The question is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I can't believe nobody else is asking it: What the heck is wrong with Lionel Messi?
The greatest player of modern times, perhaps the greatest ever footballer, and the same genius who was recently christened The Best by FIFA after which he picked up his sixth Ballon d'Or, is significantly out of form. Yes: significantly. In fact, it's arguable that by his own standards -- notwithstanding several moments of sheer beauty and monumental invention -- Messi has been playing pretty badly since the end of November.
It has been a long, long time since Barcelona's No. 10 has gone down so many blind alleys with his dribbling, had his pocket picked by players he'd normally leave gasping in a heap on the ground. A long time since he ran into defensive ambushes as if he were not aware they were there, or since he missed pass after pass, often to his own intense frustration.
Now, I hear the indignant spluttering and rising protests. Yes: Against Atletico Madrid he scored an otherworldly goal, a monstrous construction of wit, speed and power. And then there was his hat trick against Mallorca, plus a truly extraordinary "no space to shoot but I'll thrash a howitzer past the keeper anyway" against Alaves. I'm not forgetting any of those, nor his assist for Luis Suarez at Real Sociedad. However, it must be said, since his absolutely soaring performance against Borussia Dortmund in late November, his goal total, chance creation and assist counts have all decreased. But that is not the dip that must be concerning Messi and those who rely on him.
Just before the turn of the year, the 32-year-old gave an interview to La Liga. He admitted that, "As I go onto the pitch at the start of the match, I'm thinking much more about the team's play than whether I'll score or not." And it's the state of his play and Barcelona's subsequent flaccid, slow, predictable football when he's off-form that are at the heart of this critique.
There are numerous examples, and they far outweigh the normal Messi service moments since that Dortmund victory. It all began when Koke, on his 300th Liga appearance, produced one of the performances of his life to constantly harass, confuse and stifle Messi on the first night of December. Only when the 27-year-old Atletico lifer was absent from his chaperone role in the dying embers of the match did Messi erupt into life via an amazing one-two with Suarez and a scimitar-curved shot past Jan Oblak for the 1-0 win. Throughout the rest of the match, it's indisputable that Messi was picked off, ushered into bad positions, miscontrolled the ball and generally looked subdued.
I'm fully aware that Messi's genius remains intact, that his will to win is the size of a continent. And because there's a trophy to be won this week at the Spanish Super Cup (semifinal vs. Atletico Madrid, Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET; stream live on ESPN), he may well erupt into the kind of unstoppable form that allows those offended by my argument to thumb their noses at me. But that can't erode the truth of the past few weeks.
Particularly against Real Sociedad, Atleti, Alaves, and Espanyol, Messi has looked short of electricity, slightly unsure of his first touch, prone to being more easily caught and more easily anticipated. The strangest thing of all is when he's actually erupted into one of his piston-legged bursts but appears to take two or three seconds to see a pass or to make a decision, when those calculations would ordinarily have been computed in hundredths of a single second. That's bizarre to watch. Indecision? Surely not. Lack of options from his teammates? Maybe. But his normally laser-guided mind isn't operating at NASA level.
I won't give the full litany of evidence, but I'd say there are about 25 examples of moments that are simply alien to a Messi who's on regular form, let alone his stellar version. Let me pick a few, though.
Did you watch Espanyol 2-2 Barcelona? Just on the half-hour mark, Sergio Busquets fed Messi with time to turn and run, but Naldo easily nipped the ball away from him. Javi Lopez repeated that trick five minutes later, but perhaps the most strident came in the 51st minute. Suarez was holding off two defenders, Naldo and Bernardo Espinosa, the latter falling to the floor, but as Messi cut away from them with a chance to scythe Espanyol open, Marc Roca simply sweot the ball off his toes, a feat Roca then repeated with 20 minutes left.
It's not my imagination. Thirty-three-year-old veteran Manu Garcia repeatedly hoovered up possession off Messi's usually magnetic left boot in the defeat of Alaves. Igor Zubeldia, Mikel Merino and Diego Llorente all did just the same against Real Sociedad.
Across all these matches, a clutch of sensational moments aside, Messi looked melancholy. The walking in which he indulged isn't the kind Pep Guardiola once counselled us all to think of completely differently. The man Messi still reckons was his best-ever coaching influence pointed out that, under him and the later era under Luis Enrique, when the Blaugrana No. 10 shirt was being walked around the pitch when others were sprinting and sweating, it was because he was taking an X-ray of player positions, spaces and opportunities all around him -- seeing things nobody else saw so as to, later, do things that nobody else could even dream of.
That was masterful; this is mooching.
These past few weeks, Messi's ambling has repeatedly seen him ignore the chance to press, ignore the chance to pounce on a second ball; he's looked dispirited and, dare I say it, disinterested. Some of the problems he's encountered when robbed or mobbed stem from the fact that he's a couple of metres away from where he should be, a second or so slow to react to a loose ball or just infinitesimally less explosive when he tries to thrust away from a challenge (or two). Also, elite clubs rely very heavily indeed on video analysis.
The same players who thought they could catch, tackle or harass Messi when he was in Zeus-like form, and then found they couldn't, see other players of their level robbing the ball, sheep-dogging him down blind alleys and think to themselves: "This is my turn to blunt the greatest player of all time!" The more vulnerable Messi looks, the more midfielders and defenders thrive in confidence, and the harder they work to frustrate him and support their teammates' pressing.
Part of what's going on, of course, is that this month-long dip, which has still contained inventions of power and brilliance sufficient to last any other player for many weeks, looks shabby compared to the remarkable brilliance of most of the rest of 2019 -- most of the rest of his career.
Diagnosing what's going on is simply a matter of speculation. I don't claim to know. The worst thing for his club, of course, would be if he's lost faith in this Barca team and subconsciously dipped as a result. Messi's participated in an unprecedented number of interviews since the end of the summer. While emphasising his preference to stay at Barcelona, he's never forgotten to state his fundamental demand that his team stay ultra-competitive to win the biggest trophies. Or that, for him, the absolute key to his remaining elite years is to conquer Europe again -- at least once. Barcelona's form at present suggests that Napoli, far from favourites in the tie, have a fighting chance of knocking Ernesto Valverde's team out of the Champions League in the round of 16.
Instead of learning from the drubbing at Anfield in last spring's semifinal, Barcelona look intensely vulnerable away from home, consistently conceding first on the road in La Liga, and you could forgive Messi if his mood was: "Here we go again ..." Another reasonable thought is that, after a badly curtailed preseason thanks to injury and further fitness problems in the first few weeks of 2019-20, Messi is simply suffering physically, curbing a millimetre or two from his precision and his reaction time, which hauls him back within the grasp -- just -- of mere mortal footballers.
Time will tell, but when Messi is in this form, Barcelona's other flaws -- which are many, and which their captain so often disguises -- shriek out to their opponents: "We are vulnerable, and we don't have our Superman!"
Barca are little more than 50 days away from facing Napoli in Naples and six Liga matches away from the rematch against Real Madrid, having been lucky to escape without defeat in the first Clasico. How quickly Messi resets, refreshes and reestablishes his preeminence will become more and more vital by the week.