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A hypothetical analysis: Fitting Leo Messi across top teams in Europe

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Photo via Imago

Two white chairs sit across each other in a brightly lit room with net curtains of the same colour cloaking the windows. Everyone knows about the event taking place, but no one is quite sure what to expect from it.

White flip flops pitter-patter across the wooden floor as Lionel Messi takes a seat on one of the chairs. Alarm bells regarding his departure had gone off for weeks before this on the back of a disastrous season for Barcelona.

That day, the Argentine was supposed to give a ground-breaking interview and was going to make a decision regarding his future at the club. As history recorded it, he ended up staying. Not before causing havoc through his words, and in effect, forcing Josep Bartomeu to resign nearly a month later.

Messi stayed when he had no intention to, against his will, as a prisoner. Fast forward one year later, and the speculations turned Barcelona fans into hopeless romantics picking off the petals of a flower. Will he stay? Will he leave?

Eventually, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner had no choice. He was forced to leave, and gave a tear-jerker of a press conference at Camp Nou, two days after his departure from the club was made official.

The end of an era, as they say. (Photo via Imago)

As Leo broke into tears, the translator and the cameraman could barely control themselves, let alone the millions of people watching at home. Amid all this, one journalist was brave enough to address the elephant in the room, asking Messi about his future, and specifically about Paris-Saint Germain.

The 34-year-old was cryptic as he could be in his response, admitting that there had been more than a handful of offers, and Paris was a likely destination.

But who could these offers be from? There are six clubs, excluding PSG, who can, in theory, afford to keep Messi as part of their payroll. Namely, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus, and Bayern Munich.

As his move to Paris edges near, Barça Universal takes a look at how Messi could fit in all these seven teams and host the greatest player of all time.

Paris-Saint Germain

Getting the most obvious one out of the way first — Messi’s (apparent) move to Paris-Saint Germain will not go down well with Barcelona fans. The two clubs have had a history, on and off the pitch, with an evident cold war across Europe.

That said, Messi could well be the missing piece in the PSG puzzle, which can help them over the edge in the UEFA Champions League.

With the acquisitions of Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnaruma, and Georginio Wijnaldum, for less than €60 million in transfer fees, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have had a stellar transfer window already, filling in more holes than the team ever had.

With Messi, they get to reunite Neymar Jr with the best partner he’s had on the pitch. All they need to do from here is get Kylian Mbappe to stay to create one of the most threatening attacking tridents football has ever seen. Not to forget the very talented Angel di Maria can serve as a more than able deputy.

This team can, in theory, be divided into an outfield of five each, with the wingbacks joining the attack. A back three would help PSG get the most out of several of their players, including Layvin Kurzawa and Achraf Hakimi, while fielding a highly-accomplished backline in Ramos, Marquinhos, and Presnel Kimpembe.

Marco Verrati and Idrissa Gueye form a balanced midfield pivot who work hard and give their all on the pitch. Wijnaldum, Danilo Pereira, and Leandro Paredes fall into the same category as like for like replacement in the centre of the park.

While the midfield lacks dynamism and creativity in the final third, it allows the forwards — none of whom like to defend — a free run without doing any of the dirty work.

Manchester City

An hour separated Barcelona announcing Messi’s exit and Manchester City announcing Jack Grealish’s transfer for a British record fee. Coming off a brilliant individual campaign, Grealish donned the #10 in his announcement video, taking over the legacy set by Sergio Aguero.

As jokes flooded social media about how Pep Guardiola would be rushing to ask for a refund for the former Aston Villa captain, it is not entirely out of the question to assume that Messi would, in fact, be a tailor-made fit for City.

For most of last season, the likes of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and others struggled in front of goal as Pep kept trying and testing formations and roles for the Cityzens.

While someone or the other kept stepping up to put a crack over his troubles – temporarily -, City kept longing for a consistent goalscorer. Their interest in Harry Kane, thus, is barely surprising.

However, with Messi, Pep will be able to continue deploying his false 9 system. The Argentine is arguably the greatest goalscorer ever, with six golden boots, and his experience under the Spanish manager makes it all the more threatening.

The exclusion of Grealish may be surprising, but the Englishman is a heavily ball-dominant player, making very few runs off the ball. Raheem Sterling, though, is a relentless runner, offering the unmarked option of a pass on the wing all the time.

The same can be said about Ilkay Gundogan. His late runs into the box have become increasingly refined as the seasons have flown by, and the 13 goals last season stand as evidence of the same. Messi’s iconic over the top passes would be dessert on a platter for the two.

It also gives a chance for City to mentor Phil Foden under a player with similar characteristics and with a fellow elite creator in Kevin de Bruyne.

Manchester United

Manchester United have recently completed the signing of Jadon Sancho, who joins their already elite attacking unit consisting of Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood. But what is the best way to fit Messi in this setup?

The ideal choice could be a 4-3-3, which is rumoured to be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred formation for next season. That said, they would probably have to go into the market looking for a proper defensive midfielder. Scott McTominay, until then, remains their best bet.

There’s not much that needs to be said here except that the front five can do some serious damage to almost any team in the world.

