Latest injury a turning point moment for Messi
I think it's a bit sad that Lionel Messi and Sir David Brailsford are probably not going to work together at any time in their professional careers. But not much sadder than the fact that we are unlikely to see the Argentinian genius playing football at his full-tilt, don't even blink, "how-the-hell-can-he-do-that!!!" best until at least mid-to-late January next year.
Brailsford, you may well know, is the organizational and strategic maestro who took British Olympic cycling by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a ruthless, unstoppable winning machine over the past 16 years -- partly through his now famous concept that "performance by the aggregation of marginal gains" can mean absolute excellence.
In Brailsford's own words: "It means taking the 1 percent from everything you do; finding a 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do. That's what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. If a mechanic sticks a tyre on and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it's not an insult -- it's because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1 percent gains, in absolutely every single thing we do."
"There's fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places. Do you really know how to clean your hands? Without leaving the bits between your fingers? If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less. They're tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference." All of this applies to Messi retrospectively, but most particularly in how he views not the next big game (for Barcelona, it's facing Atletico Madrid in January), the Champions League knockout stages or even the World Cup in Brazil next summer but the next, potentially most productive, five years of his professional life.
First, the retrospective. Brailsford, to my knowledge, hasn't ever claimed that the "aggregation of marginal gains" is his and his alone as a thesis. In fact he's revealed that some of the inspiration was harvested from ballet, some from surgeons and from other areas of expertise.
But a corollary is that the concept of "aggregation of marginal decline" is equally as true and devastating as Brailsford's philosophy is powerful. To analyze the current and now repetitive muscle problems of the world's best footballer -- bear in mind that he'd gone almost exactly five years with barely a physical blip -- needs the acceptance that to pin it to one or two factors alone would be immature.
What is clear is that a myriad of problems -- most of them minor, most of them incremental -- have finally combined to make a "perfect storm."
The situation right now is not markedly worse than in Spring 2008 when, for one reason or another, Messi had lost eight calendar months across the previous two years. When I wrote my book Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team In The World, the club's then vice-president of football, Marc Ingla, told me the full and frank story. "We were disappointed with Messi's fragility and the repetitive nature of his muscle strains," he remarked. "After that Celtic match we constructed a holistic plan for his future performance -- to manage the number of meals he had, what type of food he should eat, how many hours of sleep he had to get, what type of stretching he had to do every day. It was a plan to keep him healthy and to minimize injuries. We invested a great deal of time and money in it."
After 17 club or international trophies, four Ballon d'Or titles and two goals in winning Champions League finals -- plus any number of scoring records -- it can be said that the plan hatched by Ingla, fellow vice president Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain (the latter two now in charge at Manchester City) has worked relatively well.
From the end of the Guardiola reign, perhaps before, it's quite easy to trace the stream of minor negative changes that have given rise to conditions in which Messi is left in major physical and minor psychological distress.
During Barcelona's exceptional years, one key element in Messi's robust nature was Juanjo Brau. He'd been at the club for a couple of years before he became Messi's shadow in summer 2008 but his dedicated treatment worked. Everywhere Messi went, Brau went. Domestic club trips, Barca's Champions League work around the continent, Messi's holidays, his trips to and from Argentina on international duty, tournaments -- everywhere.
Put bluntly, Brau was supposed to make sure that Messi's physical work was calibrated to take into account how much stress he was under, how far he'd travelled, how much game time he'd had, the conditions of pitches he played on, whether he'd played at altitude, how he was eating, whether he was getting enough rest -- as Ingla said, it was holistic. The bulk of his work was ensuring that Messi's "recuperation" after his extraordinary bursts of explosive energy found an equilibrium.
Brau's work had to dovetail with that of Lorenzo Buenaventura, Guardiola's personally appointed fitness coach (he's now working with Bayern Munich). Buenaventura needed to keep Guardiola's squad like attack-dogs who hadn't been fed for a couple of days -- fit to press and harass when they didn't have the ball, fitter still to rip opponents to shreds when Barcelona were on song and controlled the ball.
At that time, Barcelona had a physio named Emili Ricart -- the man who, not single-handedly but nonetheless comprehensively, put Andres Iniesta back together after a year of horrible muscle injuries in time to let him win Spain the 2010 World Cup. Trusted by the squad, Ricart would supplement and complement Brau's work -- holistic meant holistic. The club had every angle under lock and key.
Today, Buenaventura is in Germany, Ricard was booted out by the current regime last summer and Messi and Brau have reached a stage where their (sporting) marriage needs counselling. Last season Barcelona went through the mill. Tito Vilanova took over, got ill and went for treatment, Jordi Roura took over, Vilanova came back, got ill again and then this past summer, Tata Martino took over. Standards slipped. Training wasn't as consistent, physical preparation wasn't sufficiently intense -- the absence of the hawkish, ultra-disciplined Guardiola was augmented significantly by the unfair factor of Vilanova's fight against the impact of cancer.
