You’d have to go back a little earlier in the game than where this clip starts to get it, but watching live, at the point where the following highlight begins I was pretty sure Lionel Messi was fucking up:
As you can see, the preceding play happened late on in Barcelona’s Saturday match against Real Betis. It was a typical late-season Barcelona performance, which is to say it was stilted, largely devoid of much intrigue, though ultimately fairly comfortable. The drab first half was only notable for the two yellow cards Betis’s Heiko Westermann picked up like a big dummy in just over half an hour of play, and for how curiously lackadaisical Barça looked. They played like they knew they’d get a goal or two before time was up, but were not in any way in much of a rush to make it happen. You—along with manager Luis Enrique, who reportedly blew up on his players at halftime for their lack of engagement—might think a team on the brink of an embarrassing league collapse might show more urgency in a must-win game like this, but apparently not, at least not in the first half.
Whether it was the manager’s foot up their asses or their own decision to finally turn it on, Barcelona were better in the second 45 minutes. Five minutes after the restart, Messi found Ivan Rakitić with a perfect little chipped pass and the midfielder hit the ball into an open net, giving Barça the lead. Barcelona continued to dominate the ball and the game, creating good chances (many of them inventions of Messi’s unreal vision and his left foot) but never pressing for the killer blow that the second goal would be.
Which gets us back to the about the 80th minute, and the clip you see above. Right before, Barcelona took the ball off Betis and started what looked like a promising counter attack. Betis had done what they set out to do after going down a man: sit deep, clog up Barça’s attack as much as possible to prevent them from running out to an insurmountable lead, then push forward a little more try to snatch an equalizer or winner late on. By the time Barça regained possession to start that the 80th minute move, Betis’s defense was more vulnerable than it would’ve been earlier. It was the perfect time for Barcelona to rush forward and strike the fatal blow.
Instead, just as it looked like Barcelona had gotten their dangerous players forward and the ball at the feet of the most dangerous incisive passer on the planet, Messi slowed everything down. He didn’t sprint into the available space and instead started walking, allowing Betis’s defense to get set again. It was right around the time I started complaining at my TV—“What the hell, man, this isn’t the time to play the ball around all slow-like and protect the lead, go get a damn goal!”—that Messi came out with that pass. It was so stunning, it’s worth a second look:
Look at how many players the ball splits. Look at how he sizes the whole situation up—judges the angle and timing of Luis Suárez’s run, spots a lane that would allow the ball to roll past the mass of bodies between he and Suárez, decides just how forcefully to swing his leg so that the pass would make it to the precise location behind the defenders but ahead of the goalkeeper so that Suárez could sneak in between and score—in an instant. It’s flat-out ridiculous that he could even visualize the pass, let alone make it a reality.
It’s a common occurrence, watching a soccer game and thinking you know what the players and coaches should be doing better than they do. It’s not always wrong, since it is at times easier to take in the entire field and diagnose broad trends from the couch at home than it is for the players, who have so much more to think about and pay attention do than you do at home.
On the other hand, there are certain players who have demonstrated during their careers a better feel, understanding, and mastery of the sport than any of us could ever hope to in 1,000 years of watching matches at home. Messi is one of them. Sorry for thinking I knew better.