Because less players equal more space to pass and move

How to Deal with Lionel Messi

This may be an opinion piece, but these are facts: Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. I know this because he has the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or trophies resting on his mantelpiece. Rooney and Ronaldo are world class. Messi is out-of-this-world class.

At 22 years old he’s already scored 114 goals in 199 games for Barcelona. At the weekend he scored his second hat-trick in as many matches in La Liga, taking his recent tally to eight goals in three games in all competitions.

He’d struggle to ride Oblivion at Alton Towers, yet last year in the Stadio Olimpico he rose higher than Manchester United centre backs Vidic and Ferdinand to head home Barcelona’s second and seal their Champions League victory.

A week on Wednesday the reigning champions will travel to the Emirates Stadium to play an Arsenal team, who could be described as Barcelona-lite, in the next step to defending their title. All eyes will be on a left foot belonging to a certain Argentinean as that is most likely what the ball will be stuck to. So how do you get it back?

Making him play with one boot didn't work either...

Aside from assault and battery, the options are few and far between. You could man mark him, though most players get twisted blood just watching him on TV, let alone trying to attach themselves to him for an entire game. As he usually starts on the right of a three-pronged attach, the most notable candidate to do this would be Arsenal‘s left-back Gaël Clichy. He’s certainly got the pace to keep up with young Leo, however he would be getting dragged inside a) onto his weaker right foot, and b) out of position. This wouldn’t be so bad if Barcelona didn’t have the world’s most attacking right-back Dani Alves in their ranks. But they do.

Alves would be pre-occupying Clichy even if he wasn’t busy marking someone else, so remove him entirely from the equation and the Brazilian’s eyes will light up like John Terry’s when he saw Wayne Bridge’s facebook relationship status change to ‘single’. Messi loves to drift inside or switch positions with the other forwards, and therefore this rules out Clichy or any member of the back four potentially going AWOL and leaving holes for Barcá’s other attackers (yes, they have other attackers) to exploit. Arsenal could maybe sacrifice a midfielder to do the job in the way Ferguson deploys Ji-Sung Park in their big games. But who?

The central midfield trio are out of the question. Assuming Denilson and Song start as the defensive Yin to Cesc Fabregas’ creative Yang, they will both be pre-occupied with Xavi and whoever partners him, probably Iniesta or Keita, with Yaya Touré or Busquets sat behind them. This would imply sacrificing one of Arsenal’s wide attackers. Arshavin rarely tracks back in regular play and is too much of a creative outlet to be shackled in this way. Nasri generally plays on the opposite wing, though could be switched as he has the experience of playing in a deeper role on occasion and also possesses the energy and movement to shadow Messi. Again though, it would be a big ask of one of their more creative players to participate in both phases of play, and employing anyone in a man-marking role would stifle Arsenal’s fluidity and most probably backfire.

This leaves the default zonal marking, or the ‘shotgun-not-marking-him’ technique that Real Zaragoza tried at the weekend. All of the Gunners just need to remember to not dive in, as he will dodge them, or to get too tight, as he will turn them, but to not stand off too much, as he will beat them.


If, between them, they manage to contain the mercurial number 10 for 90 minutes they would have stifled the brightest star in the football universe and ushered his purple patch into the black North London night.

At least for another week.