Maradona gambles on the ‘owner’ to deliver Cup glory

Image of Simon Kuper

In the German squad’s five-star hotel outside Pretoria, their match analysts have spent days thinking about Lionel Messi. Germany enter Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina in Cape Town with a “Messi strategy”. It may well work. There is a way to stop the world’s best footballer, and Messi’s own coach, Diego Maradona, may inadvertently have stumbled upon it.

Messi should be the key player of these last eight days of the tournament. In modern World Cups, the team with the best player usually does best. Ferenc Puskas, Pelé, Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo all took their teams at least to the final. The reason is nanotechnology: in these last games, against the tightest defences, only a genius can find inches of space. Messi is that genius. As Maradona says, “No other player at this World Cup has 30 per cent of Messi’s qualities.”

The only problem is how to use him. Messi’s coach at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, said, “Leo, I want you closer to the penalty area,” and moved Messi from the wing to just behind the striker. Maradona has made a different choice. He wanted Messi to be, in Argentine football parlance, the team’s “owner”, a sort of quarterback who structures attacks. “He should feel close to the ball,” says Maradona. But that’s very different from being close to the penalty area. As “owner”, Messi is always dropping back to collect the ball from his defenders, about 30 metres behind where he normally gets possession for Barcelona.

In the early stages against Mexico on Sunday, he kept getting the ball near the halfway line. He’d then turn to find a screen of nine Mexicans waiting for him. It’s as if Argentina was relying on him to recreate Maradona’s second goal against England in 1986: the dribble through an opposing team to score. Even for Messi, that’s tricky. In addition, the Mexicans took turns kicking him, almost always outside free-kick range. Trying to describe the little man’s role, you reached for terminology from outside this sport: a quarterback forever getting sacked.

Maradona likes to think he has built a team to serve Messi, but he hasn’t. Messi needs what Maradona had in 1986: a midfield full of tacklers who win the ball for him. Argentina here have only one, Javier Mascherano. Their other midfielders have been suboptimal attacking players: Ángel Di María, Jonás Gutiérrez and Juan Sebastián Verón. Consequently, Argentina rarely win balls in midfield. “What I didn’t like is that we left the ball so often to Mexico in the second half,” Maradona complained on Sunday. “It’s our ball.” But this is his team.

The Argentine midfielder Juan Sebastián Riquelme, one of several players bizarrely exiled by Maradona, says: “At Barcelona, Messi has five possibilities to get the ball or to pass it. In the national team he doesn’t.”

Argentina’s opening goal against Mexico showed how lethal Messi could be if flanked by ball-winners. Nicolás Burdisso broke up a Mexican attack on the halfway line, and the ball fell to Messi, who for once had space ahead of him. Inevitably he set up Carlos Tévez, who scored – admittedly while acres offside, but that escaped the linesman. Mexico then had to attack, and spaces opened up for Argentina. If you give Messi and Tévez space, they will produce goals. That’s why Argentina have 10 so far, more than any other team. But if they can’t get that first goal – and they will find it trickier from now on than against the second-raters they have crushed so far – Messi could meet a lot of nine-man screens.

Happily for him the Germans don’t have the world’s most solid defence. They cannot recreate the wall that Inter’s Jose Mourinho drew up against Barça in spring. Germany’s Messi strategy will be to have one man confronting him, and another backing up just behind. But if Messi keeps starting from the halfway line, the Germans should be OK.

In 1986 Maradona won Argentina a World Cup almost by himself. If he loses one with this team, he and his nation will be quits.

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