“Man-marking Lionel Messi is almost impossible,” Massimiliano Allegri remarked in the build-up to the 2014/15 Champions League final when discussing Juventus’ potential tactics, but last Saturday night Pablo Maffeo put the “almost” in that “almost impossible” phrase.
The 20-year-old is on-loan at Girona from Manchester City this season, his third such stint at the Estadi Montilivi, and he was tasked with man-marking the Barcelona superstar during last weekend’s Catalan derby. Girona lost 3-0, but Maffeo received full marks for his individual performance as he neutralised the league’s top goalscorer, halting his 12-goal start to the season.
“I’m going to have you here for the whole game, right?” Messi asked the young Catalan in the first minute of the game and that proved to be the case, at least until the 78th minute when Maffeo was ultimately substituted off and given a well-earned breather, with the game already lost by that point.
Although normally used as a right-wing-back in Girona’s 3-5-2 system, Maffeo’s sole instruction from his coach Pablo Machín last Saturday night seemed to be to velcro himself to the Argentine, which he did ever so well, putting in a performance that even NFL cornerback coaches will be studying the tape of. He did foul Messi on a few occasions and picked up a yellow card for doing so, but generally Maffeo was able to force Messi to release the ball early and to jockey the No.10 into non-dangerous areas of the pitch without resorting to violence, instead relying on his physique and speed.
There was even a moment in the first half when both players’ top speed to that point was shown in a graphic for television. Messi: 32.6km/h. Maffeo: 32.6km/h. The youngster was matching the five-time Ballon d’Or winner stride for stride. He’d been told to stick to Messi and he did, so much so that one Spanish newspaper published a cartoon after the match of Maffeo lying in between Messi and his wife in their bed. “Honestly Maffeo, the match has finished,” cartoon Messi pleads.
One thing which real-life Messi did ask the defender during the match was whether he was on-loan from Manchester City, so close were they that they indulged in small talk. Yes, would have been the 20-year-old’s answer, as he is one of five young Citizens out on loan in Catalonia this season at the club, the latest to join the City Football Group.
Maffeo has already represented the senior Manchester City side on three occasions, once in the League Cup and twice in the Champions League, in last year’s play-off second leg against Steaua Bucharest and in the 1-1 home draw with Celtic in the group stages. That, though, was before Pep Guardiola allowed him to go back to Girona on loan for the second half of the 2016/17 season, where he was instrumental in their successful promotion push. Now back for their first ever season in LaLiga, he has impressed all onlookers so far, not just in this Barcelona game.
One of those onlookers to have been impressed is Guardiola himself, who will know exactly how difficult man-marking Messi is, having seen several defenders fail during his time in charge of the Blaugrana. Even though City have famously spent £130 on full-backs, the Catalan coach does not believe Maffeo’s path to the first team is definitively blocked and he explained this week that the decision to send Maffeo back out on loan was anything but a dismissal of the youngster’s talents. “If they can’t play in the first team right now then they need to go to other leagues like the Netherlands and Spain and be in those big games playing against players like Messi,” Guardiola said. “That is the best way to improve. Young players like Maffeo and others must play. The sooner they reach this level of competition the better for them to take a step forward and become better players.”
There is hope, then, that Maffeo can become a starter for Manchester City at right-back one day in the future, with this unorthodox Messi-tracking role perhaps an important step in that quest. Already it has been quite a journey, one which started in 1997 near Barcelona’s Sant Joan Despí, which is when and where Maffeo was born. He represented his local team Levante Las Planas as a centre-forward at a young age, before moving to Espanyol and playing for their B team as a right-back in the Spanish third division at 15 years of age and against adults much older than him, ultimately catching of the eye of City’s talent spotters. Now, at 20, he has taken on and successfully handled one of the best players of all time. The sky is the limit for Maffeo – and the Sky Blues could be the ones to benefit.