in all competitions):
- 2008/09: 1 (of 38)
- 2009/10: 2 (of 47)
- 2010/11: 1 (of 53)
When Messi gets a free-kick, we are already thinking about the celebration
Then 2011/12 came along, and Messi’s effectiveness from dead-ball situations sky-rocketed. He scored 12 of them for his club between that season and 2014/15, many of which were game-changers. Two came against Real Madrid in 2012, another in the Champions League against Ajax. There were also three match-winning goals from free kicks taken by Messi in this period, as Barcelona clinched two La Liga titles and the continental crown.
“A lot of the time when we get a free-kick, we are already thinking about the celebration,” teammate Ivan Rakitic more recently joked, and right now it seems there is no top-level player more worthy of such confidence. Since the start of the 2016/17 campaign, Messi has scored more direct free-kick goals than anyone else across Europe’s top five leagues. It’s not even particularly close.
I try to follow a ritual
So what is his secret? How did Messi go from average to becoming arguably the best in the world? One obvious (if boring) answer is practise. “He’s always practising, and he’s always scoring,” said Ernesto Valverde, after Messi scored two free kicks in one game against Espanyol last season.
But another, more nuanced, insight is provided by Messi’s description of his process. “I try to follow a ritual,” he explained after that same game, “trying to do it in the same way if it works so that it comes off again.”
What Messi describes as a “ritual”, experts like Dr. Rajpal Brar might call “neuromuscular priming,” and it applies to the moments before the ball is actually struck.
“It’s helping prepare your body and your mind focus, and therefore allow some of that muscle memory to take over while eliminating what I call internal distractions, like anxiety,” he explained on the most recent Squawka Talker podcast.
“Something we know when it comes to free kicks, or any movement you’re an expert at, is that if you actually start to think about the mechanics, it interferes with the actual movement.”
The concept could apply to Messi’s three-step run-up, too, a pattern that typically consists of two short strides followed by a long stride with what will ultimately become his planted – or non-striking – leg. The rhythm this creates, Dr Brar says, allows muscle memory to kick in and reduces the impact of aforementioned interference.
But there is also an important outcome-based component that takes place after the ball is struck. It is demonstrated in what Messi himself says and in many clips of his free-kick goals, as well as, according to Dr Brar, by six-time NBA All-Star Steph Curry.
“When Messi kicks the ball, he watches it intently the entire way into the eventual outcome and that’s what I call a mind-body feedback loop,” Dr Brar added.
“So instantly he can connect as he’s watching what he just did with his body, to the results and then he’s able to store that and subconsciously understand, ‘OK, when I did this, this time, it felt like this, here was the result’. So then naturally you start to move towards those results and that feel on the free-kick, that brings the better outcome.
“When you’re in the moment, that movement has just happened, so it’s almost like you still have that imprint of the movement in your memory and therefore you can connect it directly. The other example I used is Steph Curry. When you watch him shoot a shot, he’s watching the ball the whole way, so it might be a similar parallel in terms of that feedback.”
It’s flat out incredible and just watching these videos of him doing it, he’s an artist
But between the ‘neuromuscular priming’ and ‘mind-body feedback loop’ is where the magic happens. It is also the moment at the heart of Messi’s early free-kick struggles. Enter Diego Maradona.
“I had the best Messi and nobody can tell me otherwise,” Maradona, who coached Messi with Argentina for two years till after the 2010 World Cup, explained last year. “Because he was able to skip past up to five players. A phenomenon. But he had an issue with free-kicks.”
As to how Maradona actually helped Messi achieve mastery over the dead ball (if at all), several slightly different accounts exist. One of the most poetic among them can be attributed to Maradona’s former fitness coach, Fernando Signorini. According to him, “the world seemed to stop” as ‘El Diez’ pulled Messi aside during one training session.
“Put the ball here and listen to me well: do not take your foot so fast to the ball, because then she does not know what you want,” is the supposed wisdom imparted by Maradona that saw the penny finally drop for Messi.
After exhaustive analysis of footage of Messi free kicks, Dr Brar believes extending the duration for which his foot is in contact with the ball while striking it is a key factor in how he generates so much spin and shapes the flight of it.
“Messi is rubbing his foot up and across the ball to create that spin,” Dr Brar continues.
“Something with Messi again that you’ll see is, he has this ability where he’s almost scooping the ball afterwards in order to shape the curve and that’s what really makes him incredible. He has the ability to finesse the ball into a spot. It’s flat out incredible and just watching these videos of him doing it. He’s an artist.”
Several preceding events in Messi’s chain of movements is said to help serve this purpose. The result is often something Dr Brar deems akin to the “heavy, heavy top spin” Rafael Nadal gets on a tennis ball. And, to borrow a leaf from the book of the legendary Chubbs Peterson, it’s all in the hips.
“What really happens, when Messi strikes the ball, he shifts his hip to the right,” adds Dr Brar.
“He really moves his hips to the right as he’s striking to open up his left strike leg. And what that does on his plant leg, is it shifts all the weight to the outside of the foot so then when he follows through and he’s striking the ball and following through that left leg coming left to right.”
After the hips come into play, Messi involves a technique popularised by David Beckham and Andrea Pirlo, whereby the taker voluntarily rolls their weight over and onto their standing ankle.
Dr Brar adds: “He is able to really get his hips out of the way to be able to open up that left hip and get his foot around and able to have that ability to almost sprain his ankle, but not sprain it, and then come off of it like it was a normal movement.
“Now everything is going onto the outside of his ankle almost like what happens when you sprain your ankle. We call it inversion sprain when it twists inwards, where you have all that force on the outside of your ankle, and your ankle twists inwards. But in Messi’s case, he’s trained himself and his body to control that motion.”
📆 A year ago today: 🐐🎯
One of the greatest ever Champions League free-kicks 😍
Simply magnificent. pic.twitter.com/QlFRPYQt3S
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 1, 2020
All of this adds up to a spectacle words perhaps cannot do justice to, which is a funny thing to read at the end of a 1,500-word article dedicated to the subject. Hopefully after reading, though, you’ll know exactly what to look for when you inevitably give into temptation and hit play on the clip embedded immediately above this paragraph.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which has just posted an analysis of Messi’s dribbling technique) by going here.