When Barcelona’s style for once failed to produce substance against AC Milan in their Champions’ League quarter final, they turned to the their star man’s reliability from the penalty spot to breach the Italian defence.
Messi’s two goals in the Camp Nou made it 9 out of 10 from the spot this season. Messi has worked tirelessly on his penalty technique, but this is one aspect of his game that does not rely on technical talent. The secret to Messi’s penalty is not about how much power he applies or even how accurately the ball nestles into the side-netting. The key to the Messi penalty precedes the penalty itself – it’s all in his run-up.
The traditional school of thought is that when taking a penalty the striker should quickly decide on a corner in the goal and the technique the will employ, and then step up and execute this plan. The goalkeeper must therefore hope to guess correctly where the ball is going to make the save.
However, Lionel Messi attempts to reverse this relationship between striker and keeper. Messi’s run-up is deliberately slow and stuttered. He usually takes four steps towards the ball. In the first two steps Messi’s eyes are transfixed on the ball to guage exactly where it is. With the ball’s position in his mind he looks up at the goalkeeper. He drags his left leg through and almost hops onto his standing right foot to slow things down, still looking up. As soon as he sees the goalkeeper shift his weight slightly to one side Messi quickly looks down and sweeps his left foot through the ball to the opposite side.
This technique shifts the balance so that the goalkeeper’s decision comes first, and is why nearly all of Messi’s succesfull penalties are in the opposite corner to the goalkeeper’s dive. This strategy takes incredible composure and therefore it is unsurprising that Messi’s most high pressure penalty this season, in injury time versus Sevilla to win the game, was missed. Indeed Messi came under some criticism for this strike and his record from the spot was subsequently questioned. The inevitable comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo shows that Messi is behind, with a success rate from the spot for Barca of around 80%, against Ronaldo’s 90% since joining Madrid.
However, his technique appears to be catching on. It was copied by Apoel Nicossea marksman Esteban Solari to beat Madrid’s Iker Casillas. Solari took it to another level, not even looking down at the ball at all when striking but contiuing to look at the goalkeeper and trust his instinct on striking the ball cleanly. The risk for Messi is that goalkeeper’s begin to find solutions. Swansea City’s Scott Sinclair has been scoring from the spot in the Premiership this season with a similar style, but was recently out-thought by Manchester City keeper Joe Hart, who told Sinclair “don’t wait for me to dive” before the spot kick. Hart then stood totally still on his line until Sinclair struck the ball, and made the penalty save.
As the season draws to a close, Barcelona face a huge El Classico against Madrid which may decide the fate of this year’s title, along with major battles in Europe to conclude the Champions League. The chances are Messi will have another high-pressure penalty to deal with – and for once he will not be relying on breath-taking talent with his feet, but unnerving composure in his mind.
Lawrence Ostlere is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org