Football Features

Five ways PSG could line up with Lionel Messi

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:51, 10 August 2021

So there it is, PSG have signed the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.

Four years after they signed the second-best player in the world, Neymar, they return for the top dog. Although in this instance they needed no fee as they could pick Messi up on a free transfer after the Blaugrana shamefully allowed his contract to expire and were then, hilariously and tragically, unable to re-sign him due to budgetary constraints.

So now PSG have Neymar and Messi. And Kylian Mbappé. And Angel Di Maria. And Marco Verratti. And Achraf Hakimi. Basically at this point, it’s easier to list who PSG don’t have. Their team is ridiculously stacked, but just how do they fit all that attacking genius into one team? We’ve had a look and come up with five line-ups for the superpowered Parisians.

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1. “The Poch Classic”

Mauricio Pochettino is a noted 4-2-3-1 enthusiast so his first instinct will be to play it with PSG. And for sure it will allow him to incorporate all his superstars. Sergio Ramos steps into the defence alongside Marquinhos (when he’s fit, anyway, Presnel Kimpembe should still play plenty) ahead of Gigi Donnarumma. Abdou Diallo is a defensive option at left-back, helping form an asymmetric back three when Achraf Hakimi bombs on like a freight train up the right-flank.

In midfield, Gini Wijnaldum and Marco Verratti are tasked with defending. A lot. They don’t really need to advance the ball that much since one of Di Maria, Neymar or, most likely, Messi will come into midfield to get the ball and kick-start the PSG attacks. Messi will be the fulcrum of the attack while Neymar and Di Maria provide width and pace out on the flanks, also taking over playmaking duties to let Messi make runs into goalscoring positions when required. Messi knows both men well so the chemistry will be automatic.

Less certain is Messi’s chemistry with star striker Mbappé but, really, what’s there to it? Mbappé is fast and makes liquid runs into space and there’s no better playmaker on planet earth than Messi. This XI will terrify opponents all across the continent.

2. “The Lucho”

If Pochettino doesn’t feel like he has to incorporate Di Maria alongside his other devastating forwards then he can switch to a 4-3-3 and take a leaf out of Luis Enrique’s Barcelona playbook to pull it off. The defence stays the same as before while in midfield, Leandro Paredes is added at Di Maria’s expense. Paredes holds midfield and recycles possession at speed, getting Verratti and Messi into better areas to start attacks.

Messi will, of course, drift from the right-flank where he is nominally stationed. In attack, this flank will be covered by the Achraf Hakimi Express, much how Dani Alves was Barcelona’s right-flank back in 2015. Defensively, however, these two attacking players on the right will need a defensive counterweight to avoid creating a highway for opponents to raid down.

In 2015, that was Ivan Rakitic. Now? Gini Wijnaldum.

PSG’s new signing is perfect for the “Rakitic role” because he has incredible stamina, an impressive physical profile meaning he has the legs to get up and down, the defensive responsibility to hold position but also the ability to pop up and score goals if left alone to shoot by opponents who are too busy marking other people. Wijnaldum makes the whole system tick, allowing Neymar, Mbappé, Messi, Hakimi and Verratti to devastate anyone who stands in PSG’s way.

3. “The Variant”

3-4-2-1 has emerged as a dynamic formation for sides to use in recent years, and PSG could take advantage of it to hide their lack of quality full-backs beyond Hakimi. So, deploy a three-man back-line of Ramos between Marquinhos and Kimpembe. That back-line has authority, athleticism, goals and big-game guts.

Ahead of them is the hard-working midfield duo Ander Herrera and Wijnaldum. Their job is to press the ball, pass it to the playmakers and occasionally make vertical runs to give the team depth. Out wide, Hakimi and Di Maria hug the touchlines and use their unique skills (crossing in Di Maria’s case, pace in Hakimi’s) to provide a supplementary threat.

In attack, it’s Messi, Neymar and Mbappé yet again. However, with wing-backs in the side this time, they will be able to play more narrow and close together which should lead to some of the fastest and slickest passing combinations Europe has seen since, well, 2017 when Messi and Neymar last played together.

4. “The All-Out Attack”

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta throw everything at an opponent to get a win, and luckily for Pochettino, he can have a unique formation to do just that. It’s basically a 4-2-4 or a 4-2-2-2. Marquinhos and Kimpembe anchor defence while Hakimi slots over to left-back and Ramos rolls back the years to play right-back. Both men love to raid and are exceptional in attacking zones so it fits.

Wijnaldum anchors midfield as he did for Liverpool, quietly recycling possession with short passes to Messi or Neymar. Rafinha assists defensively but also splits wide to provide the left-footed width on the left as everyone else cuts inside.

Hakimi is a freight train running into the box where he’ll come across Mauro Icardi leading the line with his height and power clearing the way for his team-mates. Mbappé will be free to make runs off Icardi while Messi and Neymar will have complete free roles to just do whatever they want in a system that is as much panic stations as it is structured thinking.

5. “The Rafaella”

Neymar has missed almost 50% of the possible games he could have played for PSG. He’s injury-prone. It’s frustrating and has cost PSG badly in the past, but no longer! Now they have Messi, they can not only play well without him, but they can thrive.

The defence sees Ramos and Marquinhos anchor while Hakimi again plays left-back (more on that later) and the solid Colin Dagba fills in at right-back. In midfield, Danilo is the rock-solid anchor and this frees Verratti up to play higher up the field and Wijnaldum to play more like he does for the Netherlands, making forward runs beyond the striker into the box.

Why does he do that? Because Messi is playing false nine in this system between Julian Draxler and Mbappé. Draxler is a hard-working, hard-pressing player who will make runs off the ball into goalscoring areas. Think a giant version of Pedro.

Meanwhile, Mbappé plays from the left much as Thierry Henry and David Villa did for Barcelona, cutting infield and being the team’s primary goal threat while Hakimi bombs down the outside to provide width for Messi’s passes. With Mbappé and Hakimi as constant moving targets, Draxler covering/available for the reverse and the surging power of Wijnaldum, Messi will always have plenty of targets to hit with his passes (or decoys should he choose to just start running with it) and should thrive in Paris.