Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Lionel Messi says football is too tactical

Lionel Messi went into more detail than ever before in an interview with Juan Pablo Varsky for Clank! Notably, he talks about tactics, not being a ‘natural right-winger’ and how ‘Enganche’s’ helped Argentina play short, four- to five-meter passes.

Varsky: How much importance do you give to tactics, and what is tactics to you?

Messi: The truth is, I didn’t give much importance to tactics either. With Guardiola, I think I learned a lot and understood much more about the game, spaces, ball possession, and controlling matches through possession. I think football has evolved a lot too, and today it’s all very tactical, too tactical. Today, any team with a 4-4-2 line, putting five at the back, organized and well-worked, can complicate things for you. Before, there was much more space. I think today it’s much more tactical and physical.

“Too tactical.” I’d like to think that Messi wants the players around him to be unpredictable because he can read the situation better than anyone else. He is right; when you look back at the past there was a lot more space. Those Barcelona teams had an edge; I’m not sure if they’d have an edge if they played today.

Varsky: On the one hand, there is greater and better defensive organization, but there is less spontaneity and less dribbling. Why do you think that happens? Because players are more formatted by the academy than by the street?

Messi: Yes, I think that the Guardiola era also confused things a bit because everyone wanted to copy and wanted their teams to play that way, to be like Barcelona at that time. Many times, we talked about kids who are starting at six or seven years old, being told they have to play two touches, play quickly, and can’t hold the ball much. I think at that age, it has to be a bit like what happened to me: everyone is who they are. Yes, you have to teach them to understand the game better from a young age, to know how to move, find spaces, and play quickly, but also not take away their spontaneity. I think that has always been the case, that South American players have always been different and had much more of that than Europeans.

The greater problem now is not the nostalgia, thinking about how the Barcelona we loved would not have an edge today, the problem is that we are developing less creative players. Thankfully, coaches have expressed that they realized this and are again embracing street football, but the idea of positional football has infected too much of the footballing world.

It could take years to see change, but that opens an opportunity for the innovators to gain their own competitive advantage by countering the positional game with more relational principles from the street. The truth is that not giving an instruction is a tactic.

Varsky: It helped you to start, at least as a professional, playing as a right winger. The sideline kept you in order at that time until it got to a point where it limited you more than it organized you.

Messi: Well, I had no choice either, because it was the only space where I could play at that moment. I had played my entire youth career; we played 3-4-3. I was the tip of the diamond, playing as an attacking midfielder, and it suited me perfectly. We played with a five-man defense, and Víctor Vázquez was our central midfielder.

Varsky: And you were behind him?

Messi: Yes, and we had a great team back then too.

Varsky: It was a 3-4-3 formation?

Messi: Yes, it was the era where, in a way, Cruyff set the style, and we all played that way. Even the first team played that way often. When Rijkaard came, he changed to a 4-3-3. I had no choice but to play on the right wing. Honestly, I didn’t understand much about the position either.

Varsky: Did Rijkaard convince you, or did you just adapt?

Messi: I adapted. I was good one-on-one, quick, and understood the game. I adapted because of the quality of the players I had around me. Having players at that level makes you better. At the beginning of my career, when I debuted, I was more individualistic, playing one-on-one and doing my moves. But I learned to play more as a team player. I grew, added new elements to my game, and adapted to the winger position. But it was never my natural position.

I’d pay money to see Lionel Messi sit behind Romario at the top of Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 diamond formation. I’ve never heard him say right-wing wasn’t his natural position, but it makes sense. You’d want him at the center of everything.

Varsky: When did playing together with short, 4-5-meter passes become natural?

Messi: I think we felt it during the match against Brazil. We felt we had played a great game, and despite the result, we were superior in the game. Things just developed from there. You can have an idea, but you need the right players too. We found wonderful ‘Enganche’s’ (playmakers), most of whom had been playmakers at some point, and it shows. It shows in our ball possession. Generally, playmakers are different players who rarely lose the ball, and in the midfield, we started losing the ball less and had long possessions. Rodrigo (De Paul), Enzo (Fernandez), Alexis (Mac Allister), Leandro (Paredes), Gio (Lo Celso), even Fideo (Di María) were playmakers.

Varsky: You too. You’ve been playing as Messi for a while, but you’re a playmaker.

Messi: Yes, it’s what we said at the beginning. If I had to fill out a customs form, I’d put “Enganche.” Even though playmakers don’t really exist anymore, they are more like central midfielders now. But yes, that’s why I say all the midfielders have very good skills. We found a bit of balance.

The teams that want that edge that I talked about need ‘Enganche’s’. If it doesn’t work on the street, it won’t work on the pitch.

Messi offered up some trivia about Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni, whom he played with in 2006:

Messi: Scaloni also mentioned that he gave me the first pass in the national team, but I don’t remember that; I didn’t see it. Overall, the locker room supported me a lot.

The entire interview is a gold mine of information from a player who normally doesn’t go into this much detail publicly.

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