Secret to Argentina's run to the World Cup final: More than just Messi

LUSAIL, Qatar — At the end of the semifinal symphony that he had conducted, after the bear hugs and amid the instant euphoria, Lionel Messi shuffled into place. He had just been named the "man of the match," the star of a show that lifted Argentina into a World Cup final. But as celebrations took shape, he became merely one of 26. He threw his right arm around Rodrigo De Paul and his left around Nicolás Tagliafico. He blended in as Argentine players, shoulder-to-shoulder in a straight line facing their fans, bounded up and down, rejoicing and singing.

Then Messi paused, and peered up into the sea of white and blue, almost entranced.

And the boyish grin that had overtaken his face at the final whistle, the one that tells of pure happiness, the one that brings family and friends back to his pre-teen days in Rosario, almost took on a tint of amazement and disbelief.

Because finally, after 16 years of upheaval and incoherence, he, Lionel Messi, is the critical cog in a humming Argentine machine rather than a genius bridled by chaos. Because finally, everything is working.

For years, Messi had underperformed for his national team, but his pain had been the team's doing as much as his. He'd suffered under incompetent managers, and in ill-suited systems that failed to amplify his gifts. He struggled in squads afflicted with Messi Dependencia, whose other stars shrunk in his shadow and became dependent on him. At his previous World Cup, in 2018, a complicated web of incompatible relationships, among players and staff, on and off the field, nearly led to a mutiny — and did lead to a Round of 16 exit.

But here, in Qatar, at Messi’s last World Cup, and specifically in his latest triumph, puzzle pieces have fallen into place.

Messi lit up the Lusail Stadium with a goal and an otherworldly assist on Tuesday, but the underlying story of Argentina's 3-0 victory over Croatia was one of team-wide competence. It was yet another tactical masterstroke from manager Lionel Scaloni, and a crew of underappreciated World Cup newbies who know their roles and execute them.

"I think this team, apart from their strength, it’s very intelligent,” Messi said afterward. It’s a group, he explained, that “knows how to suffer when you have to suffer, knows how to keep the ball when you need to keep it, knows when to pressure, knows how to read the plays.”

It’s a “coachable team,” Messi said in Spanish, “that doesn’t leave anything to chance.”

It’s a rotating cast of center backs — Nicolas Otamendi, Cristian Romero, Lisandro Martinez and others — who have, with astuteness and intensity, anchored a defense that by some measures has been the best of the tournament.

It’s Nahuel Molina, an unheralded 24-year-old right back who created the second goal with a lung-bursting 70-yard run that left Croatian defenders scrambling.

It’s a midfield that gradually seized control of Tuesday’s game away from Croatia’s dynamic trio of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modrid.

And it’s a 22-year-old forward who helped them.

That forward, Julian Álvarez — nicknamed "El Araña," the spider — scored Argentina's latter two goals and won the penalty that led to their first. He carved out a place in Albiceleste lore when he drove with the ball from inside his own half all the way into Croatia's box. When he poked a bumbling ball past a helpless keeper, he sent a nation overwhelmed by anxiety into raptures.

But he also ran, relentlessly, side-to-side to pressure Croatia’s defenders all night. He dropped deeper to mark Brozovic, which was crucial, Scaloni explained, when Argentina’s narrow midfield diamond got stretched wide.

“It was awesome the way he covered,” Scaloni said in Spanish. “He’s young, and it’s normal that he wants to eat the world.”

“He played an extraordinary game,” Messi said of Álvarez. “[He was] running at everything, crashing into everything, fighting.”

He was doing the work, essentially, that Messi doesn’t do, the physical labor that enables Messi’s brilliance.

Messi walks more than any player in elite soccer. It’s a conscious choice that allows his body to maintain energy and his brain to process and dissect the 21 moving parts around him. He seemed especially stagnant on Tuesday. He covered 5.12 miles, per FIFA tracking data, the fewest of any outfield player who went 90 minutes — and he was the only player who covered a majority of his ground at a walking pace (under 4.4 miles per hour).

His teammates, though, compensate. They’ve spoken here in Qatar about how Messi inspires their indefatigable running. They know that it preserves Messi’s legs for the moments that change or clinch games, like his undressing of Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol on Tuesday.

“A lot of the time, the analysis that I do while I’m playing leads me to try to make him run less,” said De Paul, who’s developed a reputation as Messi’s “bodyguard” on and off the pitch. “To make less wear and tear, and to [give him] more space to play with — these are things that cross my mind during the match. So the dialogue with him is constant. We understand each other with a look.”

They are far from the first Argentina team who has labored for Messi, but they are the first with such a symbiotic relationship, and the first with the “intelligence” that Messi and Scaloni have mentioned. They’ve played at least three distinct shapes at this World Cup, all by Scaloni’s design.

“We talk about formation numbers often,” Tagliafico said Monday. Whether it’s a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2, “that depends on what's going on in the match or how a player moves,” the left back explained. “And that's one of our traits, you can use the same players and be able to change the style of play or their positioning on the pitch. … That's a virtue this team has.”

They are far more refined than past iterations, and that’s a credit to their coach, whom Messi has effusively praised. “​​We’re not lost,” Messi said after Tuesday’s win, through a translator. “We know what to do in every moment of the game.”

They have been organized yet dynamic, intense and sometimes frantic but often comfortable. They have, as Messi said, essentially faced five consecutive finals ever since that stunning loss to Saudi Arabia in their opener. And yet they have grown into the tournament, toward Tuesday, which goalkeeper Emi Martinez said was their most complete performance yet.

Now they are here, in the actual final, largely because of a single magisterial man, of course. Messi, in the words of Romero, "es una locura." Crazy. Madness.

But he has always been that. In the past, when everything around him was una locura in the opposite sense, it inhibited him.

Now the team is elevating him toward an elusive World Cup trophy. “In the end, we all want it,” Messi said postgame. “The important thing is to be able to achieve the group objective. That is the most beautiful thing of all, and we are a little step away.”