Bringing in Lionel Messi at Manchester City is the stuff of fantasies, but as it hopefully approaches reality, Pep Guardiola will need to consider several tactical options.
As rumors swirl in multiple directions surrounding Lionel Messi’s desire to leave Barcelona and potentially join Manchester City, it has been easy to overthink the transfer itself and not what could happen if City get the deal over the line. However, assuming City can get a complicated transfer finalized, today we will take a look at Pep Guardiola’s options to get the most out of the greatest player of all time in a new team.
Option 1: M-A-S
Much like Barcelona’s famed treble-winning “MSN” attack consisting of Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar, the most simple choice would be to slot Messi in a free role on the right hand side. Along with good friend and compatriot Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling, this could be one of world football’s deadliest attacks. I believe this is the option that Guardiola would most likely employ, but the main issue comes defensively. City love to press high with their attackers, and Messi has not run to this degree in some time. Therefore, cover must come on the right side, which in my opinion makes Bernardo Silva, renowned for his high work rate, the perfect player on the right side of attacking midfield to cover Messi’s ground.
This system allows Agüero to stay in the middle and feed off Messi and Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the two most creative players in the world, each with 20 league assists last season.
Option 2: Number 10
A second choice would be to employ a traditional front three of Riyad Mahrez, Agüero, and Sterling, with Messi playing as a free-roaming number 10 behind them. This is would be a change from City’s traditional 4-3-3 to more of a 4-2-3-1. This prevents a vulnerability on either flank while also providing two midfielders behind Messi and allowing him free reign of the entire pitch to set up teammates. However, the problems arise here surrounding De Bruyne, who would be forced to switch to a deep-lying playmaker position and track more defensively. I believe he is fully capable of doing these things, but I do not believe City will be getting the best out of their current star man with him deeper. Alternatively, he could be employed wide on the right with two holding midfielders, such as Rodri and İlkay Gündoğan, in the engine room. However, given City’s repeated Champions League failures utilizing this system, I hope this is not Guardiola’s choice.
Option 3: The False Nine
Guardiola’s famed revolution with Messi at its heart, playing him down the middle would be a callback to the glory days of old. It could work again here, with Messi becoming the primary focal point of attack, but would require another serious overhaul in Agüero’s play style as he would now be forced wide to the right. Guardiola hasn’t formally utilized the system in some time, but has shown elements of it by occasionally using De Bruyne in a free central role down the middle. In my opinion this is the second-best option, as although it hurts Agüero’s output, it makes Messi the most directly involved.
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In conclusion, I believe Messi should be played on the right side of the front three alongside Agüero and Sterling, because it keeps City’s best players in their natural positions while creating a comfortable role for their new star. Behind them De Bruyne and Bernardo will cover for his running, with Rodri shielding the back four. This system instantly makes City, in my opinion, the most dangerous team in world football, and everything is on the table in terms of silverware.