The possible availability of Lionel Messi as a legitimate transfer target has shaken world football in the past week.
Barcelona’s 8-2 demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final was surely the definitive end of Barcelona’s long 2010s, which began in 2008 with the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager and ended on 25 August 2020 when the fated burofax was sent.
Messi is some prize, and every club of a certain size has probably sucked pencils and jabbed at calculators this week to try to work out if they could attract the great man to their club.
Manchester City are favourites for understandable reasons but there are a variety of English clubs where Messi would fit in nicely…
OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Pep Guardiola hasn’t won a Champions League title without Messi in his team, Messi has won just one Champions League since Guardiola left Barcelona.
Both want to win at least one more Champions League and Guardiola manages a team who want to win their first Champions League. It’s not the hardest equation in the world.
The thought of Kevin de Bruyne assisting Messi against, say, Brighton is an absolute delight.
But adding Messi to City doesn’t really solve the issues that saw Liverpool finish so far ahead of them last season.
Guardiola’s team scored 102 goals in the Premier League in 2019-20 but it was their defence that let them down on too many occasions.
For all of City’s attacking brilliance they have only once had a player score 25+ times in a Premier League season (Sergio Aguero in 2014-15). Messi has scored 25+ league goals in every single season from 2009-10 onwards.
Guardiola + Messi sounds good, goals + goals sounds very good, but you still need to stop the other team from scoring.
No club has launched two-footed into the transfer market more enthusiastically than Chelsea this summer, with Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell all on board, and Kai Havertz reportedly still to come.
So why add a 33-year-old on the biggest contract English football has ever seen?
On the one hand, Chelsea are the true pioneers of introducing veteran talent to the English game, with the likes of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola all key figures in helping not only Chelsea establish themselves, but also the Premier League itself in the 1990s.
But Chelsea’s dominant period in the 2000s was underpinned not by faded glamour, but by the professionalism and determination of players like Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. Lampard, now Chelsea boss, knows this, and he’ll also remember that the club’s attempts to integrate star forwards Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres simply didn’t work.
Would Messi score more Premier League goals than the nine managed by Shevchenko? Probably, but at what cost?
Burnley manager Sean Dyche engaged in some upbeat banter with journalists last week when he joked that Messi had agreed to join the Clarets.
But what if the Barca captain did just that? Would Messi trotting out at Turf Moor in claret and blue help the club or hinder them?
Since returning to the top flight under Dyche in 2016, Burnley have averaged 40 league goals per season. In the same period Messi has averaged 33. Seems like an easy win, then, to add the Argentine to Burnley’s attack, but remember: Barcelona have averaged 98 goals per season in the same period, which is 2.45 times as many as the Clarets.
Apply that Burnley goal reduction to Messi (he’s good but has he ever truly felt the cold touch of an evening game in mid-Lancashire in February?) and his average is reduced to about 13.5 goals.
So, in the realm of what Chris Wood produced for the club in 2019-20.
Am I saying Wood is as effective a player as Messi? No. Am I saying Wood offers more when defending corners? Probably, yes.
Of course, if Messi really wants a stylistic change then why not opt for Championship newcomers Wycombe Wanderers, who defied all the odds and escaped League One in 2019-20 with a style of football that was as effective as it was morally frustrating to their defeated opponents.
Wycombe averaged 151 successful passes last season to Barcelona’s 629. Wycombe averaged 41% possession, Barcelona 67%. Adebayo Akinfenwa won 230 aerials; Messi won 10.
Would the Argentine be happy running the channels and turning those second balls into game-changing moments? It’s hard to see why not. A goal is a goal and an assist is an assist whatever the level a player is operating at.
Wycombe once enjoyed the skills of Argentina’s Sergio Torres in the final third and it’s fair to say Messi would enjoy comparable levels of support at Adams Park, a ground that has good claim to being one of the coldest in England, thus offering Messi numerous opportunities to show whether a low temperature/midweek game combo really would affect his productivity.
Whatever Messi’s decision, he’s going to need to carefully manage his reputation over the next few years.
If he ends up staying at Barcelona he’ll have to repair a lot of relationships. If he moves abroad he’ll have to adapt to a new home, a different climate and a new way of playing, all at an age when many footballers are starting to think of winding down.
The reputation-management device of the 2020s is the serious US-funded documentary series, so where better to go than Sunderland, whose recent downs and more downs have been featured on Netflix?
It would actually be a neat fit because Messi came very close to scoring more goals by himself than Sunderland did in the 2010s, helped by years like 2012 in which he scored 79 to Sunderland’s 56. The Wearside club only drew level with Messi in March 2019 thanks to their relegation to the easier hunting grounds of the third tier, where they still remain.
A lot of players have moved to the Stadium of Light in recent years to try to rescue the club but could Messi succeed where Will Grigg couldn’t?
If Sunderland are currently too lowly for Messi then another red and white striped team could offer him a new home.
Southampton even know what it’s like to get smashed on live television in recent memory.
Crucially they also have Shane Long who, like Messi, was born in 1987 and has scored 14 headed goals in top-flight history.
Long was signed and repeatedly praised by new Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman, though, so is probably one up on Messi there.