Football Features

The pros and cons of Lionel Messi going back to Barcelona

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:00, 25 July 2022

Could Lionel Messi be set to make a sensational return to Barcelona two years after he left for PSG?

“I would hope that the Messi chapter isn’t over,” said club president Joan Laporta in a recent interview with ESPN, “I think it’s our responsibility to try to… find a moment to fix that chapter, which is still open and hasn’t closed, so it turns out like it should have, and that it has a more beautiful ending.”

Laporta is of course referring to the somewhat callous an underwhelming way Barcelona allowed Messi’s contract to expire in the summer of 2021 and then, the day before he was set to renew, told him that they couldn’t and he would have to leave.

“As president of Barca, I did what I had to do. But also as president of Barca, and on a personal level, I think I owe him,” Laporta added, showing that he feels an element of guilt for Messi leaving the way he did.

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So then, is Messi set for a return this summer? Not likely. But his PSG contract expires next summer, and there is speculation that Barcelona want to bring him back. This, coupled with Laporta’s words and Barcelona transfer guru Gerard Romero informing everyone that Messi is in constant contact with Blaugrana head coach Xavi, has led to people theorising he might return.

Xavi would love that, the fans would love that, and Laporta would love to have Leo back; but is it even a good idea? We have a look at the pros and cons of bringing one of the three greatest players in the history of the game back to the stadium he calls home.

Pro: The emotional beauty

Just imagine it! Messi left Barcelona while the club was in a ruinous state; he didn’t want to go but he had to in order to allow the club to get back on its feet. And now Barca have done it, he returns to the club he loves knowing his financial presence won’t hurt them as they have rebuilt the squad and shed most of the shattering Bartomeu-era contracts that were drowning the side.

The fans, who never really got to see Messi properly at the end, as the pandemic denied the Argentine a full stadium to play in front of, would get their chance to offer their full-throated love and appreciation for their greatest-ever player.

Messi would return from the 2022 World Cup to be a Barcelona player, having used PSG as a way to stay fit and sharp but not drain himself mentally as he chased his ultimate career goal in Qatar. And when he’s succeeded or failed in his quest, he gets to retire as a Barcelona player, the club of his life, with the entire Camp Nou singing his name. What more beautiful and fitting send-off for the man can you imagine?

Con: The dressing room chemistry

Messi was Barcelona’s captain when he left, he was the senior figure in the dressing room. After the club won the 2021 Copa del Rey, all of the players under 25 lined up to take a photo with the trophy, and Messi. He was the main man.

Players who have known nothing but Messi as Barcelona’s kingpin have now, in his absence, constructed a new kind of dressing room. A new harmony with new voices and leaders expressing and asserting themselves. Robert Lewandowski, for one.

Throwing a massive presence like Messi back into that dressing room full of young men coming into their own is bound to lead to issues.

Pro: The Gento Factor

Leo Messi holds just about every record going in Spanish football, but there’s a couple he doesn’t have that must really sting. Messi has won La Liga 10 times and the Champions League four times. However, these are not records, with Paco Gento having won La Liga 12 times and the Champions League six times.

When Messi won his last Champions League, in 2015, it seemed a matter of when, not if, he would overtake Gento for both records. But the decline of Barcelona wrought by Josep Bartomeu and his cronies denied Messi, and he left short of Gento.

But what if he came back? The Champions League record seems a long way off, sure, but winning La Liga three more times? That could definitely happen. And imagine Messi being able to retire with more La Liga titles than any other player in history? Seems apt!

Con: An ageing dribbler in decline

Father Time is undefeated, and over the last year we’ve seen him finally come for Leo Messi. Duels that he previously would have won with ease are now a struggle, and while his hips still let him drive past opponents, he no longer has any breakaway speed to speak of, so opponents can always catch him. And when it comes to physical contests he nearly always comes out on the losing side.

While Messi would definitely have no issues in slotting into the tactical shape (in theory) of Xavi, when you consider his declined physical state, then it becomes tricky. Does he play wide? He doesn’t have the pace, nor the skill-set, to play as a winger in Xavi’s system, where the wingers play truly wide and get through a lot of hard work in defence and attack.

Could he play up-front? Sure, it’s possible, but with Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the squad it’s clear that Xavi prefers to play with a more physical, direct presence in attack.

Midfield? Maybe. Messi certainly has the attacking skill-sets to be something of a Riquelme-esque no. 10, but this would require his midfield partners to be primarily physical and defensive in nature, while the Blaugrana’s current midfield has the mighty young magicians Pedri and Gavi starring, not to mention young Pablo Torré coming through. Why would you ask them to do gruntwork?

The only way Messi fits into this side is as a super-sub, coming off the bench to help the Blaugrana add control and see out a win. Or to play midfield in a Hail Mary, as they chase an equaliser to avoid defeat.

And would you really go through all the drama of signing Messi only to use him as a sub?

Pro: The financial factors

Among all the other benefits of Messi’s return, the financial one is undeniable. All the focus would be on the tactical side, or the emotional one, because they would provide the most satisfactory catharsis, but Messi means money.

Not just money spent (he would surely have no issue fitting himself into Barcelona’s new sustainable salary structure), but money earned. A club that can put Messi’s face on billboards and in adverts becomes much more attractive to sponsors.

Barcelona’s recent deal with Spotify seems brilliant at first glance until you see just what the Blaugrana gave up for that money. There’s no doubt that the club lack a true global superstar with colossal brand appeal, and that perhaps made them less valuable to a company like Spotify.

Messi would change that.

Summer transfer odds 22/23: To sign for before 3rd September Sky Bet
Cristiano Ronaldo to Sporting CP 5/1
Antony to Man Utd 8/13
Christian Pulisic to Newcastle 6/1
Frenkie de Jong to Man Utd 5/2
Youri Tielemans to Arsenal 10/11
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Chelsea 2/7
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Con: The team has moved on

Ultimately, no matter what else, the main reason Messi shouldn’t return to Barcelona (except perhaps to play one last Joan Gamper Trophy and then retire) is that the team has moved on.

They’ve moved on tactically, physically and mentally. The arrival of Xavi has heralded a new dawn at the club. The malaise of Ronald Koeman has been lifted and no one is sat around whining about what Barcelona aren’t. They’re focusing on what Barcelona are and can be.

Messi would be a beautiful hit of nostalgic dopamine for the fans, but he would return to a team that has learned to live without him. And given Messi is a player who has to be a key part of the system to perform at his best level (which is the reason he’s struggled at PSG, there is no system to speak of), bringing him back to a team that doesn’t need him would only lead to a watered down version of Messi.

And the fans deserve better than that. Messi deserves better than that.

The Argentine’s Barcelona career ended with 13 straight world-class seasons, 13 seasons where he was the best player in the world. Let that be his legacy in Barcelona, rather than tainting it with a second period, which can only fail to live up to the glorious memories he gave each and every Barcelona fan for years.

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