Lionel Messi assures his place in the pantheon of the greats

“Lionel is the best player I’ve ever seen, probably the best ever. He made the difference. Messi is unique, a one-off….” Pep Guardiola looked to be drifting off into predictable territory with his eulogy of Lionel Messi after the UEFA Champions League final but he suddenly slipped into a more sombre note when turning his attentions to Lionel Messi: the human being. “….Messi is unique, a one-off,” he continued. “I just hope he doesn’t get fed up. When he doesn’t play well it is because something is wrong with his environment. Let’s hope he can continue playing well.”

The comment was a revealing insight into Messi’s character because the player we all know and admire derives so much joy from kicking a football that is hard to imagine how he can ever fall out of love with the game. But beneath his unflustered exterior perhaps lies a more vulnerable character who, until recently, has had to do a lot of growing up. Ronald Reng writes for FT Weekend Magazine that Messi “has a pleasant lack of interest in the world, which protects him from the blandishments of the football circus.” Thus, he cares little for fashion and prefers to stay indoors – a rarity it must be said in the Spanish culture – while he watches minimal football on television. All his attention is focused on the moment he kicks the ball.

On the pitch, Messi plays by instinct and is guided by whatever means allows him to get the ball the most and in dangerous positions. It’s because of this operational mastery that it is sometimes better to strip him of any great tactical responsibility and allow him to express himself the fullest. His former coach, Frank Rijkaard, attempted to mould Messi into a tactically, more robust player perhaps misunderstanding that the greater advantage lies in granting him more freedom. Messi almost construed this as an act of punishment saying, “I cried a lot because Rijkaard was so hard on me.” In the grand scheme of things, it has helped make Messi the player he is but Guardiola has handled him better, subliminally channelling his genius into a tactical framework which gets the best out of him. Messi’s movement is overwhelmingly a team ploy, wreaking havoc with opposition marking structures and he runs harder than anyone to win the ball back. Perhaps it’s this environment which Guardiola was alluding to earlier on; that Messi needs the encouragement to play his game and should not be too bogged down by tactical quirks. Because all he wants to do is play football. “When I have the ball at my feet, I don’t think, I just play,” said Messi. “On the football field, my only thought is: ‘Give me the ball!’ I don’t invent dribbles. I don’t work out any moves. Everything simply comes from instinct.” Guardiola identified this as soon as he took over the reigns at Barcelona, his chief scout Pep Boade, telling Simon Kuper in 2009, that Guardiola had “structured a Messi strategy. If John Terry kicks Messi, the whole team will protect him.” Even though he doesn’t go out, the club say they will do all they can to make Messi feel happy, feel part of the city.

Lionel Messi’s presence in greatness has surely been confirmed by his European Cup exerts but at 23 and still maturing, the question is how great he will be. Pep Guardiola is in no doubt he is the best ever. So good in fact, it’s as if has implied that Messi may even get fed up of being better than the rest. Of course that’s not true but at the moment, he has no parallel. Cristano Ronaldo may have pipped him to the Golden Shoe but the Portuguese midfielder is a maverick and his pursuit for individual glory was put into perspective by Messi’s team play. As Jonathan Wilson writes for Sports Illustrated, “the greatest greats — Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfred Di Stefano — were all individually gifted, great team men. Messi may not have won the Golden Boot or the pichichi this season, but he is an awful lot closer to joining them than Ronaldo.”

Certainly any attempts to justify Messi’s place as the greatest of the greats, as many have argued and others against, prove to be highly subjective. You could say he does things that others don’t but so does Xavi Hernandez, who must be considered the best constructor and Messi, the best destructor. And what about Sergio Busquets? The man Xavi calls “the best midfielder there is playing one-touch.”

Ossie Ardiles, a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1978, argues that the game is at its peak now and that puts Messi above the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele.  Ardiles said: “the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players; the pitches are better, the boots are better, the rules have been altered to favour the attacking players… the way the players look after their bodies, the way that clubs and national sides employ so many people to look after their bodies, with what they eat, and just about everything you can think of.”

The argument, however, can be labelled as biased against those of the older generations because the environments were markedly different then and were out of their power to shape. Sure, there was more scope for one to differentiate one self but they did it in spite of those environmental disadvantages. Logic says it’s not possible to compare players out of their time period and it would probably be better if you judge their relative superiority in that era and compare the differences. It’s still an imperfect measure but if it’s the method that’s used, it weighs in favour of Messi.

