Messi issues edict on formation ahead of crunch Switzerland fixture
Argentina’s taciturn midfield maestro confirms preferred team shape of 4-3-3
Lionel Messi: made it clear a five-man defence is not a formation of which he approves. Photograph: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
I watched the first half of Argentina’s World Cup opener against Bosnia with a friend in a restaurant in Salvador, at half-time we talked about how bad Lionel Messi had been. Argentina were playing an unfamiliar 5-3-2 formation and Messi seemed lost. Neither of us could remember seeing him play so badly.
My friend suggested Messi was not the easiest player for a manager to read. “Messi doesn’t talk, so it’s difficult for the others to figure out what he wants. But . . . they know he wants something.”
Luckily for Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella, Messi chose the aftermath of the Bosnia match to break with his usual habit. In simple terms, he spelled out exactly what he wanted the coach and the team to do in the next match.
Argentina could not afford to repeat the experiment with the five-man defence, said Messi. He also confirmed that he personally felt much more comfortable playing in a 4-3-3, as they had in the second half against Bosnia.
Some coaches might feel threatened by their best player taking control of the direction of the team in a press conference, but Sabella seems to be content with Messi holding the whip hand. He is modest enough to realise that there are a thousand potential Alejandro Sabellas out there but only one Lionel Messi, so if the genius prefers things to be a certain way his job is to facilitate that.
The sight of Ezequiel Lavezzi squirting water onto his coach’s head as Sabella tried to give him instructions before sending him on as a substitute caused some to question whether the former Leeds player had the respect of his squad. In fact, his humility might mean he is the right man in the right place.
At yesterday’s press conference, Sabella dealt with the usual questions: Is Messi as good as Maradona? (Maradona was great but Messi is doing great). Is Messi better than Neymar? (Messi is the world’s best, but Neymar is also great). He knows there’s not a lot left to say, he is a spectator like the rest of us. Pep Guardiola said last year that if Messi turned up at the World Cup in form, Argentina would have to be the favourites. So far, Pep’s prediction is looking good.
He has propelled Argentina into the second round without appearing to break sweat. A look at Fifa’s World Cup data sheds some light on the super-efficient style Messi is developing. He may not yet be the greatest player of all time, but among the greats he is probably the most tasteful minimalist.
No defensive duties
Of the 17 outfield players in the Argentina and Switzerland squad who have each played at least 200 minutes in the World Cup so far, Messi has covered fewer metres than any of them except his team-mate Sergio Aguero. Aguero was unfit from the start but even still, his average distance per minute suggests that if he had played the same number of minutes as Messi, he would comfortably have run more.
Messi is also not required to do any defending, spending 80 per cent of his time on the field in the opposition half.
He is clearly rationing his energy for the explosive bursts that do the damage in the final third, but he also rations the explosive bursts. Higuain, Di Maria and the two full-backs all do much more sprinting, and Messi’s 84 sprints would not get him into the top seven in the Swiss team.
Messi is one of the world’s best dribblers, so it’s no surprise that his 46 deliveries and solo runs are the highest in either squad – and the second highest in the tournament, after Germany’s Toni Kroos, who is rather more fond of deliveries than solo runs.
The thing that makes Messi really special is his superhuman precision. He has scored four times from seven shots on target.
There was an argument that Nigeria’s keeper Enyeama might have made a better effort at saving Messi’s second goal in that match, a long-distance free kick, but otherwise the placement of Messi’s strikes would have beaten any goalkeeper. Switzerland’s top scorer, Xherdan Shaqiri, has hit the target with 13 shots but scored with only three of those.
The statistics suggest the dynamo of the Argentina side is Di Maria. He has delivered the ball into the opposing penalty area more times than any other player in the World Cup. If Switzerland want to progress, stopping him is a must. But they know they can’t afford to make Di Maria their number one priority.