How do you stop Lionel Messi? It’s a question that has harried the best of managers, tormented the meanest of defenders and obsessed the sharpest of football pundits.
However, on eve of the Champions League quarter-final (Barcelona vs Bayern Munich, Lisbon, at 12.30 am IST on August 15) Bayern CEO and former Germany captain Karl-Heinz Rummenigge believes his team’s 19-year-old full-back Alphonso Davies can “take care of Messi”.
Whether the comment was a verbal ruse or hollow snide only time can tell, but deputing a raw teenager to mark Messi seems the height of optimism.
Who is Alphonso Davies and exactly how good is he?
Davies is a Canadian left-back of Liberian descent who had a sparkling debut in Bundesliga. He has pace, which has earned him the moniker the “FC Bayern Road Runner”. In a match against Werder Bremen, he clocked a speed of 36.51 km/h, the fastest a player had ever run in the league.
But Davies isn’t just speedy, he’s a fine defender too, having won an average of 15 one-on-ones per game, the most in the league last year. Besides, he has scored four goals, assisted eight more and has a pass-percentage accuracy of 87, which is a very impressive number for a modern-day full-back.
His defensive skills are formidable too—he has won 63 per cent of aerial duels, and has a tackle success ratio of 64 per cent. Combine it with his game-awareness, imposing presence, composure and intuition, and he has all the bearings to be a top-class full-back.
OK, but does that mean he can stop Messi?
Davies could ask his teammate, veteran centre-back Jerome Boateng, who was left in a daze by a signature twist and turn on the run five years ago. He could ask David Alaba or Manuel Neuer. All of them would vouch for Messi’s brilliance that had made them look silly.
And all of them would agree that Messi can’t be curbed individually — but only as a team. If Messi gets one-on-one, he is almost impossible to stop. It’s a truism in football.
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What makes Messi so difficult to man-mark?
Messi these days doesn’t have a fixed spot. Rather, he owns every spot in the attacking third. He roams wherever he likes and whenever he likes, and the manager flexes the team’s shape to fill in the gaps.
He spends the first 10-15 minutes ambling around, processing where the opposition is most vulnerable, and then stations himself in whatever position he thinks will cause the most damage. His teammates then make the requisite adjustments. He seamlessly shifts positions and switches roles, can operate as a winger, centre-forward, striker, false nine or fantasista (the nine-and-a-half role).
Besides, his off-the-ball movements are so sharp and precise that opposition teams, even when they are in possession, can’t afford to take their attention away from him. As Barcelona press a high line, half a lapse is enough for Messi to rob them of the ball.
As Boateng would remember from that night in Barcelona in 2015, he would pounce from anywhere, and everywhere. Also, as he’s very fast with the ball at his feet, it’s difficult to reclaim possession once the other side has lost it. Although slightly-built, Messi cannot be easily dispossessed or intimidated with physicality.
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How have teams managed to stop Messi in the past?
There’s no magic formula or a template. But to stand any hope of nullifying his immense abilities, teams have to defend as a highly compact unit and prevent him from having spaces into which he can run, meticulously crowd him out and choke the passing outlets.
It’s easier said than done though, as Messi can wriggle past most defenders or find the eye-of-the-needle pass to Antoine Griezmann or Luis Suarez, who will be in acres of space.
Some teams have maintained narrow lines to congest him and his supply. It has worked to varying degrees of success. But there’s no guarantee that one ploy would work or one wouldn’t. It’s the mark of a genius.
So the best plan, simply, is to not concede the ball to him. But if only football were as simple as that.
Why is Messi extra pumped up this time?
It has been five years since Messi last put a Champions League medal around his neck. As if the unusual drought is not motivation enough, they have surrendered the La Liga to bitter rivals Real Madrid this term.
Moreover, there are talks of unrest in the Barcelona dressing room and rancour in the boardroom. There are rumours that he could even leave Barcelona at the end of the season. Seldom has Messi’s commitment to the team’s cause been questioned so vehemently and persistently, or Barcelona looked so dependent on him. So much so that it’s almost as if he’s turning up for Argentina.
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