Three ways to stop Messi
Published 28/05/2011 | 05:00
There is a compilation of footage on a famous video-sharing website which boldly claims to contain the secret for stopping Lionel Messi.
You click and, sure enough, they have a point. Clip after clip shows Messi being kicked up in the air or checked to the turf.
At one stage the whole Colombia team seems to have a go, while Asier del Horno and Ricardo Carvalho appear to resort to martial arts.
The problem is, you have got to catch him first. Tackling Messi is like catching fish with your bare hands. When asked how to stop him, the most common response is optimistic fatalism.
"If he has a good day, then there's really no way of stopping him," is Thierry Henry's cheerful verdict.
Otherwise, you are left clinging to superstitious precedent, like the fact that he has never scored in England.
The problem for Manchester United and Alex Ferguson is that, since the 2009 Champions League final in Rome, Messi has improved considerably.
Rather than attacking predominantly from the right flank, cutting in on his left foot, the Argentinian now plays as a 'false nine', starting in the centre but with the freedom to roam around the pitch.
The one significant side effect of Messi's continued improvement is that his individual form has a greater bearing on the team as whole than it used to, what in the Spanish press is called 'Messidependencia'.
So, hard as it might be to stop Messi, if you do manage it, then the whole team will suffer.
Here are three (legal) ways in which various coaches and players have tried to limit Messi's effectiveness in the last few years, all which Ferguson will have mulled over in the last fortnight.
Not literally, obviously, but when Sevilla beat Barcelona in the 2006 Super Cup, Juande Ramos said that the way to kill the Barcelona giant was to separate the head from the body. Easier said than done, of course, when you are dealing with the movement and passing accuracy of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Putting pressure on the supply lines is crucial, though, because when Messi does not receive the ball where he wants, he comes deep to get it and is less dangerous. The challenge is intensely pressing that trio in Pep Guardiola's midfield without leaving the space in behind to hurt you.
"The best way to stop Messi is as a team," says Michel Salgado, who faced the Barcelona player many times while he was at Real Madrid. "It is incredibly important to double up against him at all times and you have to be as tight as possible as a defensive unit."
Keeping tight is crucial -- you cannot afford too much space between centre-backs and full-backs. It is hard for English clubs conditioned to defending their flanks, but Barca really cannot hurt you as badly from wide -- they take most of their corners short and are reluctant to cross.
Against Chelsea two seasons ago, Guus Hiddink ceded them the wide areas and congested the centre and Barcelona found that frustrating.
"Messi was rather well neutralised tactically," Hiddink said. So that is key, funnelling Messi's runs into a crowded centre by using a very narrow team shape as a bottleneck. "It's not going to be about just one or two people taking care of him," said Rio Ferdinand. "It's got to be done by the whole team."
The most recent success in countering Messi came in the Spanish Cup final against Real Madrid, in which Jose Mourinho deployed Pepe, normally a centre-half, in front of the back four. This was not the conventional holding player, but a player deployed to be destructive, a bouncer. It meant that even when Messi was dropping deep, Pepe was there to suffocate him. It was telling that when he was sent off in the semi-final, things fell apart for Madrid.