The beauty of Lionel Messi’s free-kick craft is its outrageous simplicity, the adherence to fundamentals than flashiness, brevity than brutality. The 76th-minute strike, a perfect blend of geometric precision and scientific artistry, against Liverpool was textbook Messi.
The sneakster: It’s not a coincidence that Messi wins free-kicks where he wants to. He cajoles them through a combination of his vaunted tricks and persona, besides the sheer paranoia he instigates in his markers. Fabinho and Ashley Young can offer testimonials. His preferred zone is about 20 yards from the goal, more to the right of the box. The wider angle presents more scope for deception – he can impart more curl into the shot, the swerve is exaggerated and the goalkeeper has negligible reaction time. A split-second dilemma — as to whether the ball might swing or not — is all it takes for the ball to beat the goalkeeper’s uncertain air-flap. It’s also natural that Messi gets a lot of free-kicks in that zone because it’s the channel he probes, presses, and stamps his blazing greatness in.
Not in his zone, but no problem: Some of the Liverpool fans and footballers sniggered that he had stealthily placed the ball a few yards away from the original spot without the referee noticing. But still, it was some 15 yards behind his favoured spot. The distance hardly mattered, rather it made the goal look more spectacular than it actually was. The distance factor could cut both ways. It was also more central to his liking. While it afforded a clearer view of the goal, it also furnished the goalkeeper more reaction time. But Messi made all those variables look silly.
Perfection and power: The beauty of the goal was that everybody knew the trajectory, yet were rendered utterly helpless by the sheer amalgam of power and perfection. There was a sizeable gap between the last man in the wall, Joel Gomez, and the next defender. He nudges the ball perfectly over Gomez’s shoulder, nearly brushing his beard. Soon after, the ball begins to curve. Alisson reads the curve perfectly but is beaten by the sheer force of the kick. Not a brutally-struck shot but powered with just enough power to beat Alisson’s reflexes and sail into the top-left corner, just under the crossbar.
Improvised technique: Most like to strike on the full, but Messi crashes his entire boot on the ground before he swipes, which gives stability and power. It’s like he almost takes a bit of turf with his shot. Then to enhance his accuracy, he arches his shoulders and chest, hunches his body to a compact position, so that he can guide the ball to his whim. His left foot meets the ball at almost 50 degrees, which helps him get that devilish whip. According to a research paper, Messi harnesses the Magnus Effect, the principle that imparts swerve, more effectively than most. This effect is the phenomenon by which the rotation of the ball generates a force perpendicular to the line of motion, therefore affecting the trajectory. The pressure on the lower surface of the ball is greater than that on the upper surface, resulting in a force curve trajectory of the ball. But for all the alignment of his body, it’s the clarity of mind that stands out, the eye for the simplest yet most difficult route to the goal.