Rashford would be out for a few months, but when fit, is capable of multifaceted threat, including piercing runs into the box. At just 23, the Englishman has learnt how to curve his runs from the wing.

Messi also takes the pressure off the likes of Pogba and Harry Maguire as a player who drops very deep to collect and progress the ball. Additionally, this can help Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes rove up into the final third, where they are most impactful. The latter, especially, has improved leaps and bounds offensively and can mirror Jordi Alba’s partnership with Messi.

Manchester United also boast of arguably the best poacher of all time in Cavani, who can create space for himself and others with timely off the ball movement in the box. Mason Greenwood could call himself lucky to train with and learn from so many elite forwards.

Chelsea

One needs to seriously stop and wonder how and why are Chelsea not part of the discussion for Lionel Messi. Defending Champions League winners with a title-hungry owner, a tactical genius of a coach, and a nearly-complete squad, this could have been the year to bed the infamous rumours of 2012 when the Argentine followed Chelsea on Instagram.

Thomas Tuchel has taken a liking to a back three for Chelsea, which makes sense given the defensive aptitude of a lot of these players.

That said, hardworking players such as N’Golo Kante, Reece James, Cezar Azpilicueta, and Mason Mount help the team find balance. They would also be the backbone for having someone like Messi in your team, who does little to no defensive duty.

On the offensive, though, the team has enough players that could, in theory, gel with Messi. Very few footballers in the world understand the concept of space utilisation, as well as Kai Havertz, who caps off an incredibly fluid front-three with Mason Mount.

Ben Chilwell is a high-flying fullback who loves to make runs near the edge of the box. With Havertz in the box, Leo’s passing could bring together a routine for the ages.

While Timo Werner is not mentioned in this setup, he could be of utmost importance to the former Barcelona forward with his high attacking work rate. The German may be a less than convincing striker, he still remains an advantageous point of attack.

Another player missing here is Romelu Lukaku, who is on the verge of completing his Chelsea move for nearly €120 million. Imagine their attack with the Serie A MVP. With possibly Jules Kounde in the mix, Chelsea could easily deploy a 4-2-3-1 with Mount on the left wing, Lukaku up-top and Werner on the right.

Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich have been stingy spenders in the past, but the prospect of signing Messi and deploying him alongside Robert Lewandowski could help them change their mind.

Bundesliga could be a gift to Messi at this stage of his career, where his stamina and work ethic is short-lived. The league, as a whole, provides an incredible amount of space for forwards, especially those who operate centrally.

Thomas Muller is another player who is a nuisance to mark, especially in the box. His relentless movement, along with the late runs of Leon Goretzka, gives Messi several players to aim his passes.

Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, and Leroy Sane were far from their usual self last season but possess enough quality to make a run in this Bayern setup. Starting high and wide means the likes of Messi and Muller would have several players to pass to before moving into attacking positions to finish off the move.

Not to forget Alphonso Davies, who has gone on record to state his admiration for Messi several times. Learning from him could be the big break he needs to move away from the tag of a fullback.

Liverpool

Lionel Messi is the answer to the question, “What if Roberto Firmino was better?” and looking at this Liverpool team, it is not hard to imagine them taking back their Premier League crown from Manchester City.

On the wings, Jurgen Klopp has four of the most offensive players in Europe, but attacking through central positions has often been their kryptonite. The midfield is severely lacking dynamism, and the creative onus often falls on the full-backs. It also hampers Firmino’s goal contributions.

Mohamad Salah and Sadio Mane have bucket loads of stamina and continue their charge on the flanks throughout the game. Not only would their work rate compensate for Messi’s defensive productivity – or the lack thereof -, they would be the ones on the end of most of his passes.

It would also give a chance for someone like Thiago to shine, who is an expert at threading passes into the final third.

While Klopp has preferred the 4-3-3 for most of his Liverpool tenure, Messi would give him the chance to go back to his Borussia Dortmund days with a 4-2-3-1. Either Salah or Mane could act the striker in that setup while Diogo Jota comes as the left-winger.

Liverpool is probably a highly far-fetched option given their strict salary cap and wage structure, but it could be what pushes the Reds’ greatest team in a while even further.

Juventus

Easily the least likely of the seven destinations, Messi joining Juventus would be nothing short of a fairy-tale. After all, it’s the chance to make sure the two greatest footballers ever grace the pitch together.

The idea of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi playing together, though, goes much beyond just a romantic portrayal of the sport. The latter has been longing for a player like Ronaldo for much of the last three odd years, which can be traced to Luis Suarez’s lack of fitness to continue making darting runs into the box.

In essence, Ronaldo needs someone like Messi at Juventus, while Messi needs someone like his ‘nemesis’.

Federico Chiesa has been a star in the making for a while but finally introduced himself to a grander stage with Italy these Euros. He can operate across the frontline with ease and makes incredible decisions at a very high speed.

His ability to constantly switch between wider and central areas could give Messi the freedom to evade his markers with ease. That front-three is the best definition of ‘chaotic evil’; to their oppositions, anyway.

Apart from the benefits on the pitch, Juventus could become the team to watch this season for a large part of the football fanbase. It would also inspire the next generation of fans and bring in heavy revenue for the Turin outfit.

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