It’s almost time, y’all. He’s coming.
We’ve known for a while that this would happen, but it seemed so far away. Now, it’s just a matter of days - Lionel Messi will step on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf on Saturday to take on Atlanta United.
Since his arrival at Inter Miami, he has been a central factor in the Herons’ midseason turnaround which included the club’s first title following its crowning as Leagues Cup champions.
Posting an impressive 11-goal, five-assist return in 11 appearances across all competitions, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner hit the ground running with his new club and has proven very problematic for opposing defenses.
Miami has been undefeated since Messi’s debut, winning eight of its 12 matches and outscoring opponents 33-14.
So what can Atlanta United do to break the streak? How can the Five Stripes keep Messi quiet?
Step one: Send hope and prayers. Lots of hope and prayers.
Possession and pressing
It may seem like a no-brainer, but players like Messi are most dangerous when they have the ball. So just don’t let him have the ball. Simple enough, right?
Leading up to the match against FC Cincinnati, Gonzalo Pineda cited keeping possession as one of the main keys to breaking down a consistently well-drilled side like Cincy. And looking at that match, I think that strategy worked pretty well at first. The Five Stripes maintained a lot of the ball in the opening 30 minutes and created plenty of chances during that time.
It was when the players lost control and began to do things that Assistant Coach Diego De La Torre described as “not how we play” that things went downhill and the visitors grew into the game.
De la Torre said the team simply lost control of the game. Said he didn’t think it was due to fitness. Praised Wiley and his growth, both mentally and physically. Said Thiago’s confidence is no worry but reiterated the team as a whole lost control. Said team wasn’t looking 1/2 pic.twitter.com/Q8ZLhjKRzd— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) August 31, 2023
In the 12 games played since Messi’s arrival, Miami has dominated the possession in all but two. Through those games, the Herons are averaging 57.7% possession and being very effective with it.
The longer Atlanta keeps the ball, the less time Miami has to cause damage. But Atlanta needs to make the most of that possession, too, and will inevitably lose the ball. What then? Well, they’ll just have to go win the ball back. Man, I can’t believe no one’s thought of this before. Maybe I should be coaching...
This is where the team’s pressing comes into play. Atlanta United likes to impose intense pressure on its opponents and the pressing has improved thanks to some of the latest additions to the team. We’ve already hit plenty on how Tristan Muyumba helps provide stability in midfield, and Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze’s speed on either side of the front three makes them effective at pushing up and putting pressure on opposing backlines.
Miami can play out of pressure. Having Sergio Busquets who can reliably find a way to progress the ball certainly helps. But this doesn’t mean Atlanta shouldn’t press and make their lives more difficult.
Close him down near the box
Messi’s EA FC 24 card gives him 87 shooting which is just... I mean...
What can't he do?!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 15, 2023
Make it NINE goals in six games for Leo Messi. pic.twitter.com/HLf3zBFTmV
Out of this WORLD.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 20, 2023
Take a bow, Leo Messi. pic.twitter.com/qm90VJtVbc
Plus a few of these...
Yeah, that 87 rating seems like a bit of an insult.
So with the knowledge that he is probably the best finisher in the league, Atlanta United will need to limit the space they afford him, especially around the box. If Messi gets the space to take a shot with his killer left foot, he’s going to take it.
Now, of course, Messi isn’t just a superb finisher. He’s also a world-class dribbler who has the skill to maneuver past defenders and create space for himself. But you have to at least try and make him as uncomfortable as possible whenever he’s winding up a shot.
Well, get in his way as much as possible but...
Don’t foul around the box (but still foul him elsewhere)
So remember how some MLS teams learned the hard way not to foul Atlanta United players near the box because we have an Argentine attacker who scores free kicks at will? Well...
HE DID IT AGAIN.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 7, 2023
LEO MESSI. FREE KICK. EQUALIZER. 4-4. pic.twitter.com/Yh1TXFDENH
Inter Miami got jealous of Atlanta’s free-kick magician, so they went and got one of their own. And while Thiago Almada might be good at free kicks, Messi is really good at them. At this point, conceding a dangerous free kick to the Herons is like conceding a penalty.
So while the defenders will be tasked with keeping Messi and Co. in check, they’ll also have to be mindful not to give away any silly fouls in free-kick range.
However, there is an addendum to this point: Atlanta United totally should foul Messi elsewhere.
Atlanta United was really good at not fouling Messi during Miami’s 4-0 thrashing of the Five Stripes in Leagues Cup. Too good. To the point where Messi was not fouled a single time in that game.
Fouling is an important resource in soccer. Sometimes, it is the only defensive action that will stop the opposition from overwhelming you in transition. There’s nothing wrong with fouling as long as it is done wisely.
Don’t lose track of him
Earlier, I was ranting about one of Messi’s stats being insultingly low on EA FC 24. Well, one that I’d argue they probably got right is his 80-rated pace. Anyone who has watched Messi play recently knows that he does a lot of walking on the field.
And it’s this walking that sometimes proves to be his greatest asset for many reasons. Obviously, it means he conserves energy for when he really does have to pick up the pace. But it also lulls the opposition into a false sense of security. He’s just walking around and doesn’t look that dangerous until...
Messi --> Cremaschi --> MESSI— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 27, 2023
OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD. pic.twitter.com/NzBKniNExm
He comes out of nowhere and makes something like this happen. For those of you who were wondering, yes, Messi really did just score a goal while no less than seven New York Red Bulls players were standing around him in awe.
And he could do something similar to Atlanta United if they're not careful. Actually, he already did.
Notice how in neither of those plays did Messi have to do any sort of trickery or crazy skill moves with the ball. He literally just ran into the heart of the penalty area and finished once the ball got to him. Heck, if Santiago Sosa had stayed with Messi instead of giving up when the ball was played, he may have been able to change the outcome of that play.
Messi is not a particularly fast player, but he knows exactly where he needs to be so it seems like he’s much more mobile than he really is.
Of course, Messi isn’t going to be the only player lining up for Miami. The Herons had a very productive transfer window that saw veteran world-class players like Messi, Busquets and Jordi Alba come in alongside younger talent like Tomas Aviles, Diego Gomez and Facundo Farias.
While the Five Stripes will certainly have to keep tabs on his teammates, limiting Messi’s influence on the field could prove key to Atlanta United getting a result against Miami.