It wasn’t that long ago that we saw how Cristiano Ronaldo was adapting his game. We watched for years as that Cristiano burst down the left wing, with irrepressible sprints that ended up, by sheer desire, getting through the opponent’s backline. Entering his thirties, he understood that he could not sustain such an energy-sapping style. He limited his runs, moved himself more centrally, rediscovered the short dribbling skills that he showed off during his early days at United, which he then discarded as unnecessary works of art. He developed his game and there he is, recapturing his goalscoring average per game. He may not be the same player, but he is still a great one.
Lionel Messi has started this season very poorly, between his sulking for a failed attempt to escape, a route that was closed down quite ridiculously, and because things started not to happen for him. Like Ronaldo, he is also not getting any younger and advancing through his thirties. That scintillating running speed and those incredible reflexes that allowed him to outwit defence after defence with a touch to win the ball just as his opponent thought they had it, is no longer the same. It only takes a tenth of a second for the dribble to falter, or the shot position not to be reached. He has begun to lose possession where he normally turned it into danger and that has only heightened his grumpiness and bewilderment. And pointing the blame for this at the door of Bartomeu was pointless, as he is no longer there.
He has been trying less over the last two matches. He is readjusting his game to his new conditions. A more wholistic game, one in which his other qualities are demonstrated in their entirety: his vision, his passing (those he delivers to Jordi Alba are with a blind trust), his restraint, his ability to always choose the best option. We will no longer see him skip past opponents like a hurdler evading his particular obstacles, but he is more than capable of directing the attack of any team with his skill and creativity, possibly still at Barça. He may not reach the 30-goal mark in a season, but playing in this new way means he can continue to be a top player for a few more years. And yes, he’ll still give us glimpses of his younger self, but these will occur ever less often. It is inevitable.