It's the biggest story in football for some time. Lionel Messi has requested to leave Barcelona, threatening to put an end to a relationship that, in truth, most could never picture ending.
According to Esporte Interativo's Marcelo Bechler, who broke the news of Messi's desire to end an era at the Camp Nou (and broke the Neymar-to-PSG deal back in 2017), the Argentina captain wants to play for Manchester City, where he would link back up with former coach Pep Guardiola.
The two achieved some wondrous things together between 2009 and 2011—namely, two Champions League trophies in three years, playing some spell-binding football. Messi has only won the trophy once since, in 2015, while Guardiola hasn't reached the final since last winning it. The sense that they need one another to be victorious once more is strong.
If Messi does break free of his Barcelona contract, City won't be his only suitors. But the reality of who can afford to sign him has already thinned the pack out. It really does feel like City or stay already, and Messi's father has flown to Manchester to discuss terms, per RAC1 and TyC Sports (h/t Daily Mail).
So with that in mind, let's take a look at how Messi would change Guardiola's starting XI, shape and approach in a variety of ways, showcasing the obvious pros—and the surprising cons—of each one.
As we move through the options, we will be reviewing them in the context of football at the top level. We know City would crush average sides with Messi in the team, so we're interested to know how each approach would work against a Bayern Munich, a Liverpool or a Paris Saint-Germain. What fresh edge could he give them, and are they any drawbacks?
The Obvious: 4-3-3, Right Wing
Obvious pro: Messi cutting inside on his left foot.
The 4-3-3 is both Guardiola's core formation and the one Messi has played in more often than any other. That's down to their Barcelona breeding—the club is obsessed with that particular shape—so it's an immediate snug fit for each party.
Messi has the most dangerous left foot on the planet, so putting him in a position to cut inside on to it and shoot, dribble or create would be the obvious way to deploy him. A predictable move, sure, but when you are as good as he is, you can't stop him even if you know exactly what he's going to do.
Surprising con: Unless someone else does his running, the right side is a defensive weak point.
Here's an uncomfortable truth about Messi right now: He doesn't do much running, and that causes a slight tactical headache at the top level.
He's a genius, the best player in the world, so there's a strong argument that he shouldn't have to run. He once spent 83.1 per cent of a Clasico walking, per Marca, and bossed it regardless.
But consider the approach the last two Champions League-winning teams, Liverpool and Bayern, take as a team: They press, they are machine-like, they are filled with players who are elite footballers but also elite athletes. City, the destination for Messi under discussion, operate in the same fashion.
|Distance Covered in the Champions League, 2019-20|
|Player||Miles per 90|
The disparity between the sort of distance Messi covers per game and the distance said clubs' front threes cover is dramatic. Again, he's 33 and his skill may outweight this, but from a pure stylistic standpoint, he makes whichever part of the pitch he plays in defensively weak.
City would need to patch over that by deploying players to do his running for him. Kyle Walker is a perfect candidate from right-back, while the right-sided central midfielder and defensive midfielder will spend a lot of time drifting to cover the flank. You will always be vulnerable to an Alphonso Davies-Nelson Semedo-type situation, though, as cracks will always spring up.
The Valverde: 4-2-3-1, No. 10
Obvious pro: Unlock Messi's genius from the centre while masking his defensive weakness.
So...that Ernesto Valverde character. He actually did a pretty good job, didn't he?
The 56-year-old was fired from his position as Barcelona manager in January, in part because his style of play was deemed beneath the club. They wanted swashbuckling, high-energy, tiki-taka magic—not the defensively solid, slightly more physical approach he brought.
But the last seven months have been disastrous, painting Valverde's approach in a new, more positive light. He wasn't anti-football; he just recognised the squad's limitations and built a system that both masked them and got the best out of Messi.
Messi wrought consistent attacking havoc from a more central position, a free No. 10 role, while contributing almost nothing defensively. But backed by two more aggressive midfielders—one of which was usually Paulinho, Ivan Rakitic or Arturo Vidal, and the other Sergio Busquets—the midfield held together en route to multiple trophies.
