After the Argentinian wizard broke the Barcelona club goalscoring record earlier in the week, we were once again left in awe as he walked away with the match ball, helping his side to a 5-3 victory. The occasion and significance of his achievement didn’t seem to affect him in the slightest, and his performance was synonymous of the way he plays every week – for the club, and not for individual recognition. The goals he scored on the night only served to confirm how accustomed to finding the back of the net he is, and how easy he finds it to reveal more imaginative ways to beat a goalkeeper.
When I was growing up, I always remembered the finesse and clinical demeanour of the world’s top strikers at the time. At every point, there seemed to be at least someone on the European stage who would showcase their ability to score goals in a fresh and exciting way. In terms of one-on-one goalscorers, the pinnacle in my opinion for a long time came in the shape of Thierry Henry. I was not an Arsenal fan, but you couldn’t help but appreciate the ease in which he would slot the ball past the keeper and the confidence he would exude. I’ve never seen someone, when facing only the keeper to beat, who you would feel more certain to score than Henry. Until now. If you were to put your mortgage, inheritance and all your worldly possessions on one player to score against a world-class goalkeeper, now it would be Lionel Messi.
Messi is fairly unique in the fact that he hasn’t picked a tried and tested way of beating a keeper and then perfected it. What he has done is far more impressive. He figured out the way in which he gives himself the best chance of scoring in a one-on-one situation, which is the little chip over the keeper. We’ve seen him do it on numerous occasions and it never appears to let him down, purely because he has the confidence to know that it will go in before he even kicks the ball. It’s a more clever route to the net than it seems at first glance. As Messi gets in close proximity to the keeper whilst moving at speed, it dramatically reduces the goalkeeper’s ability to make a decision and limits him to relying on reactions to attempt a save. By the time the ball has been lifted off the striker’s foot and past the keeper’s shoulder, the guy in the gloves hasn’t had time to react and reach an arm out.
Another technique that Messi has perfected is the skill of rounding the goalkeeper. Again, this is a lot more tricky in match situations than it first looks, however I don’t know why more strikers don’t attempt it. The key to scoring this way is to get the keeper to commit to making a decision too early and losing his balance. Once he has his weight going backwards, it’s usually goals-o’clock. But what Messi does so well is two things: He feints and send his opponent’s mind the wrong way, and he uses his quick feet to skip away from them. This is a lethal combination in front of goal because as soon as the keeper goes to ground, he has to get the ball other wise its a goal. It’s often argued that it’s Messi’s off the ball movement and vision of team mates that gets him so many goals, and while this is partly true, he will still dance past players and make the man between the sticks look silly after he’s received the ball.
The one other crucial component to the repertoire of any good goalscorer is composure. The mental edge that gets you in a position to score the goal is often the deciding factor. Many strikers will shoot when they get a half-decent sight at goal, but Messi often leaves it until the last possible moment to hit the net. His mentality and concentration doesn’t change no matter how close to the goal he gets, meaning he can beat the keeper like he would anyone else on the pitch, with control and precision. He quite often actively attempts to take the goalkeeper out of the equation to the point where they have no chance of physically reaching the ball, before hitting the net. This skill requires a specific mindset, and is one that very few players have ever mastered.
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