Would Barcelona really play Lionel Messi in midfield?! Xavi's selection dilemma if Argentine icon returns to Camp Nou

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Lionel Messi Barcelona 2020-21
The Blaugrana want to bring the PSG star back to Catalunya, but there doesn't seem to be a clear plan on where he might fit into the line up

If Lionel Messi does indeed do what a large sector of football fans want him to and returns to Barcelona this summer, the response will likely be immense. Shirts will fly off the shelves, tickets will be snapped up in seconds, and Barca will be tipped to defend the Liga title that they are about to secure.

But then, reality will hit. For all of the benefits of Messi returning, where, exactly, does he fit into this Barca side?

This is a young team that relies on its energy and defensive work rate. The Blaugrana do have attacking talent in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Ousmane Dembele, but they are on the way to a La Liga title win thanks in the most part to their rigid defending and tactical discipline.

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Messi is the best to ever do it, but he is not a particularly good defender, and forcing him to stick to one singular position would be an immense waste of his talent.

So, Barcelona will have to do what all Messi-led sides have done, and adjust around the Argentine star. The good news is, they have tactical flexibility all over the pitch, and the odds are that the rest of Xavi's side would sacrifice personal interests without question.

But equally, Barca have something good going and a workable system that doesn't seem conducive to Messi's addition. They reportedly want Messi to play in midfield, which would mean adjusting arguably the most efficient part of Xavi's system — tinkering with their key to success.

Regardless of where he plays, there will have to be some changes, and GOAL has taken a look at where Messi might fit at Camp Nou...

  1. Midfielder in Xavi's modified 4-4-2
    Getty Images

    Midfielder in Xavi's modified 4-4-2

    This would be a tricky one. Barcelona's strength this year has been in the harmony between their midfield quartet. Indeed, with Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong operating in a modified double pivot, and Gavi and Pedri playing further forward, Xavi has found a way to get four major talents into his side in a practical way.

    And yet Barca reportedly want Messi to play somewhere in midfield should he return to the club.

    There is no guarantee that Xavi will keep the same system regardless, and he would, in fact, be misguided to do so. However, playing Messi in midfield would mean sacrificing one of the harmonious four.

    Messi would likely play a similar role to that of Pedri, operating in the right half space and functioning as an attacking midfielder. But would Xavi be willing to bench the Spain superstar?

    Still, if the manager is reluctant to change his system, it's where Messi would most comfortably slot in.

  2. Right wing in a 4-3-3
    Lluis Gene/AFP

    Right wing in a 4-3-3

    Xavi has also relied on a 4-3-3 at various points in the campaign, deploying two relatively traditional wide men who create chances for Lewandowski through the middle.

    It has brought mixed results so far, with Barca becoming overly reliant on right-winger Dembele — who tends to be more dependable than a rotating cast of options on the left.

    Indeed, the predictability of the formation was part of the reason the manager opted to switch his system to a 4-4-2. However, it might be the most obvious plug-and-play fit for the Argentine.

    Messi, although he has gone through many different tactical switches throughout his career, is still at his best when receiving the ball in the right half-space and cutting inside onto his left.

    So, asking him so start on the right of a 4-3-3 does indeed make sense. It would require Dembele to switch to the left, and probably demand Jules Kounde to provide more width from right-back, but getting Messi the ball in his preferred spot is still a key to success.

  3. No.10 in a diamond

    No.10 in a diamond

    And now for the reshuffling.

    Argentina found at the World Cup that playing three defensively-minded midfielders behind him allows Messi to work his magic in the final third, while also alleviating responsibilities off the ball. Barcelona can do much the same here, especially if Busquets stays to occupy the defensive midfield role.

    There are some issues, though — mostly the fact that Messi will naturally sort of wander away from the central position he's supposed to start in. But this is also perhaps the best possible set up for creating chances in the final third.

    Xavi has, after all, flirted with the idea of using Dembele as more of an inside forward than a touchline winger, and his connection with Lewandowski is only getting stronger.

    This wouldn't look anything like a 'traditional' two-striker formation, but having two more recognised advanced forwards in front of the Argentine could work wonders.

  4. False nine (when Lewandowski is out)

    False nine (when Lewandowski is out)

    Barcelona had to adjust to life without Lewandowski at the start of 2023 after the striker picked up a silly suspension. And although Xavi's side never really developed a coherent attack in his absence, the Blaugrana still managed to squeak out wins without their star striker.

    In an ideal world, Barcelona won't have to think about how to compensate without Lewandowski for the next couple of seasons. He will inevitably be one of the first names on the teamsheet, and a crucial piece if Barcelona are to achieve more European success.

    But should such a situation arise where he is not available, then Messi could occupy a more central area and create for Barcelona's goalscoring wingers.

    He can no longer put in the yards like in his false nine glory days under Pep Guardiola's tutelage, but Messi still has a fundamental understanding of the position. Meanwhile, the quality on either wing should give Messi plenty of options to combine with.

    It would be a nightmare for opposing centre-backs, too. Even a less mobile, 35-year-old Messi can still wreak havoc floating between the lines.

  5. Second striker in a 4-4-2
    (C)Getty Images

    Second striker in a 4-4-2

    This is effectively the role he plays for Paris Saint-Germain at the moment. Messi floats around somewhere beyond PSG's midfield four, while Kylian Mbappe sits on the last man. Meanwhile, everyone around the pair moves in unspecified directions.

    And it works for the Parisians. Messi has been criticised by PSG fans this year for his lack of defensive effort and often scapegoated for their poor form, but he has still scored 15 and added 14 assists in 26 Ligue 1 appearances.

    Working in such a spot won't be as easy in La Liga. The game is more compact, more ruthless, and there is less of a fear factor from defenders who have already played against the Argentine — albeit with mixed results.

    It is also worth noting that Lewandowski is not Mbappe. The striker would have to act more like a target man in this scenario, and probably be dragged out of his preferred central role to accommodate for Messi's roaming. Still, it's one to consider.