Messi - the devastating decoy
Reading Phil McNulty's blog after the Arsenal-Barcelona game, I was struck by the number of people who went out of their way to criticise the performance of Lionel Messi.
People are expecting circus tricks and something special in every game. It is the dilemma of the big name star in today's football.
The overkill of the marketing industry means that there is more focus than ever before on the top individuals - at a time when the physical and tactical development of the game makes football more collective than ever before.
Lionel Messi turns away from Cesc Fabregas during Barcelona's 2-2 Champions League draw at Arsenal - pic: Getty
Back in the 1950s, when sides played the WM system, football was essentially a collection of one against one duels - the right-back against the left-winger, the left-back against the right-winger, the centre-back against the centre-forward, and so on.
The great Hungarian side of the mid-50s rendered this obsolete. Their centre-forward dropped deep, leaving the centre-half in no man's land, and two attacking midfielders rushed in for the kill. Players became important not only in terms of the space they occupied, but also because of the space where their dynamism could take them.
The Brazilians found a way to protect themselves against this threat - the back four, with its key concept of extra defensive cover. But withdrawing an extra man to the back line left the midfield duo with acres around them, a problem spotted by left-winger Mario Zagallo, who funnelled back to help.
As the French coach Aime Jacquet said decades later, Zagallo taught the world that a player can have two shirts - that of attacker and defender.
Zagallo was fundamental to the World Cup wins of '58 and '62 and four years later England had a Zagallo on either flank, with Martin Peters and Alan Ball carrying out the double function. And so was born 4-4-2, probably the most successful system in the history of the game.
It was a key moment on the way to the revolutionary Holland side of 1974, with its clear intention of having as many players as possible involved in the play at any given moment, either in trying to win the ball back, or in giving options to the man on the ball.
The whole team - even the goalkeeper - had two shirts. It was the football of participation.
According to Brazil's physical preparation specialists, at the time of that great Dutch side, players were running 5,000 metres per game. By the mid 90s this had doubled, and now some players are covering 13,000.
Obviously, this leaves less space on the field for the star player to show his stuff. Instead of the previous succession of isolated one against duels, the game now is a permanent dispute of 11 against 11, where teams fight to create space for their talented players.
Mario Zagallo, scoring during the 1958 World Cup final, filled a vital dual role for Brazil - pic: Getty
Now, more than ever, the rule applies that the stars appear when the balance of the team is correct. It is impossible to judge the contribution of the gifted individual without reference to how he fits in to the collective context.
But in today's climate this elemental truth can be hidden. With all the individual endorsement deals, FIFA World Player of the Year awards and so on, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that football is a team game.
A player's performance, though, should not be judged on how many stepovers he performed, but by how his display contributed to the team's objective.
Lionel Messi against Arsenal is an illustration. The little man had a profound effect on the game. He wants the ball played to his feet and the opposition are justifiably terrified by the prospect of him turning and spinning into one of his dribbles, and so they try to crowd him out.
The centre-back on that side of the field is concerned with pushing up and denying him space, which means that if Ibrahimovic can spin off the other centre back he is through on goal. There is no cover. The mere presence of Messi has negated the key advantage of the back four formation.
On the evidence of last month's 1-0 win away to Germany, Argentina have also worked out how to use Messi as a decoy. He drags the opposing defence over to the right, creating space for Angel Di Maria to fly down the other flank.
This is something that national team coach Diego Maradona understands well. In his finest hour, the 1986 World Cup, he took out England and Belgium single handedly on the way to the final, where he met the full force of the German marking.
What did he do? He dragged his markers all over the field and provided passes for his team-mates, like the one from which Jorge Burruchaga scored the winning goal. It was superb individual talent placed at the service of the collective - and that is the mark of the truly great player.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) What has happened to Andres D' Alessandro? He seems to have been lost off the radar since he had a loan move to Portsmouth. Is he ever likely to fulfil his early promise and do you think he is ever likely to play for the national team again?
A) Never say never, but his career hasn't come close to fulfilling the hopes I had for him. European football can be hard on the playmaker, with the space squeezed and he was often turned into a wide midfielder, which he was not keen on.
He's in Brazil with Internacional of Porto Alegre. There are some nice touches, but he's not dominating the game the way he promised to do when he first broke into the River Plate side.
Q) I was wondering how Édison Méndez has been getting on since returning home to Ecuador with Liga de Quito. I always thought that Méndez looked a useful player when he was at PSV and I was surprised to see that he had returned to South America whilst still reasonably young at 30.
A) I too am a huge fan - followed him on the way up and see him as an excellent all round midfielder who is worthy of wider attention. He helped LDU win the Copa Sud or Sul Americana (Europa League equivalent) and he's now gone to Brazil to join Atletico Mineiro, though he's not eligible to play until July.
Q) Is there any chance Nelson Cuevas will make the Paraguay squad this year? Coaches don't seem to like him but he has made a real impact off the bench in previous World Cups. He is one of the most skilful players I've ever seen.
A) I first saw him at the start of 1999 in the South American Under-20 Championships. He played at both right-back and left wing, and interpreted both roles in exactly the same way - going on mazy dribbles with the ball tied to his foot. He was indeed a great impact sub in the last two World Cups, and is pushing his claims back at home with Olimpia. But Paraguay have a couple of players in front of him in the queue who also look like promising impact subs - Edgar Benitez on the left, and the fast arriving Rodolfo Gamarra on the right. Cuevas' chances are not looking good at the moment.