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How could Manchester City line up with Lionel Messi?

| 02.09.2020

We look at how Pep Guardiola could adjust his team

There’s still plenty of time left to go, but Lionel Messi’s potential departure from Barcelona is set to be the biggest story of the transfer window.

We’ve got Manchester City at the front of the pack at 4/7 to sign the brilliant Argentinian. Arguably no manager has a better idea of how to use Messi than Pep Guardiola, with the duo working together to sensational effect at Barcelona.

If they were to link up again at City, how would City deploy Messi? We’ve taken a look at three potential options…

Option 1: Right flank

City are already blessed with plenty of options on the right flank. Riyad Mahrez was one of their better performers last year. Bernardo Silva will be looking to get back to his best this season. And new arrival Ferran Torres also operates wide on the right.

As good as those three are, they can’t match Messi’s level. The Argentine ace scored 31 goals and registered 26 assists in 44 appearances for an underperforming Barca side from the right last season.

If he were to play there for City, he’d look to cut inside onto his stronger left foot and go for goal or play in his teammates. He could form a devastating partnership with Kevin De Bruyne, who likes to move in the opposite direction – from central areas out towards the right flank. Left-backs across the division are no doubt already dreading that prospect.

Option 2: False nine

Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola’s use of Messi as a central striker for Barcelona was a genuine game-changer – bringing the “false nine” role to popularity.

Rather than look to run in behind, Messi would instead drop deep and take up a position between the opposition’s defenders and midfielders – with neither sure who should be picking him up. This created room for the wide forwards to exploit, while Messi himself scored a barely-believable 73 goals in all competitions during 2011/12.

At 33-years-old, Messi no longer has the legs to drop deep and then get into goalscoring positions too. He tends to conserve his energy for when he’s on the ball. However, if Guardiola surrounds him with pace, his ability to work in tight spaces and pick a pass could help to take the team to another level.

Raheem Sterling in particular could benefit from Messi playing centrally – Sterling’s speed and movement would make him an ideal target for Messi’s through balls.

Option 3: Free eight

As mentioned earlier, City already have plenty of right wingers, while Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are battling for selection up front. But they haven’t signed a ready-made replacement for David Silva in what De Bruyne calls the “free eight” role. Phil Foden is being groomed as the heir for Silva’s spot, but could Messi be deployed there instead?

During City’s superb 2018/19 campaign. Silva and De Bruyne operated ahead of Fernandinho in a midfield three and allowed the team to monopolise possession in most games.

Shortages in defence, Silva’s declining mobility and Rodri’s adaptation to English football meant Guardiola often went with two more defensively-minded central midfielders in big games last season – usually Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri. Could Messi help him return to the double free-eight system that had previously served City so well?

He’s got all the tools – it’s often been said that the Rosario-born star will become a midfielder in the final years of his career. He’s arguably the best passer in the game, with superb game intelligence.

With De Bruyne and Rodri to cover the ground, his relative lack of athleticism shouldn’t be too much of an issue either. His touch and technique could allow City’s passing game to be more effective than ever – and his presence alone could open more room for De Bruyne to exploit, as opponents try and mark him out of the game.

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Daniel Anwar

Daniel has written about sport for Coral, Squawka, FourFourTwo and the Premier League, among others.