Why would any forward-looking club want Lionel Messi? The obvious answer is that he is the best player in the world. There are only a handful of superclubs who can afford the Argentinian and every one of them would love to see the 33-year-old wearing their shirt. Manchester City are at the front of the queue but there are plenty of reasons for the club to think twice before making a bid to sign the player.
Age is the first issue. Messi is the most accomplished footballer of the 21st century but even he cannot hold back the years. He has been playing at the highest level for almost half of his life – he made his debut at 17. That is a lot of miles on the clock even for someone so robust. It is almost heresy to say it but for all of the talent he still possesses he passed his peak some time ago.
Players who come to the Premier League from around the world often talk about how long it takes them to come to terms with the pace and physicality of football in England. This is not ‘could-he-do-it-on-a-cold-night-in-Stoke’ nonsense. Many have genuine difficulties adjusting to the tempo of the game that can take a while to overcome. Managers are also surprised by the emphasis on speed and pace. Pep Guardiola frequently complained about it in his first season in Manchester. Messi is great but not superhuman. Five years ago he might have adapted more easily. At this stage he may find it more exacting than expected.
Messi has had a gilded career. He moved from Rosario to Catalonia at the age of 13 and became the brightest star in a golden generation that developed at La Masia, Barca’s academy. Teams were built to showcase his ability. Everything at the Nou Camp has been designed to suit the club’s talisman. In a new environment, with players who are not used to being part of Messi’s supporting cast, there would need to be a period of transition for all concerned.
How, for example, would Kevin De Bruyne react to such an illustrious new team-mate? Where would it leave someone like Phil Foden, whose path to regular first-team participation would be blocked again. Throughout Messi’s career, colleagues have subverted their own game to allow him to take centre stage. His arrival at a new club would change the dynamics of the dressing room and smash the wage structure.
The cost of signing the sport’s biggest superstar is mindboggling. Anyone paying Messi similar money to Barcelona would spend in the region of €100million a year in wages, bonuses and image rights. There is little possibility of recouping this amount through merchandising. City would sell a lot more shirts but not enough to cover the costs. The only way it could possibly make sense is as a loss leader for an international sportswashing project where money is no object. Messi would be selling Abu Dhabi as well as leading City’s line.
Even then there would be problems with Uefa’s financial fair play regulations, although sponsorship agreements would undoubtedly be reworked and bolstered to reflect his presence. It is dangerous territory, though. Messi’s renumeration has contributed hugely to Barcelona’s fiscal woes.
Tying up so many resources in the forward would mean, even for City, that there would be less to spend elsewhere. Guardiola is not short of options up front but he needs to shore up the defence if he wants to conquer Europe. It might be better to allocate the cash elsewhere.
Emotionally and aesthetically, the thought of Messi in the Premier League is enticing. City are the obvious destination, given their wealth, ambition and the player’s personal connection to Guardiola. Utilising the Argentinian would require a change of approach from the City manager. If the Catalan was lukewarm towards Sergio Aguero because the striker did not press opposition defences hard enough, how would he accommodate Messi? It would require a tactical twist that would change the way the team operates.
The obvious counter argument to all objections is that – at least for City – any outlay would be worthwhile if the transfer could help deliver the Champions League trophy to the Etihad. It is now five years since Barcelona won the competition. For all his greatness, Messi, like any player, comes without any guarantees.
Good sense would suggest that City would be better to invest in youth and try to create balance in the side rather than make the ultimate vanity purchase. Having the best individual does not necessarily make you the best team, as Barcelona found out. Messi is not past his sell-by date but his buy-by date has probably been and gone. City – and anyone else considering joining the auction for the little maestro – should think long and hard before making such a significant commitment.
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