BARCELONA, Spain -- It was hardly a question that needed asking, but Ernesto Valverde was asked it anyway: Does Lionel Messi practice free kicks?
"Yes," the Barcelona coach eventually responded, a huge smirk on his face as he perhaps considered the obviousness of his answer. "He's always practising, and he's always scoring."
Valverde could afford a smile because his unbeaten Barca side had just beaten Atletico Madrid to move eight points clear at the top of La Liga with just 11 games to be played. Messi's sublime first-half free kick, too good even for Jan Oblak, was the difference between the two teams. It was the third free kick he had scored in as many games and his fifth in the calendar year. Perhaps more importantly, though, it was a goal that, as the Spanish press said, was worth half a league title.
It was the latest example that practice can make (nearly, at least) perfect. Because it hasn't always been this way. Messi has been many things since he broke onto the scene more than a decade ago, but he hasn't always been this devastatingly good at free kicks.
The teenage Messi had fans on their feet. He wooed them with his pace, with his ability and with the way the ball stuck to his left boot, but he didn't seduce them with free kicks. With Ronaldinho around, he wasn't even allowed to take them most of the time.
Under Pep Guardiola, he evolved and more goals were added to his game, although not necessarily free kicks. When you think of the Messi goals during the Guardiola years, you think of that trademark chipped finish and the slaloming runs. Maybe he was so good at those other things that his set plays simply slipped by unnoticed, although the numbers suggest that, at some point, Messi decided he was going to become the master of the dead ball.
Former Argentina fitness coach Fernando Signorini claims the change happened in 2009 during a training session. Messi had just wasted three free kicks and turned around, a look of resigned frustration on his face and a shower on his mind. Signorini told him he couldn't end the session like that and urged him to take a couple of shots more. Enter Diego Maradona, who told Messi "not to take your foot off the ball so quickly when you strike it."
And that, according to Signorini, was that.
Whatever it was, it's indisputable that Messi has been getting better and better at free kicks in the past six years. In total, he has now scored 33 goals direct from set plays for Barca (and another six for his country), with 26 of them coming in the past five and a half seasons and 17 in the past two and a half.
His best season to date came in 2015-16, when he scored seven, converting 12.3 percent of the free kicks he took -- more than one in 10. Last season those numbers dipped slightly (only four at 7.1 percent), but he's on course to break his personal best this season, with his efficiency since the turn of the year breathtaking.
Since returning from the winter break, he has scored five free kicks in La Liga from just 33 attempts. That's a 15 percent success rate. For every 6.6 free kicks he has taken, there has been a goal. To put that into context, the average conversion rate from free kicks in Europe's top five leagues is just 6 percent (91 scored from 1,528 attempts as of Monday morning), and no one else has scored more than three all season.
There have been goals direct from free kicks in his past three league games alone (something that had never been achieved before in La Liga), but it's not even the first time Messi has hit that height: last January, he scored in a run of three games, too -- two in the Copa del Rey and one in La Liga.
It has gotten to the point where the joke is that it's more dangerous to give him a free kick than a penalty. Although with Messi, that's not so much a joke. Perhaps the one blot on his career is his accuracy from 12 yards. He has missed 21 penalties for Barcelona out of 94 and has had some horror shows from the spot for Argentina, too, missing in the Copa America final in 2016.
His record in that area has actually improved in the past two years, though. There was a spell between 2014 and 2016 when he missed seven of 17 penalties. There was almost something ironic about it, the five-time world player of the year who was able to make the impossible possible but so often failed from the penalty spot.
There's nothing ironic about his dead-ball ability right now, though. They're coming in all shapes and sizes, too. Against Girona last weekend, he even went under the wall.
"We stood waiting on the touchline to see how he was going to beat the wall," Valverde said after the win. "And then he goes underneath it. When you see it, you think 'ah, of course ...' Leo makes it look easy, but it's not that easy."
Against Las Palmas this past Thursday, he went over the wall. Against Atletico, he went even bigger, the ball going almost impossibly high over the red and white bodies before making its way down to beat one of the world's best goalkeepers.
"When I was on the other team, I always thought he was going to score," Valverde said afterward when asked how it feels to watch Messi take aim from such close quarters. "Now, I stand there with that touch of hope: 'Let's see ...' Maybe it's that fear is stronger [than optimism], but you're pushing, willing him to score, although you're better to just leave him to get on with it because he does it wonderfully."