Why Is Mauricio Pochettino Having Such a Tough Time Fitting Lionel Messi Into His PSG Team?

As Tottenham Hotspur manager, Mauricio Pochettino frequently aired his frustration over the club’s lack of transfer market activity. Indeed, Spurs went 18 months between January 2018 and July 2019 without signing a single player. Pochettino hasn’t had this problem as Paris Saint-Germain boss, though.

The 2020 summer window saw no fewer than seven new first team players arrive at the Parc des Princes, many of them world class. One of them, Lionel Messi, is widely considered the greatest to have ever played the game, giving Pochettino unrivalled strength in an attack that already included Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. 

And yet Messi, a player who has scored 672 goals in 778 games for Barcelona, has been something of a misfit for his new team. The 34-year-old has carried a goal threat at times, striking the woodwork in games against Club Brugge and Lyon, but he has largely been a peripheral figure when PSG have signed him to be the heart of their team.

To get the best out of Messi, Pochettino might have to reconsider the balance of his side. Against Lyon, PSG played much of the match in a 4-2-4 shape with Angel di Maria, Mbappe, Messi and Neymar deployed in a front four. This left Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera as a central pairing in midfield. 

Lyