For any other player, it would have been an understandable miss. The angle was narrow. There was one opposition defender between him and the goal. In goal was one of the best goalkeepers in the world. But for Lionel Messi, his skewed shot into the side-netting 42 minutes into Barcelona’s La Liga clash against Atletico Madrid provided an insight into his fragile mindset.
There was no conviction in the Argentine’s strike. Messi didn’t even want to take the shot in the first place, waiting and waiting for a teammate to make himself available in the middle. When it became there was no such option, Messi took it on himself, but not through any great belief in his own ability.
A hypothetical thought it may be, but this was the sort of chance Messi would have buried last season. He scored a late winner against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano last season, finding the back of the net with a first-time shot from the edge of the box. Since then, the Argentine has only scored against Alaves and Real Mallorca away from home in La Liga.
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It’s certainly not unusual for Messi to appear tired and frustrated. In fact, that has been his general demeanour for the majority of the last two to three seasons. He has suffered dips in form, but they were largely down to fatigue, with Barcelona simply unable to cope without their number 10 on the pitch. Messi was frequently run into the ground.
Messi is suffering another difficult period in his Barca career, scoring just once in open play this season, but this time feels different. While the Argentine only arrived back in Spain on Thursday after a flight from South America on his way back from international duty, it wasn’t Messi’s lack of energy that caught the eye against Atleti. It was his lack of confidence.
That the greatest player of all time - in the opinion of many - would be short of confidence reveals a lot about how Messi has been shaken by the events of 2020 at the Camp Nou. He might have ultimately won the very public power struggle with outgoing president Josep Bartomeu, with a new regime set to come in soon, but the 33-year-old had his character, intentions and even professionalism questioned in the process.
Just this week, Messi expressed his frustration at being blamed for so many of Barcelona’s recent problems, hitting back at the agent of Antoine Griezmann, Eric Olhats, who suggested the Argentine holds too much control at the club. “The truth is that I'm a little tired of always being the problem for everything at the club,” he told reporters waiting for his response at the airport after arriving back from Argentina.
With Messi free to speak to other clubs about a pre-contract agreement from January, many have focused on how he could use a fresh start from a footballing point of view. It could also be of benefit to him from a mental perspective. Barcelona has become a difficult environment for the 33-year-old and that is now seemingly manifesting itself in how he carries himself on the pitch.
Even in the bad times, Messi has been a leader and a figurehead for Barcelona these past few years. When others were on the ground, he stood up. But with the Catalans suffering a damaging defeat to Atletico Madrid on Saturday, leaving them slumped in 10th place in the La Liga table, it was 17-year-old Pedri, and not Messi, who fronted up to the media.
A strong start to the season under Koeman now looks little more than a false dawn. It increasingly feels like Barcelona are just waiting around for whatever’s next. Messi might be the same, with no further indications on where he will be next season. But whether he is at the Camp Nou or somewhere else, the first thing to restore about his game is his confidence.