Exactly one year ago today (Monday) Lionel Messi bade farewell to Barcelona in an emotional press conference in a scene that many thought was never going to happen.
It was a stunning moment in football history, one that no-one really expected to see despite Barcelona’s financial struggles, it became one of the iconic images of 2021.
At the time Messi’s destination was uncertain, Manchester City were still circling as well as a few other clubs both in and out of Europe as sporting directors frantically crunched the numbers.
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As we know now Paris was to be his next stop but it was far from plain sailing. PSG won the league but despite registering the second-most assists in Ligue 1 Messi was far from his best.
This season PSG have won their opening games 4-0 against Nantes in the Trophee des Champions and 5-0 against Clermont in their first Ligue 1 match of the campaign. Messi has scored three goals and picked up an assist in those two matches, capped by an outrageous overhead kick against Clermont.
So is Messi back? Or is it a little more nuanced than that? In order to find out we got in touch with Cyril Morin from Eurosport France to get more information.
What’s different under Galtier?
Let’s start here because ultimately there are going to be games every season where PSG steamroll their opponents, that is the reality when the money being pumped into their club gives them such a big advantage.
So what looks different this season under new manager Christophe Galtier compared to last season under Mauricio Pochettino?
“The difference is very clear,” says Morin.
Image credit: Eurosport
“First of all, the system. Now PSG plays in a 3-4-3 formation where Lionel Messi and Neymar are very free in where they move about the pitch with Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes as the wing-backs.
“The result is very coherent and very satisfying to watch to be honest. With Pochettino, we never really saw the plan, his ideas... With this PSG team, we understand what Galtier wants. It is a first step but an important one.”
So what about Messi?
So the point Morin makes about Messi and Neymar’s freedom is really interesting. Both players appeared centrally at times, particularly Messi, and they clearly could go where they liked.
The question of how to use an ageing Messi has been so interesting in the past few years. In Barcelona’s 4-3-3 he basically stranded the right-back given his lack of defending, whilst Pochettino didn’t seem to know whether to play him 10 and sacrifice the midfield or play him wide and take the risks out there.
Perhaps this 3-4-3 is the secret. Two wing-backs who can cover every inch of their flank protected by two disciplined midfielders and three centre-backs to build a system where Messi can thrive. If it works Galtier will look like a genius.
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"We can be pretty sure that we won't have the same Messi as last year,” says Morin of 2022 Messi compared to 2021 in his first season in France.
“But you have to analyse last year as well: he came back from holidays certain that he would stay to Barcelona. But, within a month, he changed team, coach, teammates, home... Even for him, it was a big deal.
“You can add in that he didn't have a decent pre-season, which was obvious at the beginning of the season.
“This season, he's more involved in PSG's team, the smile is back on his face, which is a small detail but was rare last year.
“With the World Cup coming, you can feel his desire to be at full fitness quickly. And the new system, that Pochettino surprisingly never really tried, is perfect for his qualities. He's way more connected to Neymar and against Clermont we saw moves that had the hallmark of the MSN of Barcelona that we never really saw last year.”
Neymar Jr. and Lionel Messi
Image credit: Getty Images
And what about the future? Messi’s contract with PSG expires in 2023, and the Catalan press are already being briefed that Barcelona are keen to bring him back next summer.
Are PSG panicking?
“Not really,” replies Morin.
“It’s complicated to imagine Messi coming back to Barcelona with the same salary given the issues they have had this summer.
“But it's not really discussed yet. Messi was an opportunity for the short-term rather than a plan for the next decade for PSG.”
The new protector?
A quick word too on Vitinha, who was one of the low-key summer signings (as much as a €40m signing can be low-key) who arrived from Porto.
The 22-year-old is a classic Luis Campos signing and he has immediately slotted in straight next to Marco Verratti. Even in the first two games he seemed to bring a lot more than Idrissa Gueye.
Does Morin agree?
“Yes, he's been very, very efficient for now and brings many things to this new PSG team.
“He plays next to Verratti and is always on the move, very accurate with his passing and very intense at pressing and recovering the ball. Furthermore he brings more technical ability than what Gueye brought last season.”
So is this a new PSG or just another false dawn? Realistically we won’t know until the business end of the Champions League next spring. But the initial results are certainly very encouraging.
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