It was something we used to see quite a lot in football, but not so often in today’s game. I’m talking about man-marking – Estampilla or Postal-marking as they call it in Argentina, in reference to the postmark which is rubber-stamped on an envelope. But nowadays you hardly see stamps on envelopes or man-marking in football. Girona coach Pablo Machín brought it back in Saturday’s game against Barça, pegging Pablo Maffeo to Leo Messi's side. And it worked a treat. Messi didn’t score – in fact he only had two shots, one on target and the other one went wide. Not that the tactic completely snuffed him out of the game (we are talking about Messi here…); he looked for ways to help the team when he could, he had a couple of brilliant moments of skill, he moved around – trailed all the while by his marker to open up spaces for his team mates... But he didn’t have the same explosive impact he usually has.
Messi shows respect for marker Maffeo
Until last weekend, Maffeo was just another hard-working member of the squad, but he’s since gained a certain notoriety for his expertise in keeping Messi shackled. He did a much better job than say Claudio Gentile did with Maradona in Italy’s meeting with Argentina at the old Sarriá ground at the 1982 World Cup; he kept Maradona out of the game – but with constant fouls, including some quite nasty ones. Gentile remained on the pitch because of the benevolence of the ref. Maffeo on the other hand did a very neat job on Messi, who didn’t complain once – indeed took a bit of an interest in the player who was shadowing him all over the pitch and exchanged a few words with him, showing his marker respect. Maffeo meanwhile comes across as a decent lad – such a nice bloke that, rather than asking Messi if they could swap shirts at the end to keep as a trophy hunting souvenir, he went over to Ter Stegen to ask for his shirt as a present for one of his friends: “I’d promised to do it, so I had to keep my word”, he explained to the media afterwards.
Modern defending is a collective task
Employing zonal defending is the more rational way for modern coaches and it’s an idea which has been developed in recent years. Defending is now a collective concept which not only involves the back four moving in harmony but also demands that players further up the field press their opponents. It’s a theory which was put into practice to great effect by Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan - but there is nothing wrong in employing man-marking in exceptional circumstances – and when your team is up against Leo Messi is a clear case in point. Before Saturday’s game he had hit nine goals in five games and I've lost count of how many times he has struck the post. Machín had a brainwave to stop and it worked out well for him. Barça won the match just the same but then, what can you do when you concede two own goals?