The case against buying Lionel Messi for €100m

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After writing this late on Saturday 29th, I decided that due to the probably-fast-paced nature of this situation I’d send this out straight away, rather than waiting for the usual Tuesday release.


This is not a ‘look at me’ hot take (although I am glad you’re reading it).

I’m starting this post assuming you’ve seen the rumour that Manchester City may offer €100m plus various players for Lionel Messi (pending whatever legal shenanigans are involved in his contract dispute with Barcelona). As the title of this newsletter says, I want to offer the case against buying Lionel Messi for €100m. That’s regardless of any other makeweight players. That €100m on its own is too much.

But I also want to be clear on the specifics that this statement, just like the rumour, applies to Manchester City.

Look, I understand the pull of the “if Lionel Messi is available, you buy Lionel Messi” point of view. As I’ve noted on my other substack, Messi’s an incredibly large part of Barcelona’s attack. His goal contribution rate has been better than all of his teammates put together in no fewer than six seasons during his career. Even approaching 34, he’s really good.

But as I’ve noted on the ol’ work blog at Twenty3, he doesn’t defend.

[Image taken from blog post linked above; data from Wyscout — stats for this and all future visualisations are from the 2019/20 league season]


“Yeah, sure,” you’re probably saying, “but he’s Messi. He doesn’t need to defend.”

You’re right.

But allowing Messi not to defend means that everybody else has to.

In the blog that the above image comes from, I was arguing that Barça needed to get rid of Luis Suárez for that exact reason. Neither he nor Messi do much defensive work — whether through will or, more probably (in Suárez’s case at least), physical capability — and I think it limits the team quite a lot. You can’t press high if you have two forwards who don’t put in a shift, for example. And we know how much teams love to press high these days.

One problem at City is they already have a forward who doesn’t do much defensive work:


I’ll grant you, this problem isn’t insurmountable. Particularly because City already have a centre-forward who very regularly puts in a shift when out of possession…

[Image taken from the Twenty3 blog post — here’s a link again]


However — and this is the real point — City are already really good. Although Liverpool very well may be doing something that expected goals models aren’t catching*, pretty much every model going had Pep Guardiola’s team ‘ahead’ of Jürgen Klopp’s last season.

[*A very reasonable theory that could account for a lot of this is that Liverpool manage games after going ahead whereas City are more likely to continue racking up chances. Stat-padding, but for teams. Nonetheless, City are really good.]

At the very, very least, City are clear title contenders in the league, and one of the best teams in Europe. All while not needing Messi to be a part of the finely calibrated system. I’d also bet money that, prior to a few weeks ago, Lionel Messi wasn’t in any of their plans for how the squad would be built and how the team would be constructed.

So you’re going to pay €100m for:

  • A 33-year-old
  • Who doesn’t defend
  • Whose lack of defending may require you to bench your main forward
  • Whose arrival you haven’t planned for
  • And which might (probably will) throw off your short- and medium-term squad-building plans
  • When you’re already one of the best teams in Europe


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There are a couple more boring tactical points about Messi’s arrival at City that aren’t interesting enough to spend much time on.

The first is that Messi’s tendency to drift inside means someone needs to be providing width high on the right wing the whole time. Can 30-year-old Kyle Walker do that?

Alternatively, Messi could be given a free role behind a striker in a 4-2-3-1, which would at least have a full-time right wing player. But then they have the central midfield duo problem that they’ve struggled with this past season.

I should stick up for Rodri and İlkay Gündoğan here because I think they’ve partly suffered from circumstance. By my eye, it was City’s counterpressing that enabled them to fit in four attacking midfielders to their steamrollering 4-1-4-1, with Fernandinho as the anchor, and trouble comes when that pressing doesn’t work. It’s perfectly possible that Rodri and Gündoğan are quite good, it’s just the press in front of them is letting them down. But Messi’s not going to help that much…

‘It’ll pay for itself in shirt sales…’

The whole ‘shirt sales will pay back the transfer fee’ line has roundly been debunked over the past few years, but we might be able to replace ‘shirt sales’ with ‘VIP boxes’. I’m also not being wholly serious, because it clearly wouldn’t pay for the transfer fee plus wages, but the City move for Messi has carried with it the rumour of a move to NYCFC after a year or two.

Imagine… Lionel Messi, in a twilight of a career that’ll still surely be sparkling, in New York City — how much would the richest of the rich in NYC pay to see him play?

Pep Guardiola can probably work out a way to fit Messi into his team, back in Manchester. Messi will probably carry on working hard for his one-time Barça boss. Even if it isn’t smooth sailing, City will probably still have more than enough to compete for the titles they care about.

And, when all is said and done and the nerds have finished blogging, “if Lionel Messi is available, you buy Lionel Messi”.


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Shout-out corner

Shout-out to Millie Bright’s banger in the Community Shield, particularly for my own nerdy context around it in the game.

Manchester City had just gone down to ten players and had gone to a 4-1-4-0 out of possession. Amateur tactico here was thinking ‘this’ll be interesting, they’re ceding a lot of space to the centre-backs and forcing them to make decisions on the ball’. And then Chelsea and England centre-back Bright steps up and does this.

And, not sport, but considering events in the US my thoughts go to this piece from June on the New Statesman by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi: In Britain, we have our George Floyds too.

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