Several months ago Lionel Messi was injured in the middle of the La Liga season and required nearly two months to heal fully. When he returned he was not his usual scintillating self for stretches of games, and in a few occasions, for a few games in a row.
The tenor of those “lapses” was strange as with the exception of when it happened during the Copa del Rey against a rampant Real Madrid and the final match against a rough and inspired Atletico Madrid, most of the “lapses” were during games that turned out to be irrelevant. Barcelona was in the running for all but the Champions League until the very end of the competitions this last season and Messi picked his spots but contributed.
What we guessed might be happening with Messi then was, that as opposed to Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Franck Ribery who seemed to come back early from their mid-season injuries, and who immediately set about trying to regain their top form and contribute to their teams’ ongoing battles, Lionel was taking an “I’m saving myself for the World Cup” attitude. Months later, with all three of the other players no longer in contention, all via injury, two via injuries obtained during the season, which never healed, we have proof positive that Messi was targeting this summer as his time to get back in top form. It seems to have worked for him.
Now come Argentina’s first true test, a semifinal against opponent that does belong on the pitch with the South American giants and their resurgent star. All of Argentina’s wins this cup have been by a one-goal margin, regardless of level of competition, so Argentina has not been playing particularly well. But Messi has. The issue then is, will an inspired Messi be enough to overcome an opponent who has already been severely tested in the tournament and has responded by winning via very good performances, albeit at times needing extra time or penalties, and the timely touches of a masterful coach? The only possible response is maybe.
Netherlands coach, Louis van Gaal admitted yesterday that the basic two-part formula he will attempt to employ is: “Score first, and stop Messi.”
At the highest levels of competition, that is if both teams are at the same level, a couple of goals one way or the other makes all the difference. When healthy, rested and motivated, Messi, and nearly no one else on the planet, is worth one-to-two goals any time he laces his boots. This cup, he has created 19 goal scoring chances, notched one assist and four goals, and two of his goals were game winners. Messi’s only consistent help has been Angel di Maria and we are told he will not be fit for this match, so it will be up to Messi to make things happen with a relatively unproductive supporting cast.
So one stops Messi and there is no secret to how that is done since as everyone knows what has worked against Barcelona’s Messi. Van Gaal will implement a swirling defense against Messi that will make the closest man to the diminutive Argentine responsible for denying him reception of the ball, the moment the Argentines get possession. That player will do that until the closest defender can take over as the lead of what will then be two markers on Messi for the remainder of the play.
The defensive on-field effort will leave the likes of the returning Kuhn Arguero, the well-used and speedy Ezequiel Lavezzi, and the recently rejuvenated and inspired Gonzalo Higuain, room to maneuver. Their combined output is worth a goal against any opposition whenever they are on. So one way to look at this is to say the Dutch are going to have to come up with a formula that negates three potential goals while scoring at least one of their own. Not so easy a task. But as opposed to stopping Messi, handling the other three seems doable simply by playing solid defense. The Dutch team’s second issue is scoring quickly.
The Netherlands have used seven goal scorers in securing their 12 goals, making it difficult for opponents to know where that goal is going to come from. Coach van Gaal’s tactics have directly led to three successive wins over peaking teams--Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica—who pushed the Oranje to the limit. Those tactics have invariably been implemented by incoming substitutes coordinating with regular starters to achieve a surprise objective that leads to a win.
In this game, van Gaal will have to come up with stratagems that will help his team score via set plays, set-up plays, or by exploiting an Argentine proclivity. Those Dutch chances may come routinely—via a corner, free kick, or long cross to their tall headers—or they may come a “set-up play” based on what the coach has noticed, now or during the game. He might find a different chink in his opponent’s armor and take advantage of it like he did against Mexico and Chile. Alternatively, he could simply exploit some oft-repeated Argentine ploy against them.
All teams use a wide winger, by the sideline, as an outlet on counters or goal kicks. To blunt that option Argentina’s Ezequiel Garay has developed a penchant for rushing up to and holding or pushing the outlet man on his side just before the ball arrives. He does this to unbalance the recipient and thus intercept or allow a teammate to intercept the ball. If van Gaal were to use Dirk Kuyt and Leroy Fer as the outlet men, and have them alternate between receiving the ball and playing dummy, he creates an interesting dilemma for Garay. If the ball does come to the outlet men and Garay comes in close and grabs them, Fer and Kuyt are big enough to break loose down the wing. If the dummy ploy is used and Garay has overplayed either he is out of the position on the play.
Opposite to Garay, Pablo Zabaleta is used as a Dani Alves offensive winger and he is routinely let lose by a wandering midfielder who comes to Zabaleta’s side to cover while the winger moves up. Imagine countering the routine ploy—when, for example, Fernando Gago and Zabaleta double-team the ball handler on their right defensive side, which always leads to a counter down the wing--by simply having the ball recipient one-touch a change in attacking front, ahead of the double team. That would leave Gago and Zabaleta way out of position.
Finally imagine unmasking Javier Mascherano’s formula for unsanctioned consistent fouling. The tough defensive midfielder stops counters cold by anticipating the middle of the field outlet man and clobbering him before he can get going either with or without the ball. But Mascherano accomplishes his fouling by mixing unsportsmanlike with fair but rough tackles on a very regular rhythm, which makes differentiating one from the other difficult for a ref. But if van Gaal runs dribblers (Robben?) at Mascherano early and often, he could get the midfielder to commit enough fouls to earn an early yellow.
These types of tactics, if employed in coordination, might suffice to stop Messi, force Argentina out of its comfort zone and play more defense, and ironically, give Holland the chance to score first. If the Dutch score early and slow Messi down enough, they can win. Outcome: I think Messi gets away once for the tying goal after Holland pulls ahead, but van Gaal’s tactics lead to the second and winning score for a 2-1 Dutch win. Then again, this is the cup of surprises.