A run-of-the-mill muscle strain incurred on a poor pitch in Paris last spring was unnecessarily -- and I'd say reprehensibly -- worsened when Messi was brought off the bench despite being patently not fully recovered so that PSG wouldn't eliminate Barcelona from the Champions League quarter-final (at the time, the Ligue 1 giants led 3-2 on aggregate at the Camp Nou with 28 minutes left).
How Messi was then used at San Mames against Athletic Bilbao is simply beyond me. He suffered an injury in Paris, was overused in matches thereafter, was a passenger during the 4-0 defeat in Munich and then injured himself again at Atletico Madrid.
What happened to the concept of "aggregation of marginal decline?" The coaching decisions (allied, in theory, to the medical advice) about when to use Messi, why Messi should or shouldn't be used and how much at risk he was from further thigh muscle injuries -- these consistently slipped below acceptable in Spring 2013.
Every single sports medic or physio who talks about an athlete suffering repeated muscle problems, particularly in this part of the hamstring group that controls acceleration and deceleration, pinpoints more nebulous threats to well-being. Sleep, stress, diet, rest and long distance travel -- the list goes on but stops at healing crystals, copper wristbands and nettle soup.
So as the marginal declines aggregate, it's worth accepting that since Spring 2012, Messi has increasingly been carrying the burden of a declining team rather than garnishing a great team with his brilliance.
This is a minor but nevertheless significant difference.
In one of my first ESPN FC columns of the new season I wrote the following:
The worrying scenario, for those who care about him and his divine football [notwithstanding those who support Barca and Argentina] is that he ended last season injured, played charity matches for most of the summer, and was invalided out of Argentina's friendly in Italy during the week.
For five years Messi's utterly remarkable football has been aided by the fact that he's barely been injured. Not only has he avoided the impact injuries which contact sport brings his constitution, his stamina, his recuperation sessions, his diet, his physio, his willingness to sleep well - all of these have made him extremely robust. But not superhuman.
At a rough estimate Messi travelled over 100,000 kilometers in planes this summer, partly for his own "Friends of Messi" charity matches, partly for commercial reasons and partly because Barcelona chose to promote themselves in Kuala Lumpur. Argentina, Colombia, Peru, the United States, Italy, Senegal, Germany, Norway, Thailand -- if someone told you, now, that they were going to recuperate from a nasty and potentially repetitive injury in the year that they faced domestic upheaval and a World Cup by flying over 62,000 miles, you'd laugh at them.
By mid-July, he featured in Barcelona's first pre-season friendly in Munich. Nobody with common sense would say that there's a mathematical formula -- busy summer (x) = Guaranteed Injury Torture (y) -- but within the theory of aggregated marginal declines, it's another small but significant factor.
A young son who, no doubt, has kept the Messi household up at nights, a horrible muscle-fatiguing pitch at the Camp Nou (it's a major problem right now) and one of the worst pitches of modern time at Betis when Messi's boot went from underneath him and his thigh muscle "pinged"... the factors, however minor, keep adding up.
Right now the watchword is "rest." Everyone from fellow players through medics, physios for hire, fans and journalists is falling back on the idea that this genius who lights up our lives every time he goes near a ball must rest, recuperate and take the right amount of time off as he rehabilitates his torn muscle in Barcelona and then at home in Rosario, Argentina.
Well I'd say that's not enough. Having been injured in a similar manner four times since the spring, it's clear that "Team Messi" needs to take a long, hard look at the situation. The player has fallen out of the unflinching trust you need to have for a fitness "guru" like Juanjo Brau once was to him.
Perhaps that can be re-discovered. Perhaps. But this story is no longer about whether Messi's ready to face Atletico in January, whether he wins the Ballon d'Or or whether he can be fit to influence Barca's destiny in the Champions League. Even the World Cup, vital though it is to him and the Argentinian footballing psyche, isn't more important than Messi, the people around him, his club and his country adopting the Brailsford mentality.
It has taken an aggregation of marginal decline for him to get to the stage where not only are these problems recurring but both he, his father, the national team coach and Tata Martino can refer to the nagging psychological doubts that have taken root. "Am I healed?" "Is this about to happen again?" -- these nasty vermin thoughts gnaw at an athlete's psyche.
The marginal declines all need to be reversed but it's equally vital for Messi's sporting and psychological well-being over the next five or six years that decisions as far-sighted, as holistic and as ruthlessly detailed as they were back in 2008 are adopted if he's to prove, beyond doubt, whether or not he's the greatest footballer ever.
Improved performance by the aggregation of marginal gains, aka the Brailsford Method, is available to Messi and it's totally applicable to his situation. But the problems have to be recognised. Sometimes painful decisions have to be made and, above all, the aggregation of marginal gains needs sacrifice and immense discipline.
On such traits do we judge true greatness. As such, this is not just a pivotal moment in Messi's season. This is a pivotal moment in Messi's life.