Manchester United vs Barcelona: How Smalling kept Lionel Messi in check

Lionel Messi is swarmed by Manchester United players during the 1-0 win over the Red Devils at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. (Reuters)

Smalling’s Big Gain

Though not the most cultured or efficient of centre-backs around, a workman-like Chris Smalling did an impressive job in restricting Lionel Messi, even it meant leaving the Barcelona talisman with a bloodied nose and him providing the most decisive pass of the game.

Not the Quickest, But Street-Wise

Smalling makes no pretense of his lack of speed, but he compensates with his smarts, out-reading the intentions of the players, tracking movements and not letting them off the hook. The strategy is risk-inherent, when you are up against a gifted trickster like Messi-when he has the ball at his feet, he could hoodwink the shrewdest markers. Dispossessing him is among the toughest tasks in football. So the most practical method to stifle Messi was not to concede the ball to his twinkling feet at all. That explains the rationale behind the reckless, though not cynical, steam-engine-like ramming into Messi from behind. He wasn’t in a dangerous area, and Manchester United had the numbers in the box, but Smalling didn’t want to leave anything to chance. It fully embodied his craft, the emphasis on power than sophistry.

Chris Smalling's flailing arm caught Lionel Messi in the face. (Reuters)

Brooding Physicality, composure

It’s rare that physicality intimidates Messi. But the six feet four inches tall Smalling, who stubbornly clung on to him like a phantom shadow, managed to intimidate and thus unsettle him. It might have been that the bloodied nose was subconsciously shackling him, or that Barcelona, unlike Barcelona of the past, were content sitting back on the slender lead, but the frame of Smalling hulking around him did irritate Messi, manifesting in a few un-Messi mis-passes and inaccurate hacks. The key to Smalling’s success was that he didn’t let Messi draw preposterous tackles on him. Subsequently, the Argentine was pushed back and Barcelona couldn’t maintain the high-like they prefer.

READ | Luke Shaw own goal gives Barcelona advantage over Manchester United

Smart Positioning

Defenders have a tendency to operate too close to the players they’re deputized to mark, which gives less time for recovery. A sweet dribble or silken step-over can wrong-foot them and take him out of the picture. But Smalling, when guarding Messi, maintained a safe distance, thus congesting him.

Dual Shift

A three-man back-line often distributes the load, but not quite in this game. The in-form Luke Shaw struggled in the new role, as a left-sided centre-back rather than a rampaging full back. The mercurial Victor Lindelof endured one of his typical off-days, when he was utterly out-of-depth and nervous. The onus to prevent further dentures into the 1-0 scoreline was entirely on Smalling, and he ferociously guarded his territory, stifling not just Messi but also Luis Suarez.