Why Giovani Dos Santos Can Have a Better World Cup Than Lionel Messi
It is downright blasphemy to suggest at this point that there is a better footballer on the planet than Lionel Messi (sorry, Real Madrid fans).
The man's blistering pace combines with a silky smooth first touch, impressive finishing ability, an on-the-pitch intelligence matched by no one, and a flair for the spectacular every time he's near the ball.
Giovani dos Santos knows Lionel Messi quite well.
Both were considered at one point the crown jewels of Barcelona's youth system. While Messi's stock skyrocketed and sees no sign of reaching a plateau, dos Santos has tapered off and ended up in Turkey after a horrid spell at Tottenham Hotspur.
Gio also possesses blistering pace and a first touch worthy of a phenom, but his decision making and eagerness to try the same thing over and over again make him not quite impossible to deal with for formidable defending systems.
Why is it, then, even remotely possible that the title of this article can be accurate?
Well, while it can definitely be agreed upon that despite the odd stumble here and there, Messi's time at Barcelona has equaled a level of excellence for both the individual and the club seldom seen in the history of the sport.
However, Messi's time with the Argentine national team has been a different story.
Take away a gold medal obtained at the Beijing Olympics two years ago (in which Messi, already a star at Barça, squared off against kids mostly working to crack first team lineups), and you have a pale international résumé.
The most obvious culprit for this discrepancy between Barcelona's Messi and Argentina's Messi is the distinct difference between both teams' tactics.
At Barcelona, Messi was given free reign by Frank Rijkaard, a policy continued by Josep Guardiola.
The team's offense runs through him...just outside the box. Messi's speed, intelligence and shooting prowess is set up by the phenomenal midfield play of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and others.
While remaining the focal point of Barcelona's offense, Messi's burden is alleviated by intelligent co-stars and a loose tactical system.
At Argentina, it has been shown that national team manager Diego Maradona doesn't know a chalkboard from a bag of potato chips.
Messi's appeared strictly on either wing, as a supporting striker, as a box-bound striker, or as an offensive midfielder.
His quality is probably unrivaled at each of those positions, but it's how others respond around him and how much a specific formation can be ingrained within a team if the manager toys with it constantly that hinders La Pulga when wearing his national team's uniform.
Despite his also stellar supporting cast in Argentina (Agüero, Higuaín, Mascherano, et al), the idea of Messi carrying the team is ubiquitous.
And it doesn't exactly work.
Meanwhile, Giovani dos Santos knows no such pressure.
Mexico national team manager Javier Aguirre also tailors his team's offense around his talented playmaker, players have been instructed to play around dos Santos and for him, not having others wait for the big play to spring from his feet every time.
Aguirre, an accomplished tactician who qualified no-name Osasuna to the UEFA Cup and Atlético Madrid to the Champions League after a decade-long absence, knows what he has in Giovani, and has exploited his talent in ways predecessors Hugo Sánchez and Sven-Göran Eriksson could not.
Whether they're done by new Manchester United striker Javier Hernández, former Real Valladolid playmaker Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Deportivo La Coruña winger Andrés Guardado or others, plays develop on either side of the pitch with dos Santos almost always playing a central role.
The videotape of Mexico's 5-0 thrashing of the United States in the 2009 Gold Cup Final is the ideal blueprint of El Tri's system with dos Santos.
Cutting in towards the middle from the wing, Giovani created havoc in the Americans' back line, constantly creating opportunities for himself or for teammates who in turn provided dos Santos with moving targets and screens to exploit his speed.
The result was a dos Santos goal and two others created by him.
At one point, CONCACAF.com's live commentary referred to the former Barcelona player (and Carlos Vela) with the following glowing terms: "Vela and Dos Santos, both plying their trade in Europe, have been a cut above the rest in this encounter, incredible stuff here from Mexico."
And yet, opposing defenses this summer will be hammered with the notion that Lionel Messi must be stopped at all costs, while Giovani will most likely be a "person of interest" for the back lines facing Mexico at the World Cup.
The result will be that dos Santos will sneak up on most people, while it will be up to Diego Maradona, not Lionel Messi, to take pressure off the three-time Spanish league winner.
While it is still much more probable that Lionel's national team will enjoy better success in South Africa than Giovani's, it will not be because of Lionel's individual exploits or Giovani's lack of.
In fact, quite the contrary.
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