Argentina not a one-man team
So it is developing into a World Cup about individuals. Lionel Messi and Neymar are taking the weight and the responsibility, and have put their countries a couple of games away from a final. It will not be easy for the Belgium players who will be trying to deal with Messi in their quarterfinal on Saturday because Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany and Daniel van Buyten are tall players and it will be hard for them, with that physique, trying to halt him.
Messi will not cope with their physicality but players built like that will find it difficult to stop him and all his mobility.There is a problem with Argentina, though. There is too much dependency on Messi and it is very risky. When you are managing a player as good as that, of course you do things to get the best out of him. But you can never know that he will always be able to do things.
If there was a player who we knew would be able to reach the level every time he walks over the line on to the field then he would be a very special one. He doesn't exist and that kind of certainty doesn't exist. It's why we love football. Things are unpredictable. Problems and challenges are created for us to cope with. What I am trying to say is that some of the other players in the Argentina team -- who have not been playing with pace or continuity -- must correct that and show the level. The problem for Belgium is how to control Messi and contain him. I remember Manchester United in the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2011, when they were working and working to close Messi down in the central areas and trying to control those central parts on the Wembley pitch.
The problem was that Barcelona had Daniel Alves working wide and David Villa going up with the United left-back. Messi always looks to go away from the game and come back in. That means that if you have one or two players on him all the time -- like the Switzerland team did on Tuesday -- there can be new spaces opening up. The opponents lose focus on those spaces. And that's why they need the other players in the team, with quick legs, to come in and work with Messi. He is a different player to Diego Maradona. He is working at his best when other players are around him, working off him. It is not the best way to make him do it on his own.
There is what I think you call a "perfect symmetry" about Argentina and Brazil, both needing their best player more than they should do. It is no different with Brazil and Neymar, who is taking a burden. I know how much talent there is to help him out because I have managed quite a few of the players in that Brazil team. There were Oscar, Ramires and David Luiz at Chelsea, and Julio Cesar who was with me at Internazionale -- all great, professional players -- but observe Luiz most carefully. People say he sometimes loses focus but I think he is one of the best defenders you will see, with vision and pace as well as passion and a good mentality. He was very good to work with at Chelsea because he wanted to improve and analyse the way he was working and playing. Like a lot of players, he needs to believe in what he is doing and will thrive with a coach who he can believe in. We are coming towards the end of the tournament now but I would not be surprised if we look back in a week and say that the Brazil coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, had found Luiz to be a huge player for him.
The Europeans are not out of it at all. Germany were under a lot of pressure against Algeria on Monday and I think the way the team played that night will be a wake-up call for them. Sometimes a performance like that in a tournament can be what is needed to shake up a team. Colombia are interesting, too. The South Americans like to set the pace of the game -- establish what we in Spain call a “contagious tempo”. They will like to keep it slow. In my experience the difficulty is that you try to impose your tempo but they bring it back down again and make it difficult.
But it is Argentina and Brazil who look most fascinating. There is so much talent in those squads that we are still waiting to see -- and the team which can bring it out on to the pitch, to work around Messi or Neymar, could be the one which lifts the trophy. We will know a little more about who has managed to do that in the quarterfinals when we talk next time.
(The author is the coach of Napoli and wrote this article for the Independent)