Lionel Messi will undoubtedly be at his absolute best on Sunday, when Argentina try to make history by winning the World Cup in the heart of Brazil. All that stands between them and utter humiliation for the host nation are Germany and Joachim Low's favoured squad.
The European regulars of the competition have been dubbed comfortable favourites ahead of the clash, but nobody expects them to win the trophy without first tackling the most obvious obstacle: How do you stop Lionel Messi?
Low has proven himself to be quite the tactical genius throughout this tournament. He has often picked very effective substitutes throughout tricky games and altered his formation entirely to see off France and Brazil comfortably, but what Messi offers is a completely different problem.
1. Close down Javier Mascherano
If we were to take a look at the Squawka graphic above, which shows Javier Mascherano's passing throughout the semi-final clash with Holland, we should be able to denote just how Messi tends to receive his service of the ball.
Aside from the numerous passes from right to left and back again, Mascherano actually focused a large proportion of his passes forward through the middle of the park or out to the right wing. These are the passes to Messi and exactly what Germany have to cut out in the final.
Fortunately for the European giants, they've deployed such a tactic before.
Against Brazil, we saw Low's front line and midfielder Sami Khedira close down from very high up the pitch to put pressure on the Brazilian back line and their defensive midfielders. In turn, this led to a number of turnovers in possession and directly to a few of Germany's seven goals on the night.
Against Argentina, we'll need to see the same again, specifically from the towering Real Madrid midfielder, to ensure that Mascherano isn't given the time or space to continuously supply Messi with possession of the ball.
Close him down, break off the supply and you then force the Barcelona attacker to move deeper and deeper just to pick up the ball.
2. Squeeze Messi out to the wing
Although Messi is often considered more of a wide player for both Barcelona and Argentina, his favoured spot on the pitch is actually just inside the right wing, where he can attack central defenders directly.
If we take a look at the Squawka graphic above, which depicts exactly where the Argentinian talisman has scored his four goals in this competition, we see that he takes far too much pleasure in reaching a certain central position and calmly slotting the ball home.
The most important thing Low's side needs to do once Messi actually receives the ball is force him down the right wing.
Despite being the best player in the world—with all the tricks and skills to skip past even the best full-backs in the world, let alone Benedikt Howedes—Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng will feel much more comfortable defending his crosses into Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero than actually trying to tackle him directly.
Force him to cross the ball rather than line up shots and you may just stop this fantastic player from scoring again and again.
3. Score more goals than Messi
The third and final solution to dealing with the might of Messi is the simplest one: just outscore him.
With 17 goals in just seven games, Germany currently sit with an average goals-to-game ratio of 2.42 goals. Even before the Brazil game, Low's side were knocking in an average of 1.66 goals a game; that is a figure still higher than Argentina's 1.14 goals per game throughout the competition.
When we take a look at some of the goalscorers and playmakers who will be partaking in Sunday's game, we can clearly see that Germany do have enough quality to ensure that they score more goals than Argentina, who have only gotten Messi on more than one game throughout the competition.
As the graphic above shows, with data provided by WhoScored.com, Thomas Mueller is currently outperforming Messi on his own, while the likes of Andre Schurrle and Toni Kroos have reached similar levels of either goalscoring or key assists in this World Cup.
What this will also showcase to Low ahead of this vital showdown in Rio is that Messi's brilliance may actually act as something of a weakness for Argentina. For all the goals and assists he has created, he has also ensured that he is the only one doing so.
Close the little midfield magician down and take him out of the game, and what you have is an opponent who can't seem to score.
Stop Messi, and you will more than likely stop Argentina from winning the World Cup.
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