Lionel Messi scored 91 goals in the calendar year 2012, meaning that at some point that year, at least 91 elite, professional defenders were made to look silly in their job.
Of course, we know the number is quite a bit higher than that. When Messi steps on a football pitch, there is always the possibility of the sublime, and for defenders—even the best of the best—that can be a frightening proposition.
Nicknamed La Pulga—Spanish for "the Flea"—Messi is short in stature, but a giant of the modern game. At age 25, he is already considered the best player of his generation and one of the best of all time.
So what is it like to play against him? In a word, it's difficult (obviously), and the challenge involves both the tactical side of the game and extends beyond it. But while no defender would claim that defending Messi is easy, some have found success.
In trying to answer the question more fully, I've examined some of the best—and worst—moments in Messi's impressive career.
Once a winger, Messi developed into a goal machine under the guidance of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Deployed in the "false nine" role, Messi plays deeper in the formation than a traditional center-forward would, creating marking problems for opposing defenses.
The fantastic thing about employing Messi in this role was the freedom it allowed him. His ability to freely drift across the pitch left so many coaches stumped as to how they can deal with him.
Man-marking proved no good, as Messi would withdraw himself all the way back to the halfway line and pull his marker 30 yards away from where he was meant to be.
Under Guardiola, Barcelona often played Messi in the middle with David Villa on the left. Villa would move inside while Messi drifted outside, and defenses became confused. Tito Vilanova tweaked the tactic for the second leg of Barcelona's UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Milan this season (more on the match below), to similarly effective results.
Barcelona's formation is effectively built around Messi, who has minimal defensive responsibilities in order to keep him fresh to attack. Coupled with that tailor-made tactical plan are Messi's individual gifts of ball control, speed, acceleration, game-reading, quick feet and an ability to change direction swiftly.
To finish it off, Messi has a lethal left foot. All together, the combination produces devastating results.
Translating Tactics to the Pitch
As Chelsea prepared to face Messi and Barcelona in the semifinals of the 2011-12 Champions League, the Blues' interim manager, Roberto Di Matteo, agonized over how to stop Barca's flowing possession game. Messi, obviously, was the subject of much conversation.
"His ball technique is superb but, most importantly, he can react to how the game develops," Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech said (via Daily Telegraph). "At the last possible moment in any situation he can find the ideal solution. There are a lot of ways that Messi can finish an attack."
Cech added, "On the other hand, he is also only human and, if we perform to 100 percent, we will be able to defend against him."
As for the latter part, Cech was correct. Chelsea frustrated Messi and defeated Barcelona in the semifinals that year before eventually winning the competition with dogged defensive tactics. Not all defenses and goalkeepers are so fortunate, though.
In the Champions League Round of 16 earlier this year, AC Milan won 2-0 in the first leg at the San Siro with an organized performance reminiscent of Chelsea's from the season before.
The cushion did not help. A Messi-inspired Barca crushed Milan 4-0 in the return leg, leaving Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri praising Barca's "extraordinary" trio of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
And there lies another factor in defending Messi. How does a team defend both Messi and the brilliant passing, dribbling and game-reading of his teammates?
"When you see Iniesta dribbling the ball effortlessly in the 90th minute, you can understand a lot of things," Allegri said (via The Independent).
He added, "They are the strongest team in the world, and they have three extraordinary players in Messi, Xavi and Iniesta."
Messi's contribution amounts to more than the tacticians can explain. In this season's UEFA Champions League, Messi limped out of the first leg of Barcelona's quarterfinal against Paris Saint-Germain with a hamstring injury. He did not start the second leg at Barca's Nou Camp, but entered as a second-half substitute with his team trailing 1-0 and facing elimination.
Immediately after his introduction, the match changed. Messi's presence seemed to inspire, organize and galvanize Barcelona. The hosts scored soon after Messi's arrival, drew the match 1-1 and advanced to the semifinals.
Both Barca and PSG "were transformed," according to The Guardian:
Until Messi came on, the home side looked like they lacked confidence, and the final whistle was greeted with relief. The best chances fell PSG's way and Barcelona had only one more shot on target than the visitors. But, when they needed him, they had Messi. The problem really was that they did need him.
After the final whistle, Barcelona's David Villa admitted as much. He was not the only one.
"Messi is the best player in the world, and he changed the game just by being on the pitch," Villa said (per Daily Telegraph).
Added PSG manager Carlo Ancelotti (via PSG.Fr), "Messi certainly gave his side a confidence boost because even at under 100 percent, he is still a fantastic player."
In this case, tactics and talents weren't necessarily decisive. Merely by being present, Messi inspired his team to a memorable comeback. As yet, no manager has found a way to defend against that.
At the international level, Messi has scored 32 goals in 79 senior appearances for Argentina. It's a strike-rate that does not match his record with Barcelona, but that likely has much to do with the realities of international football.
Unlike with Barcelona, the players that form Argentina's roster meet up irregularly. They are not as accustomed to playing together as, say, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. And while Messi is obviously the focus of the Argentine attack, setting up the entire system around him is more difficult.
That hardly makes the job of defending him any easier. Argentina visited the United States in March 2011 to play an international friendly against the U.S. national team in East Rutherford, N.J. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, and Messi did not score.
Even so, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays professionally for Everton in the English Premier League, called Messi's moves "breathtaking."
From the Wall Street Journal:
You watch him on TV and it's like, 'It's impossible. How does he do that?' Then you see it for real and, you know, it's breathtaking. Even as a top-level professional, it's breathtaking. You can't figure out how he's doing some of these things.
Elsewhere, the Journal's article examined Argentina's playing style at the time, which included short, quick passes building up to a final ball, usually to Messi, through the middle. But when Messi was not at the end of an attack, he was often involved in the build-up, much like with Barcelona.
In those cases, Howard said Messi is more likely to pass than shoot.
"So I'm always trying to read his footwork to see where the pass is going to go—and that's dictated by the runners as well," Howard said.
Finally, the most important strategy, according to Howard, is to remain calm. In a moment of defensive panic, Messi can weave his magic and score before a defender knows what happened.
But the scary part, for defenders at least, is that Messi doesn't always need a mistake. As his brilliant 2012 demonstrated in record-setting form, the miniature magician can deconstruct a defense any number of ways, and seemingly at will.
And even when his team is defeated, Messi can leave a lasting impression.
"(Q)uite clearly for me, he's the best ever," veteran Chelsea defender John Terry said in 2012, shortly before Terry's Blues upset Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals. "He's a great individual, a great person as well and a credit to the sport. For me, he's got everything."
"He is magical."