A team with a questionable defense gets to try to mark arguably the best player of all time, and he brought his friends. Messi's stats since joining Miami are ridiculous. They have gone from a joke and embarrassment for David Beckham to an utter machine. The question is no longer whether Messi will win the Golden Boot or will Miami make the playoffs, but whether they can win it all? A month ago I would have told you not a chance but I'm not so sure anymore. That is in Messi's hands but what Atlanta can do is try to hold their own at the Benz.
This will be the most important factor in whether Atlanta can put up a fight or be dismantled. Atlanta is 2nd in MLS with 56.3% average possession and they will need to be able to get at least that on Saturday. The logic is quite simple: for Messi and Miami to score they need the ball and if we have it they don't. Atlanta will need to be willing to be more methodical in the build up and rather than letting loose lots of 50/50 balls and going on 20-yard runs, Atlanta will need to rely on Muyumba and Almada to hold the ball in the midfield and try to orchestrate play as much as possible. It will also be a necessity to provide options for the defense to keep them from just clearing the ball which lets the opposition recycle the attack. This could also involve bringing the wingers closer inside to provide options when we hold the ball up. What is dangerous with this sit-on-the-ball idea is that you can do the most damage when attacking in transition, that might have to be a casualty of limiting Messi's chances, though.
Pressing in the Midfield
Let's rethink the question for a minute. Rather than stopping Messi because (sorry Caleb) that isn't going to happen a lot, what if we can cut off balls into him and the rest of the attack? Despite being a very old 35, Sergio Busquets is a major reason for Miami's success so far. It will be imperative that Atlanta and our attacking diamond can press and cut off Sergio Busquets from the attack. Saba will have a tall task, too. Even though Jordi Alba is unfairly overshadowed, he still has 21 trophies from Spain, Barca, and now Miami. Not a lot of MLS defenders have a European Championship, Champions League, and La Liga title to their name. This will be a tall task for Saba and only leaves Xande and Gigi to mark the rest of the defense (assuming Almada marks Busquets). The attack will have to lead the defensive charge if Atlanta wants to cut off the flow of Miami's attack.
Now when pressing and possession fails and Messi gets on the ball, Atlanta's defense will have to step up in a serious way and be smart. Messi can and, realistically, should be fouled anywhere more than 30 yards from goal. *Hack-a-Messi* Anything inside that, though, is essentially a penalty. Take that goal against Liverpool as evidence. Jesus. The defense will need to be careful with discipline to avoid any set-piece goals. In addition, it will be critical that the defense is able to maintain a good shape. Brooks has to get back and the back 4 must be maintained. Josef is not a 9 to sneeze at and would be more than happy to father the club he left on poor terms. Wiley will likely need help from Abram with Messi which means a Miles vs. Josef matchup up top and Lennon vs. Robbie Robinson. This, in theory, is an okay set of matchups but that requires that the defense is never caught out in transition and that Muyumba and Rossetto (or Sosa) are able to deal with the trailing runs. Everyone will have to be on point to match the Miami attack.