How to Stop Leo Messi: From the Men Who've Actually Managed to Do It

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterSeptember 17, 2018

B/R

Osasuna coach Petar Vasiljevic squirmed a little in his seat. A Spanish journalist had just asked how his struggling team, 18th in La Liga, planned to deal with Lionel Messi when they travelled to the Camp Nou to meet Barcelona that weekend in April. A defeat would likely have seen Osasuna relegated, and Vasiljevic could have been forgiven for seeking to deflect from the bleakness of his predicament with a nod to the darkly comic.

"I've already said that we need a plan for Messi, and the players told me that we need to carry handcuffs and a pistol," said Vasiljevic through barely a smile. "He disconnects, but later he plugs himself in for 10 minutes and does what he does."

"Detras de un chiste, la verdad asoma"; from behind a joke, the truth pokes.

The Serb was right to feel downbeat. His team were obliterated by Barca, 7-1, as the Spanish champions kept up the pace in defence of their crown and left Osasuna on the brink of the drop. Imperious Messi scored twice.

It's a problem that exists seemingly only in the abstract, the ultimate rhetorical question: How do you stop Lionel Messi? Defences worry not about whether they should, but whether they can. In his glum stoicism, Vasiljevic captured the quandary perfectly.

The historical record suggests it is possible. The Argentinian's production throughout his 15 seasons with Barcelona's first team has fluctuated from otherworldly to merely excellent. But much of this is circumstantial. That Messi registered only 41 goals in the 2015-16 season compared with 73 in 2011-12 was not a signal that Spanish defences had become nearly twice as good in the intervening period, rather that certain variables in Messi's cosmologythat swirling Milky Way of celestial energywere for whatever reason misaligned.   

In September 2017, Girona's on-loan Manchester City defender Pablo Maffeo's masterclass in stubborn, uncomplicated man-marking blew open a Europe-wide conversation on how best to handle Messi. For 90 minutes at the Estadi Montilivi, a strategy as old as the game itself won the day against the Argentinian at least, although Barcelona still had enough to come away with a 3-0 victory.

If it is possible to mark Messi out of contention, to suck the oxygen from his lungs, it would be instructive to hear testimony from that elite number to have pulled it off.

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

"It's a much more mental preparation than a physical one," former Portugal and Chelsea defender Jose Bosingwa says of the night in 2009 when he got the better of the world's best player. "First you have to make a big psychological preparation to play Messi. Then you sit down with hours and hours of videos to gauge basic routines. It is a mostly psychological process. You have to put respect for the player ahead of fear."

Chelsea had travelled to the Camp Nou for a Champions League semi-final first leg. With first-choice left-back Ashley Cole suspended, caretaker manager Guus Hiddink turned to Bosingwa.

"You've won or lost in the first few minutes of the game. If I'd have let Messi have his way in those minutes, his confidence would have soared and mine would have been gone, and that would be the game." Bosingwa says. "That is the only priority. You give it everything in the beginning, to establish the right relationship.

"Then, it is 90 minutes of psychological warfare."

Chelsea escaped the Camp Nou with a 0-0 draw. Messi was, for the most part, kept subdued, a tribute to the emergency left-back's relentless harrying and chasing.

"The team itself has to reduce the spaces in between," he says. "If Messi is receiving the ball at all it can never be with comfort. When I was marking him, it wasn't so much to do with how much distance or space I gave him, rather it was my job to gauge how far off him I could be relative to where my team-mates were. It's a tactical response, where the team reacts to eat up the space in the best way.

"But football has always been that way, Messi or no Messi. It's about the team plugging the space together. Yes, individuality makes a difference. But the priority is the team moving as one."

Today more than ever, football moves to the rhythms of the cult of the individual. Personal awards now outnumber the trophies those players compete for in their team colours. For all of football's collective ethic, the promise of a one-on-one matchup, two greats going man-to-man, promises its own unique brand of personalized drama.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona is tackled by Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso of Inter Milan during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Barcelona and Inter Milan at Camp Nou on April 28, 2010 in Barce
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Back when he was still a credible underdog, in 2010, Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan shut down reigning European champions Barca with a suffocating pair of performances. Marauding Argentinian Esteban Cambiasso shackled himself to Messi in the most pure example of single-minded, hound-dog defending, but the alchemist Mourinho was always quick to play up the way his players greedily ate up the space in between Barca's lines.

Weeks after Barca had lost to Inter, Messi faced Germany with Argentina in the quarter-final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The South Americans were crushed, 4-0, with Messi's influence contained almost entirely. In central defence that day in Cape Town, and charged with the daunting task of shutting out Messi, was Arne Friedrich.

"We tried to have absolutely no space between the lines of our midfield and defence," says Friedrich. "We always tried to push up, and even if we dropped a little bit, we tried to drop the midfield as well, so there's never any more than seven or eight yards difference between the two lines. This makes it very hard for Messi to receive the ball in space."

