How Does the Best Team Stop the Best Player?
The most exciting World Cup in decades concludes today in the final match that showcases the world’s best player against the tournament's best team. Lionel Messi leads Argentina against Germany in a game that will be watched by an audience of about a billion people.
The German team is a merciless, efficient machine with few weaknesses and depth at every position. The Germans are technically and tactically excellent. They don’t make many mistakes and take advantage of the mistakes of opponents. However, they do have one weakness—their first-step speed. Against quicker teams such as Ghana and Algeria they had problems when defenders faced one-on-one situations.
Conversely, Argentina’s strength is its high-powered offense with great speed and dribbling skills led by its two offensive stars, Messi and Angel di Maria. Argentina is not as deep as Germany and will need another great defensive performance.
So what does that mean for the game today? It means the key to the game will be which team can control the pace of play.
Germany will try to slow the pace of the game, make it a possession game, and compact the field by not allowing open space for Argentina—and in particular Messi—to use speed with and without the ball.
Obviously, the Germans need to neutralize Messi. Like most teams, Germany will surround Messi to not only deny him the ball but ensure several defenders play between him and the goal when he does get it. I also think you will see the German squad knock him down early and often. Messi is not a big guy and the Germans have a lot of big, physical players. If you knock Messi down at midfield before he gets going, Argentina gets a harmless free kick. You take him down in open space when he is on a run and you’ll get a yellow card. Germany needs to stay away from early yellow cards. This will limit their ability to beat up on Messi for the entire 90 or potentially 120 minutes. Messi is good going right but he is a magician with his left. As hard as it is to stay committed to it, the Germans need to sit on Messi’s left foot. The Germans will know they have succeeded in stopping Messi if he starts dropping back into the midfield because he is frustrated at not getting the ball.
Argentina, on the other hand, will push the pace trying to create a much more wide-open game in which their one-on-one skills and speed can beat the slower German defenders.
It is critical that either di Maria is healthy and plays or one of the other offensive stars steps up with a brilliant performance. Argentina needs someone to put pressure on the German outside back to pull players away from Messi to create the space he needs to get going.
Argentina knows the Germans will play physically so expect them to take a few early dives. If they can get Germany with an early yellow card or two, then that will significantly prevent the Germans from beating on Messi.
Tactically, I expect Argentina to push Messi up high forcing Germany to either drop several of their defenders deep into their own side or leave Messi relatively alone. But what we have expected hasn't always come to pass in this World Cup.