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Lionel Messi – A Space Maestro

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Tactical Analysis: A tactical view on Lionel Messi being a master of space creation in a game

Football boils down to one concept: space. Create the space, occupy the space, and exploit the space. All of the tactics and formations coaches discuss, the technique they teach players, and everything else they do to give the edge in tight matches, essentially comes down to creating enough space to perform actions to score.

However, in a game that places 20 field players in a space that can be as small as 30 yards, creating space and identifying that space can be one of the hardest things to do.

Luckily, we are privileged enough to watch one of football’s spatial experts at work every week. Pep Guardiola once said, “Messi is the player who runs the least in a game, but when he gets the ball he has a complete spatial x-ray of his surroundings. He knows where everyone is”


The current Man City, and former Barcelona, manager has always praised Lionel Messi for his technical abilities but on many occasions he’s said what actually makes Lionel Messi the player he is is his spatial awareness.

If you’ve ever been watching Messi closely enough in a game, the first thing you’ll notice is how much he walks, and to the untrained eye this might come off as laziness. However, Guardiola acknowledges this aspect of his game as his most impressive quality; identifying space. He is always scanning his environment so that when he receives the ball, “BOOM”, he knows where everyone is.

Personally, having grown up and played in the Cameroon’s youth soccer system, walking and football seem counterintuitive. As a young player, I was always told that making runs was the only way to find space.

My coaches would drill into my head the idea of running off the ball with phrases like ‘pass and move’, ‘run to get open’, and ‘don’t just stand out there’. But what if standing in one place was a more efficient way of finding space?

On 21st March, Barcelona visited Real Sociedad when they put six past them. After the match, Sociedad manager Omanol Alguacil said, “He’s (Lionel Messi) very smart, because he parks himself in places where it’s very difficult to mark him because he goes behind the outside back who’s gone into the attack, he finds all the spaces between lines, he goes behind the backs of the midfielders so it’s difficult for the backline to mark him because he’s too far away.”

Omanol’s tactical analysis of Messi’s movements gives us a concept that we can work from to re-evaluate our approach on creating, identifying, occupying, and exploiting space. Maybe there’s another way other than the unspecific ‘get open’

There’s three parts to Omanol’s observation; the first, “he parks himself behind the outside back who’s gone into the attack…” It’s more likely that this movement was specific to this match due to the position Messi was playing and to the movements of the defender.

Messi had the tactical awareness to recognize the outside backs were pushing up into the attack, thus leaving space in the back line. The outside back’s attacking positioning created possible space for Messi, and to exploit it, Lionel Messi simply stayed in that space. He didn’t have to sprint, or even run there, but merely walk there. When his teammates receive the ball he’s already in space and ready to attack.

The second part of Omanol’s statement points out that “(Messi) finds all the spaces between lines…” Again, he doesn’t waste loads of energy getting unmarked, he just walks between lines and waits. It’s imperative to point out that he doesn’t go there and just stand but instead is always moving a few yards to either side to keep an open passing lane.

The final part of Omanol’s points out Messi’s awareness of positional superiority. Omanol says, “he goes behind the backs of the midfielders so it’s difficult for the backline to mark him because he’s too far away.” Messi positions himself directly behind the midfielders to avoid them marking him. Again, he does so expending minimal energy.

It’s important to mention that in order for there to be space for Messi to exploit, he needs the assistance of his teammates. It’s time to start teaching players from a cognitive starting point. We need to shift from coaching from absolutes to coaching in context.

Teaching players that sometimes they might need to run to find space, but it’s possible that they are standing in the space they need to be in.

This is indeed football and we always need to change or procreate our own rules and tactics.

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