Ah, Andres Iniesta. I know that he is one of the world’s best ever players – of course, we all do – but, until recently, I never quite knew how he did it. Leo Messi’s majesty is apparent in everything he does – from the defenders strewn in his wake like confetti, to the startling swerve he applies to his free-kicks. But Iniesta’s greatness has always seemed more prosaic. Most statisticians find it hard to quantify him, given that he doesn’t score too many goals or provide too many assists. He dribbles without flourish; his passing is clean and elegant as a minimalist painting.
The roots of his genius are as elusive as he is on the pitch, and that is why I have long found him so fascinating. Fortunately, I am far from alone in this. Iniesta is so bewitching that his nickname is “the Illusionist”. You slide in to tackle him, only to realise that you may has well have been flailing at a hologram. There’s a YouTube compilation which records each of his four appearances in the UEFA Champions League final, and he had a strong claim to be man of the match in each game. Yet he doesn’t score in any of those finals – from which, of course, Barcelona emerged victorious – and he provides just the one assist. He has masterminded some of football’s finest heists, but his fingerprints are rarely found at the scene.
I loved Iniesta’s play, but I didn’t fully understand it until I saw him in the flesh. Four friends and I had bought tickets to see Barcelona play Valencia at the Camp Nou, and before the game most of our excitement was around seeing Messi. Before kickoff, I was suitably childlike as I recorded the Argentine master exchanging one-touch passes with Neymar and Luis Suarez. But then came kickoff, and Iniesta made sense.
That evening, Barcelona played a game of terrifying freedom. They lined up in a 3-4-3 formation, their defenders deployed not so much in a high line as along a tightrope. There was absolutely no margin for error. Marc ter Stegen, their goalkeeper, was frequently at the edge of his area. Meanwhile, the three centre-backs – Samuel Umtiti, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano – did not huddle together, as do most in this formation, but stood so far apart that they may as well have been repelled by each other. Umtiti and Mascherano were close enough to either touchline that they may as well have been wingbacks, whilst Pique guarded the centre, as lonely as a lighthouse on an ocean cliff.
What does this have to do with Iniesta? Well, he’s one of the few reasons that this system had any chance of working. Because – and this is the key, I think, to his greatness – he is comfortable receiving the ball absolutely anywhere on the pitch. Early in the first half, Umtiti looked up and realised that he had only one passing option. As ever, it was Iniesta, who was fifteen yards away: the only problem was that the Spaniard had two men at his back, ready to dispossess him and then surge into the forty yards of space against the now-outnumbered Umtiti. But Iniesta, close enough to the touchline to grab a water bottle, didn’t mind at all. Receiving the ball, he faked right, as if to run off the pitch; and even though his markers knew he couldn’t dribble in that direction, they suddenly found themselves staggering that way too. They had as much control over their own movements as does a leaf in a gale. Having conducted them thus, Iniesta swerved left, and played a short pass infield to build another attack.
He did this all match. On another occasion, Valencia’s foremost forward – I think it may have been Dani Parejo, their endlessly dynamic number ten – saw Iniesta get the ball from ter Stegen less than ten yards from his own goal, and accelerated towards him. Parejo knew that if he tackled Iniesta there, he’d be all alone with an unprotected goalkeeper. But Iniesta is the master of the If. Twenty years from now, retired centre-backs will be nursing pints in pubs and telling each other how different their careers would have been if they had just closed Iniesta down. They will know, though, that they were never near him. Parejo knew that too; that even as he lunged in, his target had already gone. Iniesta turned that way, then this, then that way again, and calmly rolled the ball to Umtiti. And, of course, the attack began again.
The contest ended in a Barcelona victory, by four goals to two. Messi scored twice, Suarez once, and Andre Gomes claimed a late tap-in from a sensational Neymar assist. Meanwhile, Iniesta’s name was to be found nowhere in the post-match stats, even as he was possibly the best player on the pitch. Maybe this was oddly fitting – after all, when you walk past the world’s most breathtaking cathedrals, you won’t find the name of the architect written on the side.
Two days after watching that match, still incredulous, I was trying to describe Iniesta to a friend. Messi had been all that I had hoped, I said, but there was something about Iniesta. It was the way that he didn’t seem to control the ball so much as absorb it. A pass would come to him, sharp and fast and at knee-height, and it would instantly fall under his influence. If the ball is an angry toddler, then Iniesta’s first touch is a lullaby. “Iniesta, Iniesta”, I told my mildly-amused friend, presumably sounding like those kids who chant his name at kick-off. “It’s incredible, what he does. It’s like – it’s like – imagine if Barcelona is a car that you drive on manual. Well, Iniesta is the clutch. Or you know when you go mountain climbing, and you can’t climb straight upwards, because there are no obvious footholds? And you have to scramble left and right a bit, before you find an outcrop of rock you can cling to? Well, Iniesta is that outcrop.”
That’s what Iniesta does, once you understand him. He makes you scramble for every description you can; yet no matter how flowery your metaphors get, his genius is eternally simple. With the exception of Xavi Hernandez, there may never have been a better player in history at getting the ball and then delivering it – any time, any place, whether in his own-six yard box or on the edge of the enemy’s area in the ninetieth minute. And his is a brilliance I will never forget; on a night when, armed only with a drop of a shoulder and a first touch soft as cotton wool, he upstaged even Messi.