“What coach says no to Messi?” PSG manager Thomas Tuchel’s words reflect a universal truth. There is no total footballer like Messi in the final third. Whether as a winger, centre-forward, False 9, striker or an attacking midfielder, the Argentine mega star can blend into any role without disrupting the balance of a formation.
The reality, though, is that only a handful of clubs could afford him. Even if his transfer fee plummets from the astronomical £700 million stuck in his release clause, his wages, close to £95 million a year, is unviable for most clubs.
However, if for once wage discussions are put on hold, and discussion about the expected Messi switch are based on pure footballing logic, several delicious options are thrown up.
In a fantasy world, where money isn’t the prime mover and egos don’t exist, Messi is best suited to join the Champions League winner Bayern Munich. Here’s how – along with the other options.
PSG: A reunion with Neymar
Messi thought he had found a spiritual heir in Neymar during the Brazilian star’s years in Barcelona. His departure to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, several Spanish newspapers claim, sparked the beginnings of the friction between Messi and the Barcelona board.
They could now unite at PSG, and with Kylian Mbappe, they could form a fearsome trio. The Frenchman’s pace, Neymar’s wizardry and Messi’s intelligence could fetch them the elusive European crown.
Messi’s addition could unshackle Neymar, who has been thrust with a very heavy burden, just as Neymar could liberate Messi from the weight of carrying a fractured Barcelona side. The pair could operate just behind Mbappe in a fluid 4-3-2-1 formation, or in a wider 4-3-3, interchange flanks and roles, filling up each other’s space, and wreak pure havoc on backlines.
It would offer PSG considerable tactical flexibility up front, with the option of using Messi as a ‘False 9’ – essentially a striker who drops deep into the midfield – too. The two most versatile forwards operating in collusion is a match made in football heaven. It’s no mere coincidence the best of Messi in recent times has come with Neymar by his side and vice versa.
BAYERN MUNICH: With the champions
Messi could change the rampaging European champions into a trophy-crunching beast. Their high-pressing game, with emphasis on quick transitions, would be further invigorated by Messi’s inclusion.
Often for Barcelona, the pressing, whenever they lost possession, would begin with Messi. So he’s no stranger to this style, and he would be only delighted to collaborate with Robert Lewandowski, arguably the sharpest poacher around.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Messi likes playing with an out-and-out cerebral striker, who can cleverly sneak behind defensive lines.
Moreover, there is no fear of Messi encroaching into the space of others. Sergio Gnabry likes to operate from wide positions, while Muller is not unused to playing centrally with another attacking forward by his side. Germany has deployed Muller side by side with Lukas Podolski or Marcos Reus. The German’s ability to find space and operate in congested channels would endear itself to Messi, who has in the past expressed admiration of Muller.
Messi could also be employed as a right-sided forward in what could be a throwback to the Messi-David Villa days. His addition to the German club will be like a dash of glitter on a finished jigsaw puzzle.
It is, indeed, the best option.
LIVERPOOL: Return of the False 9
In Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona tenure, Lionel Messi redefined the False 9 so effectively that the role became a rage. Messi would drop deep and pull wide to link the play and disrupt opponents’ marking structures.
It then allowed Barcelona to get more men higher up the pitch quickly, facilitating pressing and ball-winning, the fundamental principles of Barcelona’s game.
Liverpool plays differently, but Jürgen Klopp has deputed False 9 in several important games. The results were a mixed bag, but it was not due to the inefficiency of the system, rather because of the incompetence of the personnel.
Messi is an upgrade several times over on Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum. The prospect is mouthwatering – Sadio Mane scything from the left and Mohammad Salah skittering from the right, and converging into Messi. He could orchestrate lightning transitions where Mane and Salah could stir havoc. Messi’s presence would not hamper Firmino either, as the Brazilian is happy to drop deep and link the play between the midfield and his fellow forwards.
Also in Explained: What is the clause Lionel Messi triggered to leave Barcelona?
REAL MADRID: Masters at work
This is an improbable union. Messi would rather retire than turn up for Barcelona’s bitter antagonists.
But just imagine Zinedine Zidane managing Messi, the confluence of the game’s immortals, or the prospect of plotting alongside Eden Hazard, buzzing ahead of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and behind Karim Benzema. If Zidane can cajole Gareth Bale back into the core, Real Madrid could become unstoppable. Loyalties and enmities aside, this could be a dream team.
In the Modric-Kroos-Casemiro midfield axis, Real have the engine room that could keep Messi and Hazard busy. Messi taking up more playmaking duties can enable Hazard to play more upfront like he did with Chelsea. Zidane would also be one of the few coaches who could manage Messi without getting overwhelmed by his aura.
But still, Bayern would suit Messi better.
LEEDS UNITED: School for romantics
Messi reportedly wanted Marcelo Biesla at Barcelona. He could still play under the manager he deeply reveres. It could be the most challenging chapter of his career — to take a newly promoted team to a spot of respectability. Footballing scripts can’t be more romantic, but then there aren’t bigger idealists around than Messi and Bielsa.
The latter is something of a cult hero for most Argentines and European managers, with the reputation for maximising the limited potential of a squad without diluting the game’s aesthetics. Messi could end up as the greatest ever in the history of the fallen-and-now-risen club. If a street was named after Bielsa after the club was promoted to the Premier League after 14 years, Messi could end up getting a whole township in his name.
Bielsa’s most aggressive permutation is a flexible, fluid 4-3-3 with pacey wingers who are able to adapt to a 3-4-3 seamlessly, a formation he employed at Messi’s childhood club, Newell’s Old Boys. And Messi could be the force driving Bielsa’s vehicle of idealism.
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JUVENTUS: Feast of the GOATS
Can two contemporary greats, adversaries once upon a time in Spain, their admirers perpetually feuding, function organically for the same team? Will ego take precedence?
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo together will be the equivalent of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer turning up for a doubles match. But why not? They are fundamentally two different players with different perceptions and philosophies, with varied skill sets and personalities, but driven by the same indefatigable love of the game and hunger to accumulate trophies and awards.
Messi and Ronaldo could be the most versatile pairing since Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas for Real Madrid. Andrea Pirlo, the new manager and a legendary midfielder himself, could assemble his team in whichever way he fancies: Messi and Ronaldo as the forward duo, or Ronaldo as the central striker and Messi just behind him as the No. 10, or Messi as the attacking tip of a diamond midfield or a deep-lying forward in front of Ronaldo and Dybala.
The interchangeability of their roles will drive defenders into insanity. It could turn out to be the most competitive phase of their respective careers as well. What better way to settle the GOAT debate!
However, it would still be the second best option after Bayern.
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