It was as if the first half hour of the match, the first half of this World Cup even, had been part of his long conclusion. A setup. In a similar situation shortly before, Lionel Messi had shot wide. For much of the tournament, that pass had been stroked wide to the left.
Daley Blind thought he knew what was coming and was a step behind Nahuel Molina. Virgil van Dijk was only guilty of putting his weight on the wrong foot, which mirrored Messi’s movement. Messi never looked but instinct told him the reverse ball was on.
The pass was played. The Netherlands was played.
Argentina’s quarter-final win was full of drama, excitement, panic and anger. It needed two penalty saves from Emiliano Martinez and a winner from namesake Lautaro in the end. Buoyed by their overwhelming support, the emotional energy expended is incalculable.
But before all that was this moment, the goal that showed us why Argentina can win this World Cup. It’s a sympathetic relationship between one genius and the 10 men who seem willing to do anything and everything it takes to help him.
Messi can still manipulate a football like no one alive, but at 35 his movement is now truncated. More than half of his time on the field is spent at walking pace. The old adage that a team full of Messis would be unbeatable is no longer true. He needs runners.
Molina made the trip believing Messi would find him, but knew he might not. Along with Marcos Acuna, the wing-back on the opposite side who won the penalty from which Messi scored Argentina’s second goal, their energy drives this team.
When they could run no more, they were replaced by two more who were willing to do exactly the same. Argentina tried to stay compact behind Messi and they tried to run around in front of him. Julian Alvarez, a picture of youthful enthusiasm as he ran for two in front.
To deny the talent of the rest is to miss the point.
Messi has been part of more glittering sides than this, of course, even at international level. His World Cup debut came as a substitute in a memorable six-goal win over Serbia that included one of the great team goals this tournament has ever witnessed.
The talent that has come and gone since then is astounding. 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 still achieve with this Argentina.
There are echoes of the nation’s 1986 victory here that extend beyond the obvious similarities to the man whose name Messi evoked in his post-match celebration of that victory. The player to whom he has forever been compared when wearing an Argentine shirt.
Diego Maradona played in the 1982 World Cup with the heroes of four years earlier, Mario Kempes and Daniel Passarella. He bonded on and off the pitch with Claudio Caniggia in 1990 and they were joined by the brilliant Gabriel Batistuta in 1994.
But he won the trophy with none of them. He did so with an initially reviled but ultimately more functional group of players who became a band of brothers. In a 3-5-2 system similar to that 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 to a star player among the rest of the 1986 World Cup-winning squad. He and they recognized that it was one man apart – that was the secret of their success.
“In the middle, a genius who was given freedom. The influence of Maradona was so significant that it seemed to spread to the whole team, but the team was very structured from a tactical point of view and each one of us had very precise obligations. “
Speaking to Pedro Pasculli, Maradona’s roommate and winner of the winner against Uruguay in 1986, he said something similar. “We weren’t favored, but the collective was crucial,” Pasculli said Sky Sports. “We had that hunger and that humility to play and win.”
They say Maradona beat England and Belgium alone. He needed others. Closely marked against West Germany, it was Jorge Burruchaga’s run that he spotted for the winner. “He was the ace of spades,” Burruchaga later said. “But the team helped him a lot.”
And so it is in 2022.
Argentina don’t need 11 like Messi. They only need one. Ten willing workers around him. Ten men prepared to do their job, run harder and smarter than the opposition, while knowing they have something – some – others don’t.
It’s a mindset, but also a skill set.
Sergio Aguero is a good friend of Messi and was a far bigger player than Alvarez is right now. But was his style such a natural fit? Ever Banega was a good playmaker, but he did not cover the ground in 2018 that Rodrigo De Paul has been willing to cover in Qatar.
Germany’s World Cup-winning captain Philipp Lahm has noted the “unusual and exciting division of labor” in this team. He sees a difference to the one that lost the final in 2014. That side waited for Messi to solve everything. This one plays to help him do that.
To Scaloni’s credit, he recognized this from the start. Messi wasn’t even in his squad for the first part of his time in charge, considering his future. The coach saw it as a positive. “We needed the group to be strong first,” he has said. It is strong now.
It may be missed in all this. “Tactics are also important,” Dutch defender Jurrien Timber argued beforehand as if he assumed this favored his team. Scaloni also has tactics. His is a solid side built to get the best out of the very best.
The proof is there. When Messi walked off the pitch on Friday night, exhausted but triumphant, the statistics showed he had attempted more shots than anyone else at the World Cup – almost double that of anyone in the tournament bar Kylian Mbappe.
He is the team’s goalscorer and their creator. Only Antoine Griezmann has created more chances in this World Cup. Messi has even completed more successful dribbles than all but three other players. It is extraordinary. It is also facilitated by those around him.
In more ways than one, this Argentinian team is working.