Lionel Messi’s rise has been inexorable but if demographic trends are anything to go by, he shouldn’t have made it as a football player. His story in itself is already astonishing as at 11, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency before the intervention of Barcelona at 5’6 but he’s still 2 inches short of the average Argentinean male. But sport is increasingly an athletic one and at the top-level, they have been steadily growing bigger, getting stronger, fitter and faster. And while Messi satisfies three of those criteria, if you compare it with other sports, Messi goes against those humanistic trends. Of course, football is a peculiar sport because it’s more skill-based therefore physique is not definitive. Indeed, natural conditioning is reaching its peak and, at the highest level, that will expose technique – a factor Barcelona are ahead of and others still catching up – culminating in the rise of the “little men.”

<Figure 1>How Sportsmen Grew From the 1980’s to Now. Source: Observer Sport Monthly January 2010, Issue No. 118

From a tactical point of view, Messi is also innovative, first inspiring the now universal use of “inverted wingers” and now leading the charge for the “false nine.” In the role Messi is a creator but unlike the game’s other great creators – Ferenc Puskas, Pelé, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona – who played behind another forward, he tends to have no fixed position. Perhaps only Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano have played similarly in a forward role. Again, attempts to justify a player’s greatness positionally proves futile because it is almost discriminatory to those players who sacrificed themselves for the team ethos; a factor so key in football. Similarly futile is scorning the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo just because the coach chooses to get the best out of him in a position which is perhaps not as central as a playmaker but is still pivotal.

Some argue Messi wouldn’t be as effective without the groundwork of the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and point to his international record as proof. Yet, apart from two separate periods when he stoked up a partnership with Juan Roman Riquelme and now under Sergio Batista, he has had to play with broken teams. In the World Cup of 2010 he nevertheless carried an exciting and at the same time, vulnerable Argentina side. When the balance is right in international level, he can be the difference as he so often is for Barcelona as displayed –- ironically — against Spain in a match they won 4-1. In the Champions League final against Manchester United, the defenders were visibly scared of him, backing off to gift space for the last two goals in the 3-1 win and his movement and potency effectively made the space for the first. Messi is overwhelmingly a team player and drifts to where he feels appropriate. Rinus Michels may have been the man who originated the theory of Total Football but it is widely recognised that it was Cruyff who breathed life into those most complex of plans and Messi is doing similar at Barcelona. Guardiola acknowledges he is the difference. The best he’s ever seen. Probably the best ever. Messi is unique. Messi is a one-off.

Advertisements

Modern football reaches a pantheon. Arsenal prevails in attack vs attack

Arsenal's Johan Djourou, at left, with teammates Alex Song, centre and Emmanuel Eboue, at right, challenge for the ball with Barcelona's Lionel Messi during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match at Arsenal's Emirates stadium in London, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

This was a match where every detailed seemed to matter just that bit more. Every pass was stressed. Every shot was scrutinised. Every contested challenge, dribble and interception was crucial. Every bounce of Lionel Messi’s hair. The timing of Theo Walcott’s runs. Refereeing decisions. Pep Guardiola’s catwalk struts down the touchline. Every unscrewing of Arsene Wenger’s bottle cap. Every inch Victor Valdes left exposed at his near post. Every substitution. Each moment of ascendancy had to be taken. Those were the margins and fortunately enough, a huge dose of Lady Luck went Arsenal’s way also.

Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first forty-five minutes. Or so it should have been. Lionel Messi was sensational in dropping deep and collecting possession then running at Arsenal’s back-line. But Arsenal tried it’s darnest to limit his threat and for keeping it 1-0 and sticking religiously to their gameplan, it nevertheless must go down as a fantastic first-half effort. After the break, however, Arsenal ramped up their intensity and it was Barcelona who looked like they may buckle. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s side had plenty of the possession but that was expected. The Gunners continued to play pro-actively, undeterred by their so-called superior’s level of technical ability. And for that the game must go down as the best of the modern era. Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League in 2008 may have been a compelling advert for the speed and power of the evolving game but this was how football should be played: with an unerring technical accuracy, tempo and tactical complexity.

But it is more significant given that Arsenal has beaten the best team of the current generation and one who is light-years ahead of the rest because of the philosophy bestowed onto them by Johan Cruyff (although their financial ethics must be questioned). Whenever anyone has played the Catalan giants, they almost certainly contest in one way; to defend deep and look to counter attack and all with an air of inevitability and fear. Only Villarreal has deferred from the modus operandi but it has only served to highlight the difficulties of facing Barcelona at their own game. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, after last night’s 2-1 victory and it seemed like it may go that way for Arsenal as well after they made a fantastic start to the game in the first ten minutes. Somehow a good ten minutes becomes a positive thing when facing Barcelona.

Arsenal fought fire with fire and although the possession count was a superior 66%-34% to Barcelona, it was not as if The Gunners tried to concede possession to their opponents. Arsenal pressed and squeezed Barcelona. It worked but at the same time, failed to work also. Messi had a fantastic chance when he chipped wide when one-on-one with Wojcjech Szczesny and had a goal disallowed for offside. But the highly integrated, highly compact pressing from Arsenal, which at most times was never 25 metres apart from the first line of defence to the last, constantly broke up play.  Arsenal’s best play was mostly on the turnover but fortune favours the brave and as a result, they also had their fair share of possession. Jack Wilshere in particular was so impressive that he never gave the ball away in the first-half. He had a composure in front of defence beyond his years and a discipline which was crucial to the moment. The central midfield pair delegated roles accordingly, as Alex Song continued charging for the ball, knowing that he was the better tackler and Wilshere the better circulator.

Arsenal did get a bit of joy when defeating the first line of Barcelona pressing which consisted on Pedro, Messi and David Villa. The threesome tried to close the defenders down high up the pitch but if Arsenal bypassed it, they found space down the wings because it exposed Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Emmanuel Eboue galloped up and down while Samir Nasri had Dani Alves in knots at times. But by also keeping the front three high up the pitch and the keep ball that Barcelona are capable of, it sucked Walcott and Nasri, in particular, centrally and Alves himself continued bombing up and down.

Arsenal’s strategic defending

It is true Messi had a barnstormer in the first-half but he was eventually squeezed out for big periods in the second. Lethargy had a part to play but also, Barcelona cannot really be asked to defend for 90 minutes and against a team like Arsenal, it was also going to concede chances on the break. Arsenal’s tactic was as it has always been this season; strategic defending that incorporates the Dutch principles of through-marking and winning the ball back quickly. Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention. It is highly dependent on the structure and distances between players and Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 in the press, which was Arrigo Sacchi-esque, ensured the team could match up well numerically. Laurent Koscielny typified the strategy as he continued to nick the ball away from the Barcelona attackers.

Much was to be made of the two central defender’s style before the game and by the end, showed that their style of winning the ball back quickly, which has been the mantra of Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, was a masterstroke. The high-line got them in to trouble on occasions but apart from a Messi miss and a lack of concentration from Gael Clichy, it worked to great effect. Villa tried to take advantage by getting in between Johan Djourou and Koscielny and in that one instance, it worked.

a-v-barca1

<Figure 1> Arsenal’s defensive outline. Arsenal squeezed the play, looking to stop Barcelona from playing their game. Their backline was adventurously high and that meant at most times, a distance of 25 metres between attack and defence.

messi-a-vb

<Figure 2> Lionel Messi’s completed passes. Arsenal’s compactness shows in Messi’s passing graph. The Argentine had a free striker role and dropped deep to collect possesion but Arsenal tried not to let him get into the final third. (Courtesy of Zonal Marking and Total Football iphone app.)

kos

<Figure 3> Arsenal Interceptions (Courtesy ofSleepy_Nik and and Total Football iphone app.)

In the second-half, Arsenal was more effective, more tighter and this allowed the side to comeback in the fashion that they did. Robin van Persie’s goal had a bit of good fortune but the build up was just what Wenger would have wanted. Quick passing, quick interchange and dynamic movement. Clichy’s dinked pass had Gerard Pique a bit flat-footed, enough for van Persie to exploit. Andrey Arshavin’s goal was even better as an interception at the edge of their own box started a crisp counter attack which saw two great passes by Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas to free Nasri and he showed fantastic composure to tee-up Arshavin to place home.

Much was made of Guardiola’s substitution of David Villa for Seydou Keita. In one sense it was defining but you could understand his reasoning. Barcelona was losing the dynamism and potency that their possession game is famed for and as a result Villa was kept quiet. He wanted to retain control and defend via possession; however, it only served to hand some initiative to Arsenal. Wenger was spot on with his substitutions which saw Nasri just hold his position deeper with Fabregas also dropping back and Nicklas Bendtner replacing Walcott. Guardiola’s tactic, however, also showed his flaws as he wanted to make a artistic impression when the game should have been killed off –  to teach an educational lesson with their belief in keeping the ball on the floor and moving at all times.

“We made more chances and in general terms, we have had a very good game,” said Guardiola. “But Arsenal is good at playing the position and exposing the weaknesses. When they get past the first pressure line, they are very fast. For many years they have set an example in Europe.”

The return leg at Camp Nou promises to be special and judging by the last three games against each other, the first-half will be crucial. But right now, Arsenal can celebrate even though the game is only at the halfway point. They have beaten the best team in the world and in a style that never at one moment, betrayed their own. This was a game where ascendancy had to taken. Where every moment was crucial. When football reached a pantheon. When Arsenal prevailed in attack versus attack.

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

Even the most extensive database on earth can find no solution. Try typing into Google, “How to stop Messi” and while it produces 2,660,000 search results, none come anywhere close to answering the million pound question. When Arsenal faced Barcelona in the Champions League last season, they resisted the calls to treat Lionel Messi with special dispensation but instead, they considered him the same as everyone else and the results were disastrous. Messi was instrumental in the first leg as Arsène Wenger’s side survived an onslaught in the first twenty minutes but in the second leg at Camp Nou, delivered what he so promised at the Emirates as he ran amok to complete a devastating  twenty-one minute hat-trick.

He’s not omnipotent although his mother tells us he is just angelic. Nor is he a mutant although his minute stature is because of a hormone defect he had as a youngster which enables humans to grow. And he certainly isn’t a holographic character, which, essentially some have described him as. (Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger, “Messi’s like a PlayStation”). He is simply a human being. An extraordinary one at that, however, and one so ahead of his peers at this current moment that there was no doubt he was to be crowned FIFA’s world player of the year despite Xavi’s most mesmeric efforts. This season, Messi has scored an amazing 40 goals in 34 games, a feat which Cristiano Ronaldo is doing his darnest to try and make look as insignificant as possible. (Currently Ronaldo has 34 goals in 36 games and the rivalry should prove to be the most defining of a generation since Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbaur).

When Arsenal faces Barcelona in Wednesday’s clash at The Emirates, the immediate question will be whether or not they should man-mark Messi and the answer will almost certainly be “no.” Wenger will put faith in his team’s ability to squeeze Messi out of the game through their improving structural pressing. It is tactic that is to be admired and it is only one of the two ways to approach Barcelona.

Man marking

The supposed problem with marking Lionel Messi is that invariably you neglect the other individuals that make Barcelona brilliant. And there are a lot of those. But it is also a risk that it may be worth taking as it strips Pep Guardiola’s side of their most spontaneous player and that is more easier, in theory, to defend against. Taking Messi out of the game, some argue, leaves you essentially facing Spain, a weak argument perhaps given that there are massive structural differences not to mention changes in personnel but it serves to highlight the dynamism Messi gives. Wenger was virtually implying that very point in the 4-1 defeat last season although he knew that if he did state it pointedly, questions will be fired back at why he didn’t detail a man to follow the Argentinian. But can you really mark Messi out of a game because his impact goes beyond what he does on the ball? Sticking close to him creates space elsewhere for others to exploit and also leaves you with one man short in another area of the pitch while his movement is always proactive, always finding ways to be useful in one way or another. Chelsea did that successfully in 2009 as Jose Bosingwa followed him from left-back but it was with an ultra-defensive approach Arsenal is not willing to take.

That was two years ago and it shows just how far tactically Barcelona have come to stop such instances occurring again. Messi has now almost exclusively played a free role, last season behind the forward, this season as the central forward. If Arsenal have plans for any such individuals, positioning will almost always complicate them.

On the right

With Barcelona’s formation, there is bound to be some interchangeability with Messi swapping with Pedro at some point in the game, and the right-winger shifting into David Villa’s position as he takes up the striking role. On the right, Messi will look to drift infield by initially starting on the right. Dani Alves will bomb forward regardless, nevertheless, his central tendencies will open up space for the Brazilian right-back. Barcelona’s keep ball means there is a constant movement of players and while it would seem like Messi is drifting into a congested area, it will certainly make space for someone else. If anything, it will give Barcelona a spare man centrally – a tactic Chelsea used well in their 2-0 win over Arsenal earlier this season as Florent Malouda occupied Alex Song, affording Ashley Cole the space to get forward. Arsenal’s wide men will almost certainly have to track back but there is still much onus on Song and Jack Wilshere to shuffle right and left. One can envisage a similar scenario for the pair to contend with while even moving centrally alerts the two centre-backs of a player entering their zone and one will at some point have to cover him.

MESSI-RW

<figure 1>1.Messi cuts in from a right-wing position therefore creating the space for Alves to run into. 2. By occupying his place in the centre it gives Barca a man advantage but also engages either the full-back to push out of position, a centre-back to push out or a midfielder to watch him. If Messi plays on the rihjt, it’s not an undesirable position because it means Arsenal can double up and squeeze him out the gmae but here he tries to ensure a man advantage. 3. The space that Koscielny vacates is spotted by Villa who looks to make a darting run behind.

False nine

Messi, however, is likely to play as a false nine. It is a tactical trend which Arsenal have been at the forefront in recent times and with Robin van Persie being able to combine dropping off with the timing of runs off the shoulder of the defender, have a striker for Barcelona to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s Messi which is the focus and his deployment in the position has scratched many-a-heads. Opposition are unsure of whether to stick tight or stay back and at most times, are left to do neither. Central defenders hate marking space, at that is particularly true of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, who prefer to win the ball back quickly. As they don’t fancy marking space, they invariably push up and that creates space behind. With Barcelona using two wide forwards, Pedro and Villa will look to take advantage, not to mention the effervescent Alves and the wily thinking of Xavi.

As mentioned, Koscielny and Djourou like to get tight, which at first seems tactical suicide, but if they do get it right, it could be a master stroke. The best option is still to play deep against a false nine and against Barcelona in general. They seldom look to do the orthodox even if their spectacular is made to look mightily easy. Inter did that last season in the most defensive of approaches although their first leg 3-1 win serves as a protocol. The kept their three strikers up the pitch and defended in a unit that shifted left and right (similar to Arsenal’s). But Barcelona are not oblvious to the ploy of defending deep, so instead of looking  to play into opponents hands by playing an orthodox forward who will play as the same line as them, they look to drag the defenders out by playing with the space in front. Arsenal will have to patient as it will be the greatest test the youngsters have faced mentally.

There is another salient point and that is how Messi has adapted to the centre-forward position. It is not an inhibiting role although it puts him closer to defenders as it may have seemed for Wayne Rooney. He is still encouraged to find space but in a sense he’s liberated as he’s playing higher up and is more ambiguous than before.

mess-cf

<figure 2>1.Messi drops off into a  false nine position thereby committing one of the centre-backs to follow him. 2. The effect is two-fold on the defence. Djourou is then made to shuffle across to help cover the space and likewise is the right-back as he doesn’t want to create a too big a gap between he and Djourou. Either way, Villa looks to take advantage of the extra space by hugging the touchline or looking to get behind.

Arsenal pressing

Arsenal will stay true to their word and look to press up the pitch. It will be crucial, then to form an effective wall that frustrates Barcelona’s passers. Sergio Busquets is the best one touch passer in the world but Arsenal should not worry about him. Stopping Xavi and Andres Iniesta from getting to the supply line will be key. It may be more effective then, for Arsenal to drop Cesc Fabregas back to make a five man midfield rather than press as a 4-2-4 as they have this season. Last season at the Camp Nou, the tactic failed because The Gunners pressed with a 4-1-4-1, taking out the rest with one pass and exposing Denilson; this season, the adoption of the Dutch principles of through-marking should help Arsenal stay compact and squeeze the space. This will stop Messi because as Alves says and in some ways displayed by Argentina’s abject failure in the World Cup, it’s the team that must be stopped first. “I believe the secret to marking Messi is to not worry about marking him,” says Alves. “Because he doesn’t play alone and has a team by his side. That’s the key to marking Messi.”

Villarreal pressing in 1-1 draw last season. Pep Guardiola: “In the game, we were unable to score a decisive second goal. We struggled to get past Villarreal’s first line of pressure in the pitch and that made the match an end to end affair.”