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Tactical Fantasies: Messi at Man City, the missing piece or a new headache for Pep?

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Fantasmes Tactiques - Lionel Messi à Manchester City

Image credit: Eurosport

ByCyril Morin | Pete Sharland
02/06/2020 at 14:11 | Updated 02/06/2020 at 15:14

Welcome to Tactical Fantasies, a new series with our colleagues from Eurosport France and the input of Auxerre manager Jean-Marc Furlan. Twice a week for the next three weeks we’re going to bring you six hypothetical tactical scenarios. No transfer speculation here, just a bit of whim and fantasy. We start off with a big one, what if Manchester City managed to sign Lionel Messi?

Friends reunited?

Do you look back on Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona with more than a little fondess? You’re not the only one. Some - Joan Laporta - may dream about seeing Guardiola back in charge of the Catalans, but what if there was another way to see Guardiola and Lionel Messi reunited? Namely in Manchester…

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Realistically it’s hard to imagine this happening, such is Messi’s commitment to Barcelona, but suppose for a moment the six-time Ballon d’Or winner wanted a new challenge. And perhaps the challenge - and salary - the Premier League could offer might persuade him to come to England..

City play in a style that Messi is already fully acquainted with and have plenty of players who he would love to link up with: the likes of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva to name but a few.

Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi

Image credit: Getty Images

Possible formations

  • 4-3-3 with Messi as the false 9

This would be the most obvious option. Using Messi as the team’s focal point would allow him the opportunity to start high, drop deep and spring the likes of Sterling and Riyad Mahrez free with his exquisite range of passing - not to mention that Messi would also offer a substantial goal threat in that area too. However, to give Messi that role would be to sacrifice Aguero, which seems hugely unlikely.

  • 4-3-3 with Messi as the primary playmaker

Still central but further away from the goal, Messi could take the role of primary playmaker alongside De Bruyne in the middle of the pitch. Replacing David Silva, he would be responsible for linking attack and midfield while also getting forward to arrive late in the box. This option would offer a wealth of attacking intent but the balance of the team would suffer. Furthermore, at this stage of his career Messi doesn’t seem the best fit for a “box-to-box” type role, particularly in the English game given its intensity. A midfield paring of Messi and De Bruyne would certainly put a lot of pressure on Rodrigo too…

The chosen formation: 4-3-3 with Messi on the right

Tactical Fantasies

Image credit: Eurosport

Strengths

Messi produced some of his most memorable performances as a false 9, but he is most at home on the right. It is from that area where he has, particularly in tandem with Dani Alves, produced some of his most devastating work.

His relationship with Alves will be impossible to replicate but potential link-up play with Aguero and Sterling - not to mention De Bruyne - could produce a terrifying attack for City. The key benefit of this system is that it allows Guardiola to keep City’s three most important attacking players - Aguero, Sterling and De Bruyne - in the starting XI alongside Messi.

Auxerre manager Jean-Marc Furlan's view

“Guardiola could unleash an incredible attack by playing Messi on the right,” explains Furlan to Eurosport France. “When you are up against Messi it doesn’t matter if there is space to exploit, you will worry about pushing up.”

Copa América 2019, Argentina-Chile Messi and Aguero

Image credit: Getty Images

Weaknesses

This is not a system without weaknesses. The first is pretty obvious. Messi is not your typical winger, he demands a lot from his partner on the wing. How good that partner is, particularly going forward, can influence the entire offensive success of the right flank.

The other problem is more physical. Granted Messi has overcome every English side he has faced in the Champions League but the weekly demands of the Premier League are a different proposition entirely. Further, the Premier League tends to demand much of its wingers in a defensive capacity, something Messi isn’t particularly fond of.

Auxerre manager Jean-Marc Furlan's view

“It’s true that the intensity of the Premier League can be a problem,” says Furlan. “It is most intense championship in the world.”

The final verdict - a risk too big

A wonderful fantasy but hardly practical.

"There's a risk of uprooting for him, especially for someone in his situation, and asking him to play a very different style of football," says Furlan. "How can a player who is in his 30s, who has always lived and played in the same place professionally, adapt to a new style of football, a new culture and a new country. Even for a genius, it can be difficult and harmful."

For City and Guardiola they would have to totally re-think their plans, both on and off the pitch to make the signing of Messi work. So, for the good of football, let’s leave Messi where he can express himself best, on the pitch at Camp Nou.

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