The Lionel Messi project has failed at PSG – and nobody really cares – The Athletic

When signing for Paris Saint-Germain, you have to accept that the success or failure of your season is decided in a couple of matches in the spring. Wrapping up the Ligue 1 title is considered a formality. It’s really all about the Champions League.
In that light, almost two years into Lionel Messi’s two-year contract in Paris, we’re left to conclude his arrival hasn’t worked. Their 3-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich felt entirely predictable; PSG were quietly, confidently defeated by a side whose attacking players don’t have the reputation of theirs as individuals, but who play for the team, and are backed up by a cohesive unit.
Messi couldn’t quite showcase all his usual strengths, but the real problem is his weaknesses.
At 35, he doesn’t have the capacity to offer his team anything without possession, which was always likely to be an issue when he was signed to play alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Neymar tends to offer defensive effort in the first 20 to 30 minutes of a big Champions League game before switching off, while Mbappe offers almost nothing without possession, but does justify his freedom with stunning attacking bursts.
Individually, Messi hasn’t done much wrong overall. In his 14 Champions League appearances for PSG he has managed a combined 13 goals and assists, a pretty good return. But this team weren’t previously short of goals or assists, they lacked energy and tactical discipline. They didn’t really need Messi, the same way Manchester United didn’t need Cristiano Ronaldo when he went back to Old Trafford at a similar time. Both shone individually, but didn’t help create a successful team.
How Paris Saint-Germain signed Lionel Messi
It’s become almost boring to criticise PSG along these lines, and it seems unlikely the club will build a European Cup-winning side that features all three of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe. The only time in the whole Bayern tie when PSG looked like a serious attacking force came when all three were on the pitch together.
In the final half-hour of the first leg in Paris, after the introduction of Mbappe — unable to start the game as he was coming off a hamstring injury — PSG were very good, and were only denied an equaliser by the Frenchman via a marginal VAR offside decision. Before that, they’d looked toothless, with Neymar and Messi badly disconnected from the rest of the side.
In the second leg, with Neymar’s season over because of a mangled ankle, Messi dropped increasingly deep and barely combined with Mbappe, who was most threatening when PSG played long balls out of defence into the channels.

Lionel Messi’s touch map against Bayern Munich highlights how he was dropping deep in search of the ball.
It’s tough to find anything specific to criticise Messi for — at least when his side has possession — but one theme is that when his side are struggling, he does tend to drift too far from goal. This has been an issue over the years for Barcelona, Argentina and now PSG. Yes, there is some logic to the approach. It makes sense for a side’s best player to get involved as much as he can, and it sometimes surprises opponents.
But at times, Messi makes life difficult for his team-mates. At PSG, coach Christophe Galtier has often solved this issue by asking Portuguese midfielder Vitinha to concentrate on making reverse movements — if Messi is high, Vitinha stays deep. If Messi drops deep, he pushes high. But that doesn’t suddenly make Vitinha a serious attacking threat.
Messi spent long periods in last night’s second half trying to be a deep playmaker, and for all PSG’s shortcomings elsewhere, they do actually have a fine deep playmaker in Marco Verratti, even if he was caught out on the edge of his own penalty area for Bayern’s opening goal.
Sometimes, Messi needs to trust the ability of his team-mates in possession and concentrate on receiving the ball from them where he can do damage. He risks, of course, not receiving the ball and being criticised for being anonymous in games, but that gamble is often the optimum approach.
PSG had made progress at European level in the seasons before Messi’s arrival. After seven years where they failed to make the Champions League semi-finals, they got to the final in 2019-20 and the semis in 2020-21.
Now, they’ve been eliminated twice in a row from the round of 16. They’ve gone backwards with Messi, although it’s debatable to what extent this represents a failure for PSG’s owners. For them, bringing Messi to PSG was almost an end in itself, a boost for the Qatar brand.
The obvious irony is that Messi, Neymar and Mbappe have all had their 2022-23 club campaigns compromised by the Qatar World Cup; their fitness levels and motivation seemed to build up to that tournament in November and December, and has been desperately lacking since.
It’s something of a new spin on the old club-versus-country debate, a club’s owners essentially creating a unique mid-season World Cup that compromises their day job. The Messi vs Mbappe showdown in the final in Qatar will, at least, live long in the memory, but the key to that battle was the fact both were allowed completely free roles without possession. That only works with one player per team, not with two or three.

The inside track of PSG’s failure
Yet it’s easy to be too po-faced about all this.
Unless you’re a PSG supporter — or, perhaps, a Messi one — this is a consistently rewarding storyline; a group of superstars falling flat because they aren’t a proper side, the equivalent of Galacticos-era Real Madrid. It would be entirely boring if PSG limited themselves to a couple of superstars, surrounded those two with technically proficient but hard-working players and became an intense pressing unit, a solid defensive side and swept up multiple European Cups.
Instead, PSG don’t actually have a very good squad. Their only other proper attacker is Hugo Ekitike, a 20-year-old who is on loan from Reims. It’s not like they are overloaded on attacking midfielders either. Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria and Pablo Sarabia have been discarded, because almost the sole purpose of being a midfielder at PSG is to offer defensive qualities and lots of running, to compensate for the weaknesses of the front three.
Their transfer dealings, aside from paying huge money for world-class players, have been poor. It was symbolic that Bayern’s first two goals of this tie were scored by Kingsley Coman and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting — two former PSG players.
The third was scored by Serge Gnabry, one of three attacking substitutions on the night that showcased Bayern’s strength in depth — they also brought on Sadio Mane and Leroy Sane. PSG just can’t offer anything comparable, in part because they’ve put all their eggs in the superstar basket.
Messi’s reputation is hardly diminished because of this failure. He’s already won the European Cup four times, and in a few years, if you’re asked what Messi got up to in 2022-23, you’ll remember him lifting the World Cup and essentially completing his career. He lifted international football’s ultimate prize while wearing a Qatari bisht, but he probably won’t lift club football’s ultimate prize while wearing a shirt with Qatar Airways’ sponsorship across its chest.
Messi may yet stay in Paris for another season, as PSG might be the only European club who can meet his wage requirements.
If not, it will be difficult to remember much from his two years in Paris. Our Messi memories are primarily with Barcelona, a decent amount of Argentina, and almost no PSG. And most of us are happy with that.
Paris-Saint Germain’s most painful Champions League exits… until now
(Top photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

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Michael Cox concentrates on tactical analysis. He is the author of two books – The Mixer, about the tactical evolution of the Premier League, and Zonal Marking, about footballing philosophies across Europe. Follow Michael on Twitter @Zonal_Marking







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