It is the perennial question – how would Lionel Messi do in the Premier League? As years passed, hopes of an answer were fading but with the news that the Barcelona icon has asked to leave the club, the prospect has never felt more real. It is just a shame Stoke did not stick around.
At least it is still wet and windy in Manchester. A reunion with Pep Guardiola is seen as the most likely option if Messi is to opt for the Premier League. It would be the fantasy transfer made real. A nation awaits.
But at the age of 33, what could we expect from Messi?
To most, he is a footballing god. Beyond criticism. But there are always the naysayers. Those who wonder whether he could repeat his startling numbers outside of Spain. They watch with scepticism as he pummels hat-tricks against Celta Vigo, Mallorca and Eibar – and that was just this season.
When Messi is helping himself to goals, he can make it look so easy – and perhaps that is the problem. For some, it can become tempting to conclude that the competition itself must be easy.
The argument is flawed.
Take Messi out of the equation and it all looks rather different. There have been more hat-tricks scored in the Premier League over the past decade than in La Liga, Messi excluded. He has been responsible for almost a quarter of them in that time. Ten out of 33 in the past three seasons.
The reality is that La Liga is one of the toughest competitions – if not the toughest competition – in the world. Sevilla underlined that depth in winning the Europa League for a sixth time recently.
Spain has provided almost half of the winners of European competitions since the turn of the century with eight different clubs from La Liga competing in finals in that time. More than England.
In short, it is an elite competition that has frequently been made to look far too easy because of just two players – Messi at Barcelona and, for nine years, Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid.
The only other player to pass the 30-goal mark in a season in La Liga over the past decade is Luis Suarez – who also did just that in the Premier League during his final season with Liverpool.
There were 92 fewer goals scored in La Liga than the Premier League last season. As a result, extraordinary as it might seem given nobody has registered such numbers in the competition, it is reasonable to think that,with a top English club, Messi’s record would be similarly stratospheric.
That is not to say he would not need to adjust. Even though stylistic differences between major leagues might not be as pronounced as they once were in this globalised world, recent figures suggest the Premier League remains more fast paced than La Liga. The average number of high intensity activities in the competition is far higher than the other four major European leagues.
Pressing from the front was a feature of Messi’s game as a youngster under Guardiola, of course, but those days are long gone now. In fact, he has seemed to saunter around in recent seasons, trading intensity for longevity, protecting his body to ensure his availability.
It has worked.
Messi has rarely been injured, playing more minutes than any other player in La Liga over the past decade. His total of 28,792 minutes played far exceeds that of any outfield player in the Premier League in that time. Kyle Walker comes closest but is 3,850 minutes adrift. That’s a full season.
Messi has been remarkably robust. If he does not appear to work as hard as others, it is reasonable to conclude he has done so to ensure he is on the pitch for the maximum amount of time in the knowledge that when he is on the pitch, he is always a danger to the opposition.
How much of an impact would this less mobile version of Messi have in the Premier League? It is a fair question. But there are facets of his game that would most likely translate easily regardless of the backdrop.
For example, his record in dead-ball situations is far superior to that of any other player. It would be reasonable to expect his astonishing feats from free-kicks to continue in the Premier League.
Messi has been incredibly consistent in that department over the past three seasons. He scored six from 47 attempts in the 2017/18 season, six from 41 in the 2018/19 season and five from 43 in the 2019/20 campaign. That is 17 free-kick goals in three seasons of football in La Liga.
Only one player in the Premier League has scored even five free-kick goals in that time – Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse. It is not because the duties have been shared around at clubs either. Manchester City have scored the most free-kick goals of any Premier League team over the past three seasons but their total as a squad is still less than half that of Messi’s. He is the maestro.
It is a testament to his accuracy from distance – almost passing the ball into the corner of the net. While there is no reason to think his free-kick record cannot be repeated in any competition, Messi retains the ability to find space in regular play too. A drop of the shoulder is still enough.
As a result, Premier League goalkeepers would have to deal with his phenomenal shooting from outside of the penalty box. Messi has scored 35 goals from that zone in the past four seasons in La Liga. The player to have scored the most from outside the box in the Premier League in that time is Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and even his tally of 15 pales in comparison to the Argentine.
Of course, shooting and scoring is only part of Messi’s game. He first wowed crowds with his dribbling and, astonishingly, that ability to beat a man remains a weapon even into his thirties.
The context here is important. By his standards, there was nothing particularly unusual about Messi’s dribbling numbers last season – he was doing what he had been doing for over a decade.
By his standards.
By the standards of anyone else, this was outrageous. Messi completed no fewer than 182 dribbles in a competition in which no other player managed even 100. Only one fewer than Adama Traore completed in the Premier League last season. Just part of the package with Messi.
Dribbling might be a young man’s game but Messi’s passing masterclasses are likely to continue even as his pace deserts him and he comes deeper in search of the ball, taking on more of a role in the build-up play. He is, after all, one of the greatest passers of a ball that the game has ever seen.
Messi registered 21 assists in La Liga last season, almost twice as many as any other player and more than anyone has ever managed in a single Premier League season. Would he be able to transfer those numbers? Hard to say when this country has never seen a player with such vision.
It is his ability to thread through-balls in behind even packed defences that really separates him from any other player on the planet. Over the past three seasons in La Liga, Messi has completed 70 such passes breaking the defensive lines. Again, De Bruyne is the closest to him in the Premier League. Again, his numbers are a mere fraction of Messi’s.
There is little reason to doubt that he could pull off these passes in a Manchester City shirt just as effectively as he has done for Barcelona. He would still be able to see the pass and he would still have the runners. City are every bit as dominant in England as Barcelona have been in Spain.
The possession statistics highlight this point. While Barcelona have consistently enjoyed over 60 per cent of the ball in La Liga for many years, since Guardiola’s arrival at the Etihad Stadium, City are similarly dominant. In fact, they have averaged more possession than Barcelona in that time.
Will we ever see Messi at Manchester City or any other Premier League team? That remains to be seen. But the evidence suggests it would be a mistake to believe that the competition would feel alien to him. It seems far more likely that it would be the extraordinary gifts of Lionel Messi that would feel alien to anything witnessed in the Premier League ever before.