How do you stop someone who seems to have capabilities that are beyond human? That is the question that no player or team that has gone up against Lionel Messi at this World Cup has been able to answer. Next in line to try to stop the unstoppable and end Messi’s hunt for the missing piece of his trophy puzzle will be the Netherlands on Friday evening.
At 35 years old this is potentially the Argentinian’s final World Cup and he is thriving. Thriving off the responsibility and expectation, almost as if the fact that this could be his last chance has lifted the pressure that comes with all that.
I was a centre-back for England and played domestically in England, Sweden and the US. Occasionally, you come up against players who just strike fear into you. For me, there were a few but the Brazilian forward and six-time Fifa world player of the year Marta stands out. She was, and is, similar to Messi. She had that characteristic close-ball control with added trickery, using all parts of her foot to control and dribble and roll and change direction. As a defender it was always hard to try to keep her in one direction and force her away from dangerous areas. The Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema is probably the modern‑day equivalent that I faced in the women’s game.
She reads where and when players drop their weight with the same speed and intelligence. She waits for you to commit yourself and if you drop a shoulder or you angle your body to take control of the situation, she’ll either feint you or go around you. In situations where you expect her to take a shot early, often she doesn’t, instead she puts you on the floor, goes again and then creates a clearer scoring opportunity for herself. I can only imagine what stepping out opposite Messi must feel like.
It’s almost like he has a gravitational pull and he himself has a gravitational force, pulling and twisting and managing the movement of the ball like it’s a part of his orbit. He has such a continuity in his movement when he’s on the ball, when he’s dribbling with that close-ball control with such effortless grace. His first touch, which is nearly always sublime, means he doesn’t ever give you an inch of space. Often as a defender you’re counting on putting pressure on at the first touch, if it’s a poor touch you have a chance of stopping them. However his first touch is often so good that defenders are stopped dead in their tracks, and he’s able to just skip by them.
One of the only ways to defend against Messi is to do it in numbers. I would want to pull in the defenders around me, drag my wing-back in, have my centre-back close to me, maybe my deep-lying central midfielder offering support and focus on trying to get in the way of those passing lines that he so often finds. But the problem is that he also thrives in those situations. He sucks players towards him. He wants three or four players swarming him with pressure and when that happens he finds the pass. He knows where the space is, he knows where his spare man is, and he’ll find him. If it’s not that, he’s drawing the foul and then we all know what he can do with a free-kick.
The alternative is being exposed to Messi one v one and that’s only really going to end one way. When you see him approaching, you often see defenders almost shift onto their tiptoes, waiting to see what direction he’s going, and none of them want to dive in because he’s also a nutmeg master. The minute you get half a step towards him he’s putting the ball through your legs or putting it around and you running around to collect. It’s over before you’ve had time to even try and guess and it looks a humiliation. But how can you be humiliated? It’s Messi. That’s his bread and butter. He makes the best defenders in the world look average time and time again.
A lot of what is special about him is enhanced by his low centre of gravity. That helps his agility, his ability to read where players drop their weight and to utilise his momentum to shift from dribbling slow, sucking players in, to then speeding it up. He does that with an unrivalled fluidity, he doesn’t have to stop and push again, he can just keep going and ramp it up. It’s hard to stop someone with that level of momentum coming towards you. You end up getting pulled into positions you don’t want to be in and doing things that are uncharacteristic.
Not enough is said about the vision of players such as Messi off the ball too. Lots of people talk about scanning, but not everyone does it and not everyone does it effectively. The best players in the world do it the most often. Messi is the sort of player who is constantly looking over his shoulder, analysing where he can pick up those little pockets of space between players, in between units, and the smallest of spaces is all he needs to operate in, which is wild.
What is perhaps most exhilarating about watching him in this tournament is that he is in form but also that he looks like he is thoroughly enjoying this potential last ride. If Argentina win the World Cup? Well, what a way to cap off the huge joy we’ve all had witnessing him play.