As we all know, FC Barcelona is a club in a current state of turmoil. Their season has been trophyless for the first time since 2013/14 (not counting the Supercopa De Espana as a trophy), and reports are rife about one of the best players ever to play the game. It seems somewhat surreal, but Lionel Messi may genuinely be leaving the Catalan giants.
This week, it seems to have been made official. Lionel Messi now wants to leave FC Barcelona. Like most would have, the certainty of seeing Lionel Messi retiring at Barcelona made us almost instantly rubbish the news. I still personally think he will stay, although a flurry of recent reports suggest otherwise.
But let’s be honest, why would he want to stay? The club is one in chaos. The recruitment is lacking, the squad weren’t close to winning anything this season, and every element of success they have is entirely dependent on the little Argentine conjuring up his magic.
In light of the current situation which is so worrying to Barça fans, we will detail the schematic fit of the diminutive genius, as well as the chance at securing the trophy he covets the most at club level; the Champions League. We will give a percentage chance for each team, to display the possibility team X has at acquiring Messi’s signature. Let’s get started.
First off, let’s get fantasyland out of the way. Every football lover on the planet has dreamt of the greatest ever players linking up and playing on the same team, competing for trophies at the highest level.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two most consistently superior players football has seen over the last 15 years. 11 Balon d’Or wins between them and over 1400 goals. The levels and consistency of these two defy description. Imagine them on one team. It would almost certainly break the internet.
Older readers will remember the excitement when Ronaldo Nazario went and teamed up with the formidable Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid in 2002. The two were both past their peak, similar to Messi and Ronaldo, were it to materialise. The pairing were still amongst the best players on the planet, but neither were at the peak of their powers. Ronaldo, due to several horrific injuries and Zidane only down to age (don’t let his volley against Leverkusen fool you). Nonetheless, anticipation was at an all-time high.
Now take that, and multiply it by 1000, and you might have the media hype around the possibility of Messi and Ronaldo at Juventus. With social media, media outlets, and fans all having a voice unlike anything 18 years ago, one can only imagine the sheer volume of expectation upon these two to deliver. It would have been like Achilles and Hector teaming up against the rest.
Moving away from Greek Mythology, how would these two co-exist? How would it fit into the construct of a team, specifically Juventus?
It’s hard to imagine Juventus lining up in anything other than a 4-3-3. A 4-4-2 is an outside shot, with Messi and Ronaldo as the front 2, but the likelihood is, it would be a 4-3-3. The defence would remain the same, but the midfield has plenty of options. The question is, can they cover for Messi’s lack of running from a defensive point of view? In my estimation, Aaron Ramsey could do that job very well, and new signing Arthur Melo can play on the other side to a high level.
Could the side provide balance in midfield? Who would be the deepest of the midfielders in the number 6 role? Who would be the ball-winner? That instantly gives me cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the quality of the front line should be enough to compensate for any flaws in the team, right? My guess is, in the 4-3-3, it would line up with Messi in his usual spot off the right, Ronaldo from the left, and Paulo Dybala as the third man, playing in a false 9 role of sorts. Now, this would no doubt allow Messi plenty of passing options as the primary playmaker.
Juan Cuadrado would be available for Messi and his wonderful reverse pass, a pass inside to the technically adept Ramsey, or a slick little one-two with Dybala allows Messi mass options to play with frequently.
Add to the fact that Messi would have one of the greatest ever goalscorers making and running into space and finding areas to score goals from, Messi will have the perfect foil to play with. Imagine one of Messi’s perfect right-to-left passes, played with needle accuracy, finding the perfectly timed run of Ronaldo for him to slot away. Now envisage Messi off the right-wing, lining up to take the game to some poor full-back. He gets a yard of separation and wraps his foot around the ball, crossing to the far post to a towering Portuguese behemoth, who puts a defender on a poster as his header nestles into the top corner. It would be a sight to behold.
How much of a chance would this team have of winning the Champions League? Due to the lack of balance in midfield, and the question marks over the front line and their work rate off the ball, it’s not a stretch to say they would struggle to go far in UEFA’s flagship domestic competition. They would likely reach the latter stages due to their quality, but as it is 11v11, and not 2v2, the move would struggle to result in Champions League glory for Messi or Ronaldo. Maybe in their primes it would be different, but not now.
The chances of the move happening is minimal. Firstly, how would Juventus stump up the necessary funds? How would they get the squad members to vacate the club to make space for the enormous wage packet of Messi? Would Messi’s ego be able to take the narrative of him running to play with Ronaldo?
We give this a 1% chance of happening—apologies for ruining the dream.
Another outlandish destination, but not entirely out of the realms of possibility in our view. Manchester United are indisputably one of the five biggest clubs on the planet, and as such, they have access to a pool of funds to pay for any player. The question is, would Messi fit in at Manchester United?
In a word, yes. United don’t have a player in the same ballpark as the Argentine, and they are in desperate need of a right-sided attacker; step forward Lionel Messi. The fit itself would be seamless. Anthony Martial loves to drop deep, opening up space for Marcus Rashford to attack from the left side, allowing Messi to play those pinpoint through balls which he loves. Martial’s newfound habit of running the channels would make him a regular option for Messi to find. Bruno would also be available for constant one-twos, and Paul Pogba would provide the necessary support in attack.
The addition of Lionel Messi to this team makes United instant Premier League contenders, as would be the fluidity and flexibility in attack. The front line of Martial, Bruno, and Rashford, spoon-fed by Lionel Messi, would be a sight to behold. Messi not having to shoulder the creative burden due to the ever-productive Bruno Fernandes would result in interesting viewing.
Alas, there would still be flaws in the team. The strength in depth in midfield would still be non-existent. Bar Nemanja Matic, no midfielder can play as the deepest non-defender and protect the backline with his discipline, as well as playing line-piercing passes up the field. Pogba is adept at it, but he’s wasted there, and with his tendency to dilly-dally in possession, it could cause problems for Manchester United in the build-up.
There is also the issue of the defence. There is zero production from the full-backs, which is needed in modern football, and they are still weak in defensive transition due to having a physically feeble centre-half. Harry Maguire is far too slow on the turn, making him a liability in the channels, and Victor Lindelof is liable to be bullied by strong, physical centre-forwards.
For those reasons, I see it as frugal to even suggest that Messi would go to the red side of Manchester. Add into the fact that there is a Cristiano Ronaldo sized shadow at Old Trafford which he may not want to step into; it makes it nigh on impossible to see him leaving Barcelona for Manchester United.
With United’s financial muscle, and them having a more balanced, youthful starting eleven, we give this a slightly higher chance than the Juventus move; 5%.
Right, that takes us to a 6% chance between Juventus and Manchester United to acquire the signature of Lionel Messi.
Onto more realistic options, if you will.
This would be some story, wouldn’t it? Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, and Lionel Messi on the same team. It almost sounds unfair. The three best forwards on the planet right now. Imagine Lionel Messi, after two whole pre-seasons of trying to recruit the Brazilian magician, before opting to go to the French capital to link up with him and fellow superstar, Mbappé.
The numbers between the three of them would be off the scale. Messi and Neymar playing their roles as both scorers and creators, and Mbappe as the cold-blooded output machine he is, but with more opportunities to feast on. All this without even mentioning Angel Di Maria!
In terms of the chances of Champions League success specifically, the Parisiens represent Messi’s best chance. A team with a solid spine defensively, a top-level, compact midfield when all are fully fit, and a cohesive system to get the best out of the stars. Thomas Tuchel has brought a sense of unity among the superstars of France, which Unai Emery could never achieve.
Remember the bunch of spoilt brats that played at Anfield in September 2018? That was two months into the German’s tenure. Now they adore each other—an incredible team spirit among the players, led by the ever-jovial Neymar. If Messi is after a Champions League triumph or two, PSG should be his superpower of choice. Imagine his deft through balls to the French forward to latch onto. Mbappe would break all sorts of records.
Onto the schematic fit; defensively, this team can cover for Messi, that wouldn’t be an issue. Progressing the ball through the phases to the Argentine also wouldn’t be an issue thanks to the midfield wizardry of Marco Verratti or Leandro Paredes.
Mbappé is quite possibly the perfect partner for Messi with his off-ball movement and speed, and with all the above boxes ticked, you’d say Messi would be foolish to join anyone but PSG.
But there’s the one elephant in the room, and it’s a rather big one. The way Neymar has changed his playing-style over the last three years has been something to behold.
Neymar has morphed his playing-style into his iteration of the quasi-10 role which Messi has played for so many years. The question is, can the two of them co-exist now? I think they would find a way to make it work between them. The two of them are such intelligent and talented players, and both of whom have a desire to play together. There could be a lack of width, but with the talent offensively, it would balance itself out. Again, it’s the three best forwards in the world.
The presence of Mbappe makes things much easier in terms of spacing and the final ball option. But at the end of the day, the quality of Messi and Neymar together is enough to unlock the most robust of defences. The presence of Mbappe means it’s even more unstoppable. It would be something like the 2017 Golden State Warriors; if one doesn’t get you the other will, and if two don’t get you the third will.
Overall, the French titans are the best option at Champions League glory without a doubt.
PSG can afford it, and it makes sense for both parties, but we still don’t see it. Despite this, due to the attractiveness of the situation, combined with PSG’s financial muscle, we give it a 20% chance of happening.
As it stands, we are currently at a total of 26% spread across the aforementioned three teams, with PSG accounting for over three-quarters.
Now to the obvious choice if Messi were to leave the Catalan giants: The Etihad Stadium.
Reuniting with former coach Pep Guardiola would signal death sentences to most of the Premier League clubs’ shot at the title. Manchester City presents a lovely chance for the playmaker to finally shut up all the nonsensical doubters that say ‘Messi couldn’t do it in England,’ or ‘Cristiano did it in England, why hasn’t Messi?’.
Messi is undoubtedly still one of the top forwards on the planet alongside Neymar, if not the very best, and would add unrivalled quality and a cutting edge to a City team who, at times, struggle against teams they should beat.
Adding the consistency of Lionel Messi to the talent-laden City side would almost certainly guarantee at least 90 points per season, with them possibly breaking the points record they set back in 2018.
Tactically, Pep’s City represents the most effortless fit were he to swap sunny Barcelona for the cold, football-mad city in the North of England. Pep’s system involves mass overloads, particularly on the right-hand side, to work crossing angles for the pinpoint Kevin De Bruyne. De Bruyne averages over eight crosses per game into the box, so it is working, and yet, relying on a systematic approach in the Champions League has not always proved fruitful.
Look at the teams in the last four years who have won the biggest club competition in football; Bayern – Lewandowski, Coman, Gnabry, Liverpool – Salah and Mane, Real Madrid – Ronaldo, Bale, and Benzema, and Barcelona – Messi, Suarez, and Neymar.
Match winners are needed. Intangible genius is required. City’s only bailout option when the system isn’t working is De Bruyne’s conjuring something from nothing, including his vicious ball-striking; a far lower percentage than the output the players above can bring. There’s no one in the City team at that level, although some show occasional glimpses of matching the Belgian.
The overloads in City’s system would allow him to receive the ball without being crowded out and forcing him to give up the ball to a non-penetrative player. He would make the correct read every time, and with City’s ruthless quality, it would make for a hellacious experience for anyone trying to configure a game plan against City.
Whether it’s him dribbling inside and slaloming through the defence to create a shooting chance for himself, or him drawing players towards him to slip in one of his teammates. So many options available for Messi to butcher the Premier League and European competition. The extra spacing thanks to off-ball runners would make Messi’s life more comfortable, and we could be seeing alien numbers from the Argentine.
It would be a privilege to see what is arguably the best player of all time (I have him second behind the original Ronaldo) rip up the Premier League every week.
Now onto the question of silverware; well, Liverpool would still be massive contenders, soon to make additions of their own, and likely to break 95 points for the third season in a row. It would be an enthralling title race. Liverpool led by the defensive excellence of Virgil Van Dijk, and scoring goals via the three-headed monster up top, mirrored by the mesmeric Manchester City attack, headed by Lionel Messi and his wizardry.
Overall, you would back City for the league, and you would have to. It’s impossible to guarantee a league title, not with Liverpool’s relentless nature as the closest contender. Maybe that makes it even more attractive as a proposition to a want-away Messi.
With the Champions League, where City wish to dominate, Messi gives them another match-winner on the big stage; someone capable of winning games all by himself, in any way he chooses. Whether through playmaking or scoring, Messi gives them mass options.
But does he win them their first Champions League? It’s hard to bet against them getting them to the final. It wouldn’t be as close to a ‘guaranteed’ victory as it would be were he to team up with Neymar in Paris, but it wouldn’t be far off. City would represent an extremely tough proposition for any European club to face.
Does the move happen? There is a larger chance of this switch happening than any other. With Messi attracted to working with Guardiola for the second time, the draw of the English Premier League, and, of course, the potential success on offer means that Messi would consider City over any other team if he does leave the Spanish giants.
Overall, we give Manchester as Messi’s destination a 35% chance of happening; a higher probability than PSG due to familiarity and the tactical fit. We say this despite there being a lower chance of success in Manchester than Paris, but we give City the edge.
So, there we have it:
Manchester City – 35%
PSG – 20%
Manchester United – 5%
Juventus – 1%
What about the remaining 39%?
That 39% is for Messi to stay put. We still believe that the most likely option for Lionel Messi is to remain in Catalonia. The loyalty he feels towards the club should lead to him staying. I will caveat with this-it requires Josep Bartomeu to resign from his post as Barcelona president. If Bartomeu refuses to leave not, Messi leaves instead.
Agree or disagree? Let’s wait and see. It’s a long window, and this saga is just getting started.
Words by Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__J10
Graphics by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_