With five Ballon d'Ors to his name, 100 total European competition goals and every club honour worth winning — including four Champions Leagues and eight La Liga titles — it's hard to imagine Lionel Messi as anything short of the other-worldly attacking force that he is today.
Identified as an exceptional talent at a young age and snapped up by Barcelona in his early teens, Messi was always destined for greatness. But the Argentinian superstar has undergone several evolutions in his game which have all led him to become the greatest player of all time.
From scrawny, shaggy-haired teenager breaking through on the wing under Frank Rijkaard, to the quiet leader breaking scoring records on an almost weekly basis — here we trace the tactical and positional evolutions that Messi has undergone throughout his career.
2004-2008: Inverted Winger
Messi made his La Liga debut against Espanyol in October 2014. The then-17-year-old had been accustomed to played either centrally as a No.10 or wide on the left within Barça's youth and B teams, but with Ronaldinho occupying that role for the first-team, Messi began to be deployed on the right flank.
The following season saw Messi become a regular member of the senior squad, rotating on the right wing with Frenchman Ludovic Giuly. The former Monaco attacker was tremendously quick, a cool finisher and an expert at timing runs in behind the opposition's backline to connect with Ronaldinho and Xavi's through-balls.
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Messi, as an alternative to Giuly, offered a very different approach at this stage of his career. As has alway been one of the predominant facets of his skillset, the teenager put his unique dribbling ability to great use, tying up opposition full-backs and creating openings in the inside-right half-space in a way that Giuly was unable to.
The Rosario-born youngster became the preferred option for the right side of Rijkaard's attack as the season wore on, but injury precluded his participation in the club's 2006 Champions League final win over Arsenal.
The 2006/07 season was when Messi became a regular starter for the Blaugrana, and the signs were already there to suggest that he was on his way to usurping Ronaldinho as the star of the Camp Nou.
This was also the campaign in which Messi began to hone his scoring touch, netting 17 goals in 36 appearances across all competitions. It was at this stage that he was growing in confidence in front of goal and, crucially, learning the art of forward movement, timing runs in behind defences rather than only attacking them with the ball at his feet.
A new thirst for goals really began to show when Messi returned from a three-month injury layoff to in early 2008, netting 11 times in the last 13 games of the season, including a Clásico hat-trick against Real Madrid in March.
In less than four years with the first-team, although his starting position remained the same, Messi's game had matured greatly. From a gifted yet raw dribble-happy winger, he was now an all-round attacking threat, growing increasingly confident when moving into central zones.
2008-2014: False Nine
After a disappointing final two years of his reign at the Camp Nou, Rijkaard was replaced by former Barça captain Pep Guardiola. The appointment of the Catalan raised eyebrows initially as his only prior coaching experience was one season in charge of the B team, but any doubts were soon cast aside as the now-Manchester City boss guided the Blaugrana to an unprecedented Treble.
Guardiola's arrival not only ushered in a new era of success and wonderful possession football, it also marked a watershed in Messi's career.
The coming together of Messi and Guardiola was the merging of the most naturally gifted player of his generation and a brilliant tactical mind ready build a team around that talent.
The notion of a “false nine” and what that means became part of common football parlance during Guardiola's Camp Nou tenure from 2008 to 2012, but the idea itself was nothing new. Indeed, Francesco Totti excelled in the role during Luciano Spaletti's first spell in charge of Roma, and Wayne Rooney fulfilled a similar remit for Manchester United in 2009, dropping off from his centre-forward starting position to link with, and open up advanced spaces for, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.
Going even further back, the great Hungarian national side of the early 1950s — who famously hammered England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and finished runners-up in the following year's World Cup — utilised Nándor Hidegkuti as a centre-forward who would operate predominantly in midfield zones, timing his arrival into the penalty area to remain unchallenged.
Ingenious though it may have been, Guardiola's idea to to field Messi similarly was not one of invention, but rather a brilliant realisation of how to best utilise his team's most talented player.
Messi's assumption of the false nine role at Barcelona was gradual, though. Having played centrally on a handful of occasions earlier in the season, the tactical switch to deploy the Argentinian as a false nine was crystallised in a 6-2 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in May 2009.
With Therry Henry and Samuel Eto'o — two strikers by trade — either side of him, Messi would drop away from the front line into the space between Los Blancos‘ midfield and defence, presenting a conundrum for the opposition of whether one of the centre-backs should follow him or one of the midfielders should pick him up.
From this area, Messi's vision, incisive passing and ability to get a running start when dribbling directly at the Madrid defence proved devastating. If they allowed him space, he would gobble it up and create openings for himself and others; if they closed him down, Henry and Eto'o would break into the gaps that would be opened up. Messi and Henry both scored twice and Guardiola decided to stick with the same plan for that month's Champions League final against Manchester United.
Messi ended that season with 38 goals in all competitions. Although he would return to the wing for spells — such as when Zlatan Ibrahimović was signed — he remained predominantly in the false nine slot for the best part of the next five years. From there, the Barça No.10 spearheaded another Champions League triumph in 2011, with David Villa and Pedro flanking him, as well and enjoying the most productive goal-scoring season of his career, bagging a record 73 goals in 2011/12.
Even after Guardiola departed in the summer of 2012, subsequent managers Tito Vilanova and Gerardo “Tata” Martino stuck with Messi as a false nine. It wasn't until Luis Enrique's appointment as Barça boss in 2014 that the next stage of Messi's evolution took place.
2014-2017: Back To The Flank
After a disappointing single campaign with Martino at the helm, former Camp Nou hero Luis Enrique was brought in to revitalise the flagging Blaugrana. Luis Suárez also joined from Liverpool that summer, although suspension delayed his debut until late October.
Barcelona had become stagnant under Martino and Messi had grown visibly despondent. His 41-goal haul in 2013/14 may have represented a career highlight for most players, but it was the Barça superstar's lowest return in five years.
In recognition of Messi having begun to plateau, Enrique decided, once Suárez became available, that a move back to the right flank could breathe new life into the Argentinian's performances.
Different to Guardiola's Barça, with Suárez as a fast, mobile and hardworking centre-forward, and Neymar's speed and dribbling ability, Enrique's side were dynamic and a real threat on the counter.
With Suárez stretching opponents by playing on the shoulder of the backline and threatening the space in behind with his intelligent movement, space in front of opposition defences was opened up, enabling to Messi to drift inside.
The partnership and understanding he had developed with right-back Dani Alves would see the pair work in tandem to maintain width too, with either man equally adept at coming inside to link play and create, and breaking around the outside of the opposing full-back.
In contrast to how he operated during his initial spell on the right wing years before, Messi was now a much more involved playmaker from the position, with his passing technique and vision reaching new heights. His almost telepathic connection with left-back Jordi Alba saw pinpoint diagonal passes from the No.10 to the former Valencia defender become the precursor to many a Barcelona goal.
Between December 2014 and May 2015, Messi produced arguably the best form of his career to power Barça to another treble, and sustained his form to secure a domestic double in the following campaign, scoring 99 goals across the two seasons.
Last term, in what would turn out to be Enrique's last as Barcelona coach, Messi was again at his brilliant best, netting an incredible 54 goals in 52 games, with his 37 in 34 La Liga appearances enough to clinch the European Golden Shoe for the fourth time.
There was been a difference in Messi's role from a tactical point of view, however, as he has drifted more and more towards the centre of the final third. To compensate, Ivan Rakitić shifted further across to the right, with Neymar dropping slightly deeper on the left, making Barça's 4-3-3 more of a 4-4-2 shape in practice.
Enrique also utilised a 3-4-3 formation regularly in the second half of last season, with Messi in the No.10 role at the point of the midfield diamond.
This central shift gave a hint at what the next stage of Messi's evolution held. New boss Ernesto Valverde has, thus far, elected to deploy the 30-year-old Argentinian at the centre of the attack, returning the superstar to something approaching his false nine role under Guardiola. With Neymar gone, Suárez has moved across to the left – although he plays the position in a way more reminiscent of David Villa than the Brazilian, operating much closer to goal.
The tactical change, with Messi going back to the future in a sense, returning to a former role to recapture his finest scoring form, has yielded dividends for Barcelona, with the Camp Nou star scoring 15 goals from 13 games so far this season.
Messi's ability to stay relevant and several levels above the competition for more than a decade of course owes a lot to his immense natural gifts, but his readiness to evolve and tweak his game is admirable, and will see him hang onto his status of the world's greatest player for years to come.