Brazil, 2 July-2014,Pulasta Dhar : “How to stop Messi? We will show you tomorrow how we do it,” Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said before his side’s last 16 knockout round match against Argentina.
For 67 minutes, Lionel Messi didn’t have a single shot — the longest he has gone in this World Cup without a shy at goal. In 120 minutes, he took two shots — one off target and one saved by Diego Benaglio. This was certainly a testimony to Hitzfeld’s plan, which utilised two zonal markers at a blocking distance from Messi constantly.
But there was something else at play too — Messi was playing a withdrawn playmaker’s role, which meant he had to do everything rather than do what he does best — add the finishing touches to an attack rather than start it.
APFor 67 minutes, Lionel Messi didn’t have a single shot — the longest he has gone in this World Cup without a shy at goal. AP
Messi spent 38.50 percent of the match outside the attacking third which is fine for a No 10 who plays behind the striker in a new formation that Argentina tried today but not for your most potent goalscorer. Argentina need goals, which means Messi should be the receiver of support rather than the supplier of it. Messi has played three different roles in the World Cup so far — against Iran and Nigeria he played in a narrow system with two strikers ahead of him while and against Bosnia he was an out an out as a striker with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero filling the wings. Against Switzerland, Argentina lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Higuain at the top with Angel di Maria, Messi and Ezequiel Lavezzi in support.
Messi’s heatmap vs Switzerland where he played a withdrawn role
Messi’s contribution to the game — seven chances created, three out of eight crosses successful, one assist and eight take-ons show that he was the focal point of Argentina’s attacks, but with no result for 118 gruelling minutes of football. Sabella’s team boasts of world-class attackers who seemed like they didn’t know how to play with each other. The obvious factor lacking in the team is a midfielder to pull the strings — someone like a Xavi or an Andres Iniesta off whom Messi can feed as he does at Barcelona.
Another proof of Messi’s burden is the number of tackles he made (as shown in the graphic below) in the middle of the pitch. It is the primary duty of Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano to win the ball in those areas, but each of the six successful tackles they made came on the flanks — and each of Messi’s tackles came in central areas where he was trying to fill in for the wide gaps left by Argentina’s two midfield men. That is not his job — his job is to score goals and win Argentina matches.
Messi’s tackles in 120 minutes
From a tactical point of view, Sabella needs to sort his starting XI out. Argentina are a vastly talented, probably over-talented attacking team, which is finding it hard to accommodate so many forwards without a midfield maestro to dictate play. But that doesn’t mean the onus is on Messi to do everything — win the ball, create and score. He is not a player who will take speculative efforts at goal, but one who will shoot and pass only if he is sure — and for that, he needs to be afforded the freedom and space to play in a purely attacking role rather than sacrificing him to fill the shoes of a type of player that Argentina do not have.