Editor's note: this feature was first published in February 2015 after Barcelona's 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the Champions League - a match which saw Joe Hart save a Lionel Messi spotkick.
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So Lionel Messi is human after all. The Argentine put on a masterclass against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night. He nutmegged David Silva, beat three men to release Jordi Alba to cross for Luis Suarez¹s second goal, and trapped a high ball as it sailed over his shoulder without even looking at it, in the opposition six-yard box. But there was one blot on his copybook.
In the last minute of the match, with Barcelona 2-1 up, he won a penalty when his international team-mate Pablo Zabaleta hacked him down, and he took it himself. A 2-1 lead from the first leg is pretty good; a 3-1 lead is practically game over. And this is where it all went wrong for Messi.
Twelve months ago, Messi scored from the spot in the same stadium; at that point it was 0-0 and Messi waited for Joe Hart to make the first move before rolling the ball in the opposite corner. Hart moved early, and Messi scored comfortably.
Fast forward to Tuesday, though, and things have changed: including Messi¹s mind-set. Hart saved the penalty (he waited before diving a little longer than before) and Messi headed the rebound wide. Messi has now missed five of his last 10 penalties in all competitions, and four of his last seven for Barcelona. This season, he has missed three out of six.
All of those have come since he changed his penalty strategy. Until late last season, Messi used the Goalkeeper-Dependent method. This is when players wait for the goalkeeper to make the first move, and strike the ball in the opposite direction. Over time, it has been proven to be the more successful method. It is used in today¹s game by Eden Hazard, Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli but technically it is harder than the Goalkeeper-Independent method, which involves picking a spot regardless of where the goalkeeper may dive.
Lionel Messi has changed his penalty strategy - but will he revert back?
Image credit: Eurosport
The most famous, and costly, example of Messi using the Goalkeeper-Dependent method came in Barcelona¹s Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea at Camp Nou. At the time, Barcelona were 2-1 up (2-2 on aggregate) and had a man advantage after John Terry¹s first-half red card. Four minutes into the second half, Didier Drogba tripped Cesc Fabregas and Messi stepped up to take the penalty.
Petr Cech had studied Messi¹s methodology and knew that he liked to wait for the keeper to make the first move. So Cech did not commit. He waited and waited, and forced Messi to make the decision for himself. Messi went for the roof of the net, doubling his margin for error (you can hit the ball too high, but you can never hit it too low), and his effort struck the crossbar.
Scoring the penalty would, in all likelihood, have eliminated Chelsea. (As if to reflect their rivalry on the pitch, one night earlier, Cristiano Ronaldo also missed an important penalty for Real Madrid in their semi-final shoot-out defeat to Bayern Munich and so, within 24 hours, the two best players in the world had both missed from 12 yards.)
There was no penalty hangover after that Chelsea loss: in his next three games, Messi scored four penalties, and all of them using the Goalkeeper-Dependent method. In fact since the Chelsea game, he has scored 22 penalties that way.
But things changed late last season and by the time he was inspiring Barcelona to a 5-0 win over Levante last September, he had switched to Goalkeeper-Independent. He did not look at the goalkeeper once before striking the ball high and with power, this time to his non-natural side (ie, a left-footer kicking to his left). It was saved. A few weeks later, playing for Argentina in a friendly against Brazil, he did the same, this time missing the target completely.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi looks dejected after having his penalty saved
Image credit: Eurosport
Against City, 12 months after making his penalty look easy, Messi has stumbled again. It may not be costly this time, but with Barcelona playing catch-up in the race for La Liga, and the Champions League soon to enter its later stages, Messi can ill afford any more slip-ups from the spot. He has admitted in the past that nerves have affected him before important penalties. Pressure can get to even the best players in the world.
But this is not just a technical issue. The two options available to Messi and Barcelona going forward both involve huge psychological strides in the career of Messi and his team-mates. One would be for Messi to stand down from penalty duties for a while and let Neymar, a master of the Goalkeeper-Dependent method, take over.
That happened in Barcelona¹s recent Copa del Rey semi-final against Villarreal. With Barcelona 2-1 up, there was a penalty. Messi surprised everyone by picking up the ball and handing it to Neymar. Sergio Asenjo saved Neymar¹s kick. In the Brazilian's defence, he looked surprised when the duties were handed to him. That has made that option a little bit harder to imagine.
The other option is that Messi reverts to the strategy that has worked so well for him in the past - waiting for the goalkeeper to make up his mind for him - before his next spot-kick. Both involve a large dose of humility, which we are often reminded is part of what has made Messi so great over the last 10 years.
It will be fascinating to see what Messi does the next time the referee points to the spot.
Ben Lyttleton -
Ben Lyttleton is the author of Twelve Yards: The Art & Psychology of the Perfect Penalty