In a dominant night of football, PSG destroyed Clermont Foot 5-0 to start their Ligue 1 campaign in the best way.
Despite missing Kylian Mbappé through injury, Lionel Messi and Neymar guided PSG to a ridiculously dominant win over the their lowly opponents in Christophe Galtier’s first Ligue 1 game in charge of the Parisians.
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It feels strange to say it, but Lionel Messi isn’t the best player in the world anymore. In fact he reign as football’s greatest player ended after the 2022 Copa America, around when he left Barcelona, we just didn’t know it.
Signing for PSG, it looked as though QSI had brought football’s most magnificent juggernaut to Ligue 1 and would soon sweep all before them both in France and Europe too. But it turns out after leaving the club of his life, and finally winning a trophy with his beloved Argentina, a bit of the spark had left Messi’s game.
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It’s not that Messi has been bad for PSG, he’s just been sort of… normal? There have been moments of exceptional play, linking with Kylian Mbappé delightfully and playing an elegant and dominant playmaker role in the Champions League especially.
But PSG had not signed the best player in the world. The man who dominates every game every week as both goalscorer, goal creator and dribbling wizard playmaker who was comfortably the best player in La Liga and at the Copa America – leading to him winning the Ballon d’Or for a record-extending seventh time in November 2021.
After 15 straight league seasons with 10 or more league goals (or 13 straight with 20 or more) the Argentine ended with just six goals in Ligue 1. His all competitions total of just 11 was also his lowest for 15 years as PSG muddled their way to winning “only” Ligue 1.
Of course there were reasons for this: adapting to a new league in a fractured team with a weak coach, injuries, a bout of Covid-19. But whatever the reasons, Messi was not the world’s best in 2021/22.
So the question now is, after a season where two of the three best players in the world were in their mid-30’s and the other was 29 years-old; and the man set to take Messi’s Ballon d’Or from him is is just one year younger than him, could Messi have his own rennaissance in his second season at PSG? Could he reclaim his crown?
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It’s early, of course, but the signs so far point to yes.
Playing as a 10 in Christophe Galtier’s 3-4-1-2 system, Messi is now insulated from defensive work without unbalancing the XI itself. He is given what amounts to a free-role and thus has the ability to roam wherever he wants to find space and link with his fellow forwards.
That means Neymar and, when he’s fit, Kylian Mbappé. It also means that Messi has a direct link to Achraf Hakimi on the outside of him, a Hakimi unleashed in his ultimate wing-back form, with Nuno Mendes on the opposite flank.
Watching Messi link with these wing-backs against Clermont was a key part of how PSG attacked, as Messi is an expert at both using and creating space for wing-backs (just as Dani Alves and Jordi Alba). PSG’s first goal saw him get a touch on a cross from the left to set Neymar up superbly, and their second saw him create a decoy run to keep Achraf Hakimi in space.
The last three Ligue 1 hat-trick of assists have all come in 2022:
🅰️🅰️🅰️ Mbappé vs Lorient (April)
🅰️🅰️🅰️ Messi vs Clermont (April)
🅰️🅰️🅰️ Neymar vs Clermont (August)
The PSG front three. 😤 pic.twitter.com/yHCa9EXmaw
— Squawka (@Squawka) August 6, 2022
The third goal was a set-piece, and then the final two Messi scored himself after some delightful work linking with team-mates. His first was the kind of goal he’s scored many times after linking with Andrés Iniesta at Barcelona (ask Chelsea, Valencia and yes, even PSG). This time his dance partner was Neymar as the pair exchanged passed and worked their way to right in front of the Clermont goal for a Messi tap-in.
We ended with the real magic, where Messi showed a jolt of pace and agility that was reminiscent of his Barcelona days. With Leandro Paredes in possession 30 yards out, Messi leaned towards the ball before spinning away from it and sprinting behind the defence.
Paredes pinged a beautiful pass over the defence and Messi controlled it on his chest the overhead kicked it into the net. It was an honest to goodness miracle of a strike that took the breath away and signified how dangerous Messi could be in this system.
Lionel Messi's game by numbers vs. Clermont:
11 touches in opp. box
11 passes into opp. box
5 take-ons completed
4 chances created
4 shots on target
2 Big Chances created
And this finish. 😲
— Squawka (@Squawka) August 6, 2022
By allowing him to rest from defensive work as a function of the system with compromising the side’s defensive integrity, PSG will keep Messi in the best physical shape he can be for the ends of games when he can come alive.
This effect will only be enhanced when football’s bullet train Kylian Mbappé is back in the side. While Pablo Sarabia played well today, Mbappé is only an entirely different level and having his frightening athletic prowess and technical ability as both a decoy and passing target should open up a whole new avenue of possibilities for Messi.
Mbappé ended last season with the most goals and the most assists in Ligue 1, and this Galtier system which has so liberated Messi should do similar for Mbappé and only enhance the burgeoning connection between the two that we saw last season. With his ridiculous pace and razor sharp skill and finishing, Mbappé is an almost perfect foil for Messi – better even than Neymar.
Having those three together in a system specifically designed to protect them defensively and supply them with ample width offensively is going to lead to great things, especially for the greatest player of them all. And with the World Cup on the horizon serving as a superpowered motivator for Messi to find his best form, things look very promising indeed.
Watch out world, Lionel Messi is back, and he’s coming for his crown.