People still stop Ron Vlaar at the super market to ask him about his match, 8 years ago, versus Argentina and Messi. This will only become more the case in the coming days. Not many defenders can say that they silenced the little maestro. And that was all at the biggest platform: the World Cup. The AZ youth coach explains how.
So how do you prep for a match up with Messi?
“You don’t. You should prepare for a game versus Argentina. And that was then and it’s the same now. You do need to take into account his particular skill set and quality, but you need to anticipate as a team, on them as a team. But a team with Messi. I just told myself, that whenever Messi would be in my neck of the woods, I had to stop him.”
So it was a team task?
“Yes of course. No one was sacrificed to play or mark him. It’s important that you constantly watch him and check his movements, in particular when we have the ball. Those are the moments he is waiting for. He’ll drift, he’ll wander, he will go to the spaces inbetween, mostly strolling almost. You saw it versus Australia as well. And his team mates will know where he is, and when they get possession back, like a snake they’ll find him fast. Half a ball is enough for him to punish you really. So that is where we need to be sharp. And I think we did well, in 2014.”
So how important was blocking the pass lines to Messi?
“They play the exact same way now as they played in 2014. Find Messi and give him the ball. It was very visible this way versus the Aussies this time around. They were sloppy in the first half, so they didn’t really find him, but in the second half they did, and Messi was immediately threatening.”
How do you look back at those personal duels?
“People still ask me about this. And I think there are some cool photos from that match. I personally don’t remember the match as me versus him. I fought duels with a lot of players in that game but these duels are less important to the fans I guess. For me, the whole performance was important, the team performance. At the end of the day, you need to do your job as a defender, no matter who the opponent.”
But Messi’s feet are a tad quicker than the average other player..
“That is true which is why you need to be ready for him before he gets the ball. If you can anticipate his runs, you have a chance. If you react to him, you’re usually too late already. You have to scan constantly. You need to take into account what is happening and what can happen. Because if you allow him to turn and then run at you, you’re toast. He has speed, ball skills, he can go left, right. The key things are anticipating and reading the situation. The good thing is, Frenkie and De Roon have the tendency to constantly look around them, all the time. They should be ready for him.”
And the forward press is key too?
“Super important, because Messi loves to drop deep to find space and make his runs. You need to be compact. And you need to pressure him from two angles. Close in on him. Ake and Timber are very good in the press and that will be a major asset. I played in the Virgil role back then and my role is the same as Virgil’s: to be there when he slips through the cracks.”
And than there is the role of the holding mid.
“Yes, that was something Nigel de Jong did for us in that semi final and he had to leave the pitch for an hour or so. He had to be subbed and Jordy Clasie did his job as a sub, which he did ever so well. That was such an important performance, as Clasie hadn’t played a single minute. In this Oranje, I think De Roon will be key, for when Frenkie is on his bike. Don’t forget, Dumfries is also usually gone.”
Which Argentina is better you think, the 2014 team or the current team?
“I think the Brazil one was bnetter. They had a younger Messi, a younger Di Maria, Higuain, Aguero, Mascherano, really top players. And more individual qualities. But, just like then, this Argentina does play as a team.”
Are you confident for the game?
“Yes, I think Holland is actually better. We don’t play flash, but we play very business like. To win. I loke that. And if the play with the ball is not good, they still perform their tasks without the ball. This team is hard to beat. And we have players who can make a difference. I too enjoy good football, but winning is more important to me. I don’t care how. It’s not about how good you are, but are you good enough to win. And this Oranje is good enough to win.”
While we’re talking, I can see Messi make his way up to the training pitch at Doha!
“Haha, cool! Tell him I said hi!”