For City to utilise Messi as a No. 10, where he could dictate the game, rack up the touches, link with Sergio Aguero and pretty much just destroy teams from in the hole, they would have to switch shape to 4-2-3-1. We've seen them play it as recently as June. But on a permanent basis? That's a different story, with one severe knock-on effect.
Surprising con: Kevin De Bruyne on the right?
When City do operate in the 4-2-3-1 shape, that No. 10 spot is De Bruyne's. If Messi joins and this is the way they choose to accommodate him, it would place a major question mark over how the Belgium international slotted in alongside him.
Against weaker sides, he could drop deeper and play in the midfield pivot with an anchor man (Rodrigo or Fernandinho). But against the top sides that's probably not a formula that can work. You want two defensively conscious and physical players in that instance, like the Rodrigo-Ilkay Gundogan partnership Guardiola used in August.
More than likely, Messi as the No. 10 ends up pushing De Bruyne to the right flank. That would allow him to take up those same positions just outside the opponent's box, slightly to the right, and fizz low crosses in for Raheem Sterling at the back post. But it would rob the side of his powerful dribbling through the middle and some raw speed on the flank.
On balance, it's a trade-off that barely feels worth it. Messi might be the best in the world, but De Bruyne is arguably among the top five; the net gain of fitting in the Argentinian at KDB's expense may be minimal.
The Romantic: 4-3-3, False 9
Obvious pro: Peak Barcelona, here we come.
The 2009 and 2011 Barcelona sides played some of the best football the world has ever seen—and is ever likely to see. And they had two things in common: Both had Guardiola at the helm, and both were spearheaded by Messi as a false nine.
The false nine is a specific tactical role that utilises a withdrawn lone forward, one who continually drops deep towards midfield to pick up the ball rather than work the channels, run in behind or battle with centre-backs.
To play this role, you have to be incredibly good: your touch needs to be perfect, your link-up play spot on, your tactical awareness through the roof. And you have to hold up your end of the finishing bargain too. A complete all-rounder.
It's the job of those around the false nine to drive forward so he can pick them out with through balls, essentially running into the gaps the false nine creates by drifting and dragging defenders out of position.
In 2009, Messi had Thierry Henry (left) and Samuel Eto'o (right) as fellow forwards. That's two No. 9s cutting in off the flank rather than operating centrally, as Messi created space for them to move into. The goal tallies were astronomical.
In 2011, he had David Villa (left) and Pedro (right). Again, goals rained down as all three combined to ludicrous effect.
This system is repeatable in Manchester. Guardiola knows how to coach it, Messi unlocks it, the midfield three is retained, De Bruyne's role stays the same and there's enough speed on the wing to make it work.
It would also serve as a workaround for the previously discussed defensive issue.
Back in 2009 and 2011, a fitter, more physically robust Messi led a strong press from the central position. He wouldn't be able to do that in 2020, at age 33. But as the centre point of the front line, he could be instructed to block passing lanes into the midfield rather than chase and harry and sprint.
That, combined with an energetic midfield three behind him, would be enough to make this system work even against the best.
Surprising con: What about Aguero?
Sergio Aguero has undergone several transformations as a player since Guardiola arrived in Manchester in 2016, rising to each challenge.
He's got fitter when asked to, defended from the front more effectively and improved his link-up play with midfielders tenfold. He's not a complete forward, but his skill set is far more diverse than it was before Guardiola took charge.
So with that in mind, there's a chance Aguero takes to a wide forward role nicely—that it becomes another string to his bow.
There's also a chance, at 32, that he doesn't adapt so well, that the fact that he lacks the speed and energy of Gabriel Jesus or the agility of Riyad Mahrez means he ends up struggling to crack the starting XI in this alignment.
Aguero's friendship with Messi is an oft-mentioned driving factor in the talk of the latter's potential move to City. It would be somewhat ironic if Messi's arrival saw him nick Aguero's spot and Guardiola remodel the side without him.