Endgame: Lionel Messi’s Quest for World Cup Glory
Lionel Messi enters the last game of his World Cup career having thus far performed through the pressure of 2022 – on the pitch and off it – knowing that with a win, he really will have done it all and won it all. This is his endgame.
I am very happy for finishing my journey in World Cups in a final, to play the last game in a final.Lionel Messi, post-game vs. Croatia – 13 November 2022
The 2022 final will be the last time we see Lionel Messi on the pitch at a FIFA World Cup. Argentina face France at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday, with Messi having the opportunity to add the World Cup title that’s so far eluded him across his 19-year professional career.
Should Messi do that, there’s little doubt he’ll be recognised as the greatest player of this generation, more so considering how he’s almost single-handedly led Argentina to this final from the depths of despair following their opening game defeat to Saudi Arabia.
While Messi had achieved unparalleled success individually with a record seven Ballon d’Or titles and a World Cup Golden Ball for his performances in 2014, to add to 36 major club honours at Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, success on the international stage had deserted him until last year.
Part of Argentina’s 2021 Copa América win, after three failed attempts in the final of the 2007, 2015 and 2016 editions, it felt like Argentina had finally met expectations based on Messi’s inclusion alone. The 2021 tournament, in which Messi finished as joint top scorer and winner of the best player award, has set the tone for his performances at the 2022 World Cup.
Not since Diego Maradona in 1986 has a nation seemed to rely so much on a player as Argentina have in the era of Messi. That certainly changed some during the Copa América success as the narrative shifted to it being an effort of 11 rather than one, but his growing influence on his national side at World Cups can be seen in the data. Messi’s 45 shot involvements (shots and chances created) at these finals have contributed towards 56.3% of Argentina’s total shots. That proportion has grown by World Cup since 2006, and, incredibly, it’s almost identical to Maradona’s impact on Argentina’s World Cup title in 1986.
Thirty-six years ago, Maradona’s exceptional displays almost single-handedly carried Argentina to their last World Cup glory. History is repeating itself via Messi.
Back then, Maradona was involved in 56.4% of Argentina’s shots – a World Cup record for a team to have progressed to at least the quarter-finals of a tournament since 1966. Messi could end up surpassing that ratio at this tournament, with his current figure of 56.3% just 0.1% behind Maradona’s.
While Messi’s position as the greatest player in World Cup history is up for consideration, there’s no doubt that he’ll become the name most associated with World Cup history this weekend.
With his inclusion in the final against France, Messi will become the player with the most appearances in World Cup history (26), overtaking German legend Lothar Matthäus (25), while in the 23rd minute of the match (if he starts), he’ll overtake Paolo Maldini’s record tally of minutes played at the World Cup (2,216).
While becoming the top scorer in men’s World Cup history is surely out of the question, with Messi needing five to draw level with Miroslav Klose’s tally of 16, his 11-goal total is surpassed by only five different players in the history of the competition. A goal in the final would see him go level with Pelé on 12 goals.
His 11th World Cup goal – a penalty versus Croatia in the semi-final – saw him move outright top of the Argentine national team rankings in the competition ahead of Gabriel Batistuta, while a goal in the final would see Messi become the first player to score in the group stage (vs. Saudi Arabia and Mexico), round of 16 (vs. Australia), quarter-final (vs. Netherlands), semi-final (vs. Croatia), round of 16, quarter-final, semi-final and final in a single edition of the tournament. Coming into Qatar 2022, Messi had never scored a knockout goal in World Cup history, despite playing 756 minutes of knockout football at the tournament and attempting 23 shots. That personal hoodoo has been well and truly banished this year, with three goals in his three knockout appearances on the way to the final.
Only Diego Maradona (eight) has as many World Cup assists in recorded history as Messi (since 1966), while the current Argentina captain leads the rankings for both chances created overall (72) and from open play (52) – two categories in which he overtook Maradona (67 and 48) within the knockout stages of this tournament. A goal or an assist in the final will see Messi become the first player to reach 20 goal involvements in the World Cup since 1966.
