“Just give the ball to Leo.”
Okay so we don’t know for certain that Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien or Ronald Koeman actually said this during one of their team-talks, but it sure felt like that at times.
After all why wouldn’t you? Even if opponents double-marked the diminutive Argentine it didn’t really matter, Lionel Messi was just that good.
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But that changes now with PSG. Unlike Barcelona the French giants have a squad full of legitimate superstars and yes there are flaws of course, but there is certainly a lot more for Messi to work with.
Which begs the question, how will Mauricio Pochettino deploy his latest jewel? Here are a few options.
The 10 in a 4-2-3-1
This seems like the most obvious one right? Give Messi complete and utter freedom in the middle of the pitch. You can put Neymar, Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe outside and in front of him, with Marco Verrati and fellow new boy Georginio Wijnaldum behind him.
Of course you worry about the overloading of that midfield two, particularly against teams with energetic midfields, but the damage you can do on the counter-attack makes it more than worth it. With Messi playing as the 10 he has his choice of coming deep to get the ball from his defenders and midfielders, as well as being able to make those trademark dribbles into the final third.
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
Image credit: Getty Images
Plus, perhaps most crucially, he will have three highly intelligent players alongside him who will be able to make runs on his wavelength. How often have we seen an exasperated Messi when a team-mate wasn’t on the same page? With that front three, that won’t be happening.
Traditional right-winger in a 4-3-3
This is the position we probably most associate with Messi. With three central midfielders Messi has freedom to roam from the right into the middle, with that all too familiar cut inside and gentle, yet lethal, bend into the far corner of the net.
In this system Mbappe would play through the middle with Neymar out on the left. Di Maria can perhaps shift into the midfield three as he did under Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid all those years ago.
The obvious concern here is with Messi doing whatever he wants and Achraf Hakimi being a very attacking wing-back, that right-hand side could become an easy place for teams to get at PSG. That’s certainly something poor Serginho Dest found last season. An even more attacking option would be to play Messi on the right of a 4-2-3-1 with Neymar or Di Maria in the 10. That might be a last resort when chasing a game though.
False 9 in a 4-3-3
So this might fall into the category of “ace up the sleeve” rather than “bread and butter” but it could be really interesting. Plenty of managers have used Messi as a false 9, most notably Pep Guardiola of course, but it really does depend on the players who are around him.
As we’ve mentioned before this is a stellar cast in Paris, easily the best since 2015, and that makes the possibility of a false nine intriguing. With Messi dropping deeper he can look to link up with Mbappe and Neymar in different ways. With the two forwards coming from wide positions to try and get into the space that Messi creates with his movements.
Image credit: Getty Images
If this is going to be a thing that PSG do then you’d have to think that it will only come later on in the season, when Messi has more chemistry with his team-mates. But say PSG are taking a one-goal lead into the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie, then having Messi draw the opposition out, while still retaining midfield solidity, could be a really tempting strategy for Pochettino.
A creative midfielder in a 4-3-3
Realistically we might not see this for a year or two but it seems like the ultimate end-game for Messi’s career. As his athleticism declines it seems only logical for Messi to move a little deeper, surrounded by two players who can do his running for him. That might happen as a 10 but seeing him dominate a midfield is also a real possibility.
It might seem counterintuitive, given midfield is the most demanding position in the game, but as with his former team-mates Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Messi’s brain can give him an extra few yards. His quick passing ability and movement can give him the space and time he needs to unleash balls over the top or through the lines to unlock defences.
This might end up happening somewhere like America or Argentina rather than in Paris, but given Messi’s rare gifts it’s something everyone is going to want to watch.
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