It isn't surprising that Germany, where the football culture traditionally promotes reliability rather than brilliance, sought to snuff out Messi with perfect team mechanics.

"We tried to focus more on helping each other out," Friedrich says. "We had [Bastian] Schweinsteiger, [Sami] Khedira and myself. We always tried to double him. Argentina were always, always looking for Lionel to play the ball to, so it was kind of easier for us, because they always play through him. We always had at least two players on him.

"If he gets the ball at his feet, it becomes very difficult. So we made sure that day we always got to the ball before he did, or at least as soon as he receives it we have to be right next to him. Because if he takes on speed, it is very hard to deal with him."

Friedrich and Schweinsteiger teamed up to stop Messi
Friedrich and Schweinsteiger teamed up to stop MessiDANIEL GARCIA/Getty Images

At the other end of the scale, others have favoured the bulldog approach to taming the world's best player.

Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong left a boot print on the World Cup, and on the breastbone of Xabi Alonso, with a dangerous high foot on the Spain midfielder during the 2010 final in Johannesburg. Four years later, he went some way towards restoring his reputation as a dutiful, diligent holding midfielder with a textbook man-marking job on Messi in the semi-final.

"The first 10 minutes is all about letting him know where he stands, getting the right challenges in, letting him know it's going to be a difficult game," De Jong says.

"Next it's about reading his body language and anticipating his movements. And anticipation of his thought process, because he's always looking to make that one-two in that area just outside the box.

"Then it's dependent on circumstances. If he's far from the goal, then you just want to keep him in front of you, because if he's not, there's going to be a big hole in front of your defence. He always tries to look left, always goes over the left leg. He feigns right and goes left just so quickly, so instead of man-marking tightly you have to wait for him to make the first move. You can't just go shoulder to shoulder with him, because if he turns you, he's gone.

"If you get him, you get him. If not, well, you're in trouble."

It can be a challenge to operate as an attacking unit when so much care is taken to nullify one player. The Netherlands were accused of lacking the ambition to use their immense attacking talent against Argentina in 2014, with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie scarcely involved in the 0-0 draw, which ended in a 4-2 win on penalties for Messi's side. In 2009, Chelsea were roundly criticized for their negative approach. Bosingwa himself was loudly booed for playing a backpass to goalkeeper Petr Cech after just 34 seconds.

It's an approach that wins few plaudits. For a major semi-final broadcast, reaching a global TV audience pushing one billion, the occasion called for Messi to direct a cinematic victory and add to the canon of World Cup iconography, not for a dutiful water-carrier to rub out his influence. In some sense, the boos that met Bosingwa's caution at the Camp Nou are to be forgiven.

"When you've watched Messi do what he did when Barcelona beat Bayern 4-0 in the last round, then, yes, your team has a tendency to close up," Bosingwa says. "But we had a game to manage and a second leg still to come at Stamford Bridge.

"I was a very explosive player, I was very fast. That's what Hiddink and the team relied on. But in the days leading up to the game, they all had great fun with me, telling me how they thought Messi would destroy me. You need that in a time like this, to relieve tension."

"There are technical rules to it," says Friedrich. "If you are defending your goal behind you on the right-hand side, then you want to push the attacker to the left side out. But this doesn't necessarily work in Messi's case. His pace and his sudden change of direction [mean] the rules are a bit different. So our only chance, we thought, was to be on time when he gets the ball to disturb him before he settles. And we did that always with at least two players."

"I couldn't have done it alone"—Nigel De Jong on Leo Messi
"I couldn't have done it alone"—Nigel De Jong on Leo MessiFABRIZIO BENSCH/Getty Images

De Jong echoes the collective backup needed for a man-marker to take Messi down. "I couldn't have done it alone. I was directing our defence, because I knew that if he passed me, I would need someone on my blind side for support.

"Messi is not like Steven Gerrard. He isn't a box-to-box midfielder, always on the move. He picks his moments. That's when managing him becomes intensely psychological."

Football, or the football industry, now favors attacking flair over defensive resoluteness. Between 2006 and 2010, there was an average of 7.2 goals scored per season in Champions League semi-finals. Between 2011-2015, that number grew to 11.6. Despite record fees being spent on goalkeepers and defenders over the last three transfer windows, the market value for attacking players has grown exponentially.

This is reflected in a creeping evolution in football's technical craft.

"Man-marking in football is from a time gone by," Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone said in a 2015 interview with Goal's Carlo Garganese. "Those were different times and in those teams there were no players able to make an impact quite like Messi. It's clearly complicated, and that's why we haven't seen man-marking on any players in recent times."

Indeed, part of the reason why Girona youngster Maffeo's job on Messi stuck out is that it seemed contrary to trends moving away from one-on-one marking and towards a zonal approach.

"Defending definitely changed over the course of my career," Bosingwa says. "It seems less common now for defenders to go one-to-one. Defending is more about playing between the lines now."

As football slowly comes to terms with what are likely to be the final chapters of Messi's brilliance, tacticians are trying to get used to a world he helped to reshape.

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