We all know how great Messi is, but there would still have been doubters about the potential of this level of performance at the 2022 finals considering that he’s now 35 years old and entering the twilight years of his career. However, the signs were there that Messi’s form coming into this tournament was at least on par with his peak years.
Messi had already scored 11 international goals for Argentina in 2022 before the World Cup in Qatar even began – just one off his all-time high tally for the national team in a calendar year (12 in 2012). That record has since been smashed, with five more goals at this tournament, taking the tally to 16 in 13 games across 2022 before the final on Sunday.
Even at club level, Messi’s performances for PSG have been among the elite in European football in the first half of the 2022-23 campaign.
No one across the top five European leagues has been more of a threat than Messi this season, averaging 1.2 expected goal involvements per 90 minutes from non-penalty situations: he’s getting into scoring positions and creating high-value chances.
Across players in the top five European leagues, Messi has the most assists in league competition (10) and in all competitions (14). This competitive assist tally has already equalled his season total from 2021-22 at PSG, despite playing 1,290 fewer minutes, while he’s already scored more goals (12) in all competitions than he did last season (11).
Maybe he arrived at this tournament fresher than usual. His 34 club appearances last season in all competitions were his lowest total in a single campaign since his first full season as a professional at Barcelona in 2005-06 (25 apps). He suffered with form in front of goal too, as he failed to reach double-figure league goals for the first time since 2005–06 (both six goals), but the arrival of new PSG boss Christophe Galtier this summer enabled him to play a freer role behind the strikers and enjoy his football once more.
He’s certainly enjoyed himself at the World Cup, and Argentina have profited from his ability to pop up in the most dangerous zones of the pitch.
His frequent reception of the ball in Zone 14 – the central area just outside the opposition penalty box – has troubled teams all tournament.
On average, Messi has received the ball just under seven times per 90 minutes in that zone – with the highest proportion of passes he receives (13%) coming in that area of the pitch.
That’s allowed him to orchestrate attacks with his pinpoint passing and has helped him tally the most successful line-breaking passes into the opposition penalty area at this World Cup (11), including the wonderful assist for Nahuel Molina to open the scoring against the Netherlands in their quarter-final tie.
Messi has been involved in 43 of Argentina’s open-play shots at this World Cup, which is more than twice as many as any other player apart from Rodrigo De Paul (26). Across the whole tournament, only French forward Kylian Mbappé (45) has been involved in more for his nation.
At the 2014 World Cup, where Messi picked up the Golden Ball as the best player at the tournament, he was involved in 43 overall, including the final, but that was one less than team-mate Ángel Di Maria (44) and only three more than Javier Mascherano (40). Yes, he was a vital player in Argentina’s road to the final in Brazil that year, but his influence wasn’t so standalone in their progress throughout the tournament as it has been this time around.
His presence among the leaders of so many attacking metrics at this tournament comes despite being the player that has been watched closely by opponents more than any other.
Using Opta Vision we’re able to look at how pressurised players have been in possession of the ball at this World Cup, whilst also dynamically assigning a pressure level to the three closest opposition players to the ball throughout the game, which is then used to determine an overall pressure level on the player in possession. The closest the opposition players are to the ball, the higher the intensity of the pressure.
Messi has received 259 instances of high pressure when on the ball at the 2022 World Cup – 45 more than any other player (Marcelo Brozović – 214), while his average of 40.9 per 90 minutes is higher than any player to have played at least 300 minutes at this tournament.
71.9% of the pressures he’s received at this tournament have been deemed as ‘high’ pressure – the highest proportion of the 54 players to have been pressured on the ball the most at the 2022 World Cup.
The pressure is now on Messi to perform in the World Cup final against France and win the competition for the first time. His popularity within his home nation hasn’t always been a mirror of the fanatical support of club fans, but times have changed. Should he lift the World Cup on Sunday, Messi will be immortalised in the pantheon of football greats.
It’s time to find out how the endgame plays out.