Many have tried to stop Leo Messi; few have succeed. When given the task last weekend, Girona’s manager Pablo Machín went for the most pragmatic of options.
If Leo Messi stepped to the right, so did Pablo Maffeo. If Messi stepped to the left, so did Maffeo. If Messi dropped down to receive the ball, Maffeo would follow. If Messi made a run forward, Maffeo would chase him. The 20-year-old player for Girona — loaned from Manchester City, the club that recently bought a major stake in this LaLiga side — had received clear orders from his manager: he had to be Messi’s shadow.
Girona were clear underdogs when facing Barcelona last Saturday. As most of the teams that face the giants Real Madrid or Barça, Girona were expected to put on a huge defensive effort in order to hold back an opposition with more technical and unpredictable players. But besides the usual collective work, there was one specific aspect that stood out. Pablo Machín, Girona’s manager, had tried to stop Barça’s most virtuous player with football’s most pragmatic option: man marking.
It could be argued that Maffeo succeeded in his mission; Messi’s direct involvement in the game was significantly reduced. The Argentinian hardly posed any danger in open plays. It was only when taking free kicks or corners that he had space to breath. But as the match went on, Messi found ways of taking advantage of the situation: by moving around the pitch and sometimes falling into an offside position on purpose, which not only made Maffeo’s job more difficult, but also created spaces for his teammates to exploit. And so Even though Messi was partially eclipsed, Girona could not stop Barcelona and lost 3-0 at home.
Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona’s manager, was asked about the non-stop man-marking at the press conference:
“When it comes to Messi, you can always expect a man-marking.
“We had to take advantage of the opportunities that a man-marking generates. It is truth that this situation influences the player that is being marked, but it can also create spaces.
“I talked to Messi about his positioning. It was not about where to put Messi, but about where to take his mark so that we could hurt them."
During the 79 minutes that they spent together, Messi and Maffeo had time to start brief conversations while not on the ball. Just as the match started, Maffeo let Leo know that he was going to chase him all around. ‘Sorry, but this is what the manager has asked me to do’, he told him. When talking to the press after the game, Maffeo said that Messi had asked him if he was on loan from Manchester City and how old he was.
When Maffeo was subbed off in the second half, he talked to his teammates on the bench about his chats with Leo. The cameras got him saying that Messi had told him that ‘playing like this is shit.’ Following the final whistle, they both shook hands and Maffeo, just as if he was a spy in a movie, reiterated to his new friend that he was just following orders. Messi smiled. They did not exchange shirts because Maffeo had to accomplish another mission: he had promised to a close friend of his that he would get him Ter Stegen’s shirt. “Messi is the best player in the world, but friends come first,” he would later say in the mixed zone.
This, of course, was not nearly first man-marking on Messi. Barça’s number 10 had been in this situation before, but Maffeo’s already ranks as one of the best attempts to stop him.