With a 700 million release clause and the official La Liga board declaring that the price must be met for Lionel Messi to leave Barcelona, even Manchester City will have to reconsider buying the superstar. Since the release of the news that Messi is very likely to leave the Catalans, many believe that Messi should reunite with his old boss, and once again dominate Europe. Many have even set out to make formations and tactics for the new Manchester City, but in such a hurry, people are simply overlooking the controversial, yet simple, fact that Messi might not be a great fit at Manchester City.
This is a breakdown of why Messi would not be a great addition to Manchester City, by discussing individuals, positioning, and tactics.
Messi, who is nearing a possible retirement, does not have the same physical shape that he did during his prime years in the 2010s. His inability to track back and cover space would cause problems for their midfielders and fullback Kyle Walker to handle. Though many may point out that Messi not tracking back in the past few years is due to poor management and his coaches asking different from him, and Guardiola possibly returning him to his former self, Messi is long past the days to press consistently and win the ball back.
Besides the physical attribute, another aspect to consider is Messi’s position. In a common 4-3-3 which Pep employed at Barca and also at City currently, Messi would make runs into the middle coming from the right, while Sterling would be doing the same from the left. This would be a major problem for Aguero. Modern-day strikers have had to adapt to the inverted wingers, from Robben and Ribery to Ronaldo and Bale, strikers have found it difficult in these new conditions to find the same results as before. Even the likes of Lewandowski, who in his early days at Bayern had trouble due to Robben and Ribery coming in, leaving Lewandowski wandering in the middle.
Keep in mind, this was when Pep was the manager, and it can be expected that he might resort to such tactics at City. Aguero is a key player, and if Messi also starts to move into the middle, Aguero would have to adapt and find space to occupy. The current situation with Bernardo and Mahrez is that they fluently mix into the midfield, and do not make the same inside runs as Messi. In the past few years, Messi’s heatmap shows his fondness of the bottom of the box, similar to Aguero, who likes to linger near the bottom of the box and then explode inside for the perfect tap-in finish, or receive the ball near the penalty spot and turn and blast a shot. Luis Suarez on the other hand has great chemistry with Messi and has learned how to work with Messi after years of playing together. Aguero would have to learn quickly to play alongside Messi. Many continue to say that Messi and Aguero have chemistry through their Argentinian connection, but forget the fact that their national football requires different tactics and positioning than that of what will be expected of the two at City. Keep in mind, I have only pointed out the problems that Aguero will face and have not included Gabriel Jesus, as Aguero will undoubtedly be the starting striker.
The next part of the field to look at is the midfield. Messi in his early years, first under Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, further mastered tiki-taka, a basic style of play mastered by La Masia graduates. Pep Guardiola was able to unleash Barcelona’s midfield with Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets along with Messi who would wander into the middle or by playing as a false nine. This group of four worked extremely well as Xavi was the deep-lying midfielder with Busquets and had excellent awareness and vision. Iniesta would further advance the ball, and Messi would help along the way, and in the end, would most likely score. The heatmap of Xavi shows his tendency to stay in the midfield of the pitch, mostly occupying a central role from the opponents attacking third to their own. As he moved forward, Messi would fall back to receive the ball and in an immaculate passing triangle, the trio of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi would move the ball forward. Though this explanation may seem unnecessary for many readers, it is important to note that during these years Messi was at his peak, and he is aging towards his retirement. He will be looking to work with the best possible midfield if he is going to be played as a false nine or a right-winger.
Now, let’s look at Manchester City’s current midfield, primarily consisting of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, and Fernandinho. KDB who is regarded as one of the best players in the world right now, may not find the same success with Messi. Messi’s heatmap of the past three seasons shows his love for the middle of the pitch, and with an average of 4.8 successful dribbles, usually starting from the right side or at times in the midfield. KDB’s heatmap in the previous three seasons shows his love of staying on the right side. With this, Pep may be tempted to try a 4-2-3-1 with Messi as a CAM/false nine and with KDB on the right-wing. However, this would be disastrous as shown by the game against Lyon in the UCL quarter-finals. KDB’s constant need of lingering into the middle of the pitch and pressing higher up on the flanks will easily expose City. Furthermore, KDB has shown that he is very skilled with long accurate ground and aerial passes. However, those that have watched Messi play through the years know that Messi’s playstyle is not tap-ins or headers, something which is usually done by Sterling or Aguero. Riyad Mahrez, the current RW option for City plays a much higher role than Messi on the right flank. Mahrez likes to use the half-spaces and does not bother coming into the middle as much. Bernardo Silva is also very similar, as he has a fondness of hugging the sidelines and making runs in behind the defense to put in crosses or even finish. Due to this, KDB has the middle of the pitch all by himself and works his magic. Messi or KDB will find it difficult and one of the two will have to adjust and find new space. A mixup between the two in the midfield would leave the middle of the pitch a wide-open area, and the rest of the team vulnerable to a quick counter.
Having already talked about KDB and Messi, along with Messi’s previous playstyle at Barcelona with Xavi and Iniesta, let’s look at the rest of City’s midfield. Like previously mentioned, Xavi was the playmaker at Barcelona and would find space between the lines. He would receive and pass in the blink of an eye. Gundogan who had just one assist this season and 1.1 key passes per game will have to step up his influence on the game if Messi does move. However, he had a passing accuracy of 92%, something which is overlooked. However, those that have watched City games know that Gundogan and the rest of the team like to continually pass it to their defense to reset in several tight positions, which could boost Gundogan’s percentage. But that does not mean that Gundogan does not do his job properly. He will surely look to work with Messi and make forward passes.
However, he does lack the vision and awareness which made Xavi the player he was. This could mean that Gundogan and Messi might not always be on the same wavelength and their passes could go wrong. The other midfielder in City’s lineup is Fernandinho. Fernandinho and Busquets occupy almost the same area on the pitch. Although Fernandinho had to play CB for a majority of this season, due to Laporte’s injury, he is still excellent at the number 6 role. He also had a high passing accuracy rate of 90%, showing. This means that he should not have a problem linking up with Gundogan and KDB.
Although many fans were expecting to see Messi reunite with his former boss, not only is it a very heavy price — one that even City would not be able to pay — the whole tactical, positional, and formational aspects of City would need a lot of reshaping. This would be a lot to ask for from players like KDB, Aguero, and Sterling, for even a player like Messi, who is 33 and has just a few years left.
So before City fans — however many they have — and the rest of the soccer world gets too excited at the possibility of Messi playing at Manchester City, it is important to look at the impact. Even as a Real fan, I am hoping for Messi to stay at Barcelona, especially due to the rich, and long history he has with the club, and the impact his departure would have on La Liga.
Photo: Sky Sports