May 20, 2013

On how teams are learning to stop Messi and Barcelona

Lionel Messi is one who needs no introduction. Winning four Ballon d'Ors in a row is no joke, especially being the first in history to do so. And that is not his only achievement. He became the top scorer of Barcelona at the age of 24. He is the youngest player to score 200 La Liga goals. He then overtook the legendary Gerd Muller's tally of most goals in a calender year (which stood for over four decades!) He has achieved everything possible at the club level (and almost nothing at the country level). In general, Messi must seem like God to the layman. However, I beg to differ.

Barcelona play the famous tiki-taka style of football. Their main aim to keep possession. They pass around for eons with excruciating patience until a goal opening shows up. Messi is perfect for the system. His small size, along with his quick movements make him ideal for literally passing through swarms of defenders. He plays in the center forward role, or rather just behind that position- popularly known as the false 9.

It had to be Ibra or Messi!
After Frank Rijkaard left, and Pep Guardiola took over, the focus shifted from a Ronaldinho-Eto'o partnership to a strike force around Messi. Ronaldinho was let go, Eto'o exchanged (along with a good sum of money) for Ibrahimovic, who failed to gel into the system alongside Messi. Guardiola took the harsh decision and let Ibra go. A look at all Barcelona strikers since the arrival of Messi -Theirry Henry, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez- would tell you that they are suited to the wing as well. It's because of the simple fact that you can't survive in Barcelona if you are a central striker as you can't outscore Messi.

Another development in the Messi era is the emergence of the players who support him from behind the scenes. Sergio Busquets loves play acting, but at the end of the day, he gives you results! Xavi and Iniesta do not have that many assists as compared to Messi's goals, but they have a big part in the way Barcelona play. Players like Song, Mascherano and Fabregas have been brought in, but they either fail to break into the main team (Song) or adapt to fit into it (Mascherano is now a CB).

The way Messi plays is also characteristic of him. He would drop in deep sometimes, and let the winger come in the centre, whereas at times, he would make a quick run, and catch the defender ball watching. Also, La Liga referees are a bit stricter as compared to their English counterparts, and are ready to blow the whistle if you even touch Messi!

Esteban Cambiasso (Inter) marking Messi, with Zanetti 2010
How do you stop him then? Most La Liga teams do the mistake of letting the centre backs mark him. He can drop deep, and pull the centre back out of position, whereas someone else goes past the defense. The best way to stop Messi is letting your central defensive midfielder mark him. The important thing to note here is that there are hardly ten central defenders in the whole wide world who can mark Messi perfectly. There is a bigger problem for you though. Stopping Messi isn't equivalent to stopping Barcelona. Stop Messi, and before you know it, Iniesta, Villa and Sanchez have netted in goals!
Terry, Mikel and Ballack cornering Messi, 2009
How to stop Barcelona then? Historically(in the recent past), two types of teams have done it. In the UCL semi finals of the 2009-2010 season, Jose's Inter did the trick. The same pattern was followed by Chelsea two years later. The basic idea was to sit back, absorb the waves of attacks, and wait for the changes to counter attack. The changes would be less but they wound come nonetheless! The important thing is to take full advantage of the counter attacks. Eto'o and Drogba did the tricks for the teams up front, and it got touted as a form of anti-football (what's wrong in defending?) Even Celtic tried this earlier this season, but just stopped short of success. Real Madrid have also been successful under Mourinho playing the same way.

Chelsea took full advantage of the counter attacks, 2012
The second way was followed by Bayern this year. They sat attack is the best defense. Beat Barcelona at their own game. With their disciplined and no-nonsense approach in the Jupp Heynckes last season as a manger, Bayern Munich won 4-0 at the Allianz Arena and 3-0 in the return leg. Messi wasn't fully fit, but such a scoreline against any top flight team is daunting in itself.

Bayern demolishing Barca, 2013
Arsenal have also had a few good games against Barcelona in recent years, and they haven't done any bad (remember the RvP red card?) However, they have failed to progress by beating them as well!

In short, the Messi domination may be coming to an end. Barcelona were no great team to begin with- they just played well against the good teams, and very, very well against the bad, which made them look invincible. Yes, Messi is among the best, but the best player in the world, or as some commentators prefer- the best footballer the world has ever seen? I don't think so. Teams have shown in the past that tackling Messi hard is the solution to stopping him, among other things- and it's just their reluctance to do so that Messi has risen to such a level. A transfer to the English Premier League and a few matches against teams like Stoke and Blackburn ought to do the trick.

That being said, Bayern aren't invincible either. People maybe talking of a new superpower in football, but if they lose the upcoming Champions League final against arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, who knows?

Liked this post? Have any suggestions? Just let me know. Feel free to comment below!

0 responses:

Post a Comment