Nothing anyone can write about Lionel Messi compares even a little bit to the experience of watching him play. Those two things—reading about Messi and watching Messi—are things of completely different experiential classes, like the difference between writing about what a mango tastes like and the sensation of eating one in real life and then having an orgy with eight of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen in your life.


During this World Cup—one of the biggest months in the storied career of the world’s greatest player—there will be more than enough time to waste a few thousand words trying and failing to encapsulate how Messi plays and what Messi means and all that jazz. Before the start of this thing, then, for now let’s just sit back and watch a collection of highlights from his most recent season, one that was as great individually as any that have come before, and enjoy what we’re in for as people blessed with the chance to watch Messi play, even for this bummy Argentina side.

Cristian Pavón

It’s alarming how vanishingly few players likely to play a big role in Argentina’s World Cup make for compelling discussion. Which isn’t to say Argentina as a nation is devoid of great talents. I’d love to talk about the finer points of Paolo Dybala’s game and how they’ll support the Argentine World Cup cause, but because he is basically Messi-lite in every way—from the kinds of things he does with and without the ball to the areas of the pitch he naturally occupies—his redundancy will at best relegate him to super-sub status. Manuel Lanzini is really cool, but he just blew out his knee today and now will miss the tournament. Lautaro Martínez is a very exciting young forward, but he got left off the final roster. The slimness of the pickings here is indicative of how much of a struggle it will be for Argentina to live up to the public’s outsized expectations.


There is Cristian Pavón, though. Pavón is something of a unicorn in this Argentina squad: he is young and is very fast. Like, extremely fast. In fact his speed, and his ability to weave through defenders while running at top speed, are just about the only elite qualities the Boca Juniors winger offers at this point in his career. He does like to shoot, though not with much notable success, and his dribbling skills do get him into enough open space in the final third to where he can be a dangerous source of killer passes. But it’s his speed and his running that make him a dynamic threat in this team.

Which is perfectly fine, because having speed and the desire to flex that speed at every opportunity is more than enough to stand out in an otherwise lead-footed Argentina team when Messi is around. Messi loves a guy who will burst down the wing in behind the defensive line, as doing so frees up space for him to work in the middle of the pitch and allows him to dust off one of his favorite moves: the heat-seeking diagonal pass that flies dozens of yards over and behind defenders’ heads and onto the strong foot of an onrushing teammate. If you’ve ever seen Messi play with Neymar or Jordi Alba, you’ll know how much havoc Messi can wreak with a fast guy who loves to run. It’s not for nothing that Messi had this to say about Pavón just a couple weeks ago: “I found a new partner in Pavón.”


Look for the Messi-Pavón hookup to be one of the most common connections for Argentina this summer, should Pavón get the playing time he deserves. If Messi does particularly well at the World Cup, Pavón will likely do well, too. And if Pavón does really well, Argentina just might have the tournament they all want.

How They Play

How do Argentina play? The only way they can. Which is to say, Argentina’s playing style is much more reflective of what the players on hand are capable of doing than of any strategic masterplan on the part of the manager.


Which is a shame, because after a long search for a national team coach capable of building a sophisticated tactical system that could get the best out of Messi, Argentina finally struck upon one in Jorge Sampaoli. He is one of the most respected international managers in the game today. An Argentine himself, Sampaoli oversaw a Chile team that won lots of games and even more plaudits with an electric, possession-focused, intense pressing attacking style—the exact style Argentina have needed for so long yet haven’t been able to implement. There’s little question that Sampaoli is just about the ideal man to lead a national team with Messi at the helm.

But while Argentina finally had Sampaoli and Messi when they united the two in 2017, what they didn’t have was time. Sampaoli took over almost exactly a year ago, at a time when Argentina were in dire straits in the World Cup qualifying process. There was no time to overhaul the tactical underpinnings of the prior, more defensive Argentina regimes, as the team needed to win points immediately. Once Argentina finally secured their place in Russia, it wouldn’t have made any sense to throw everything out the window and rebuild the Argentina roster and style of play from the ground up just months away from the World Cup. This is why Argentina are coached by Sampaoli but don’t really play like a Sampaoli team.


Argentina’s collection of defenders suck. Thus, Argentina will play an attacking style. They’ll look to keep possession of the ball to mitigate the age and slowness and lack of defensive understanding of their primary defensive players, and they’re more likely to win more games by a score of 3-2 than 1-0. The formation they’ll use is still sort of a crapshoot, because the team still hasn’t settled on a go-to starting lineup. The only certainty is that Messi will play behind a natural center forward, and he’ll be tasked with doing pretty much everything when Argentina have the ball. Today’s announced Manuel Lanzini injury is huge, since the West Ham man was set to play a crucial role as a counterweight to Messi’s movement, drifting out wide when Messi moved centrally, coming inside when Messi went to the wing. If there was one playing role that bore the marks of Sampaoli’s savvy managing, it was Lanzini’s. Now Lanzini is gone, and there isn’t really anyone with a similar skill set to pick up those specific pieces.

Argentina’s play won’t often look pretty, because it’s very hard for even a player as otherworldly as Messi to dominate a match with such a mediocre supporting cast. At times, though, it’ll be sort of sublime when you see just how in control Messi is and how good he is at pulling literally all the strings. The best anyone can reasonably hope for is Messi pulling those strings with such mastery that he puppets his teammates to a respectable finish in what will likely be his final tournament with Argentina.


Group D Fixtures

All times Eastern

June 16, 9 a.m.: Argentina vs. Iceland at Spartak Stadium

June 21, 2 p.m.: Argentina vs. Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium

June 26, 2 p.m.: Nigeria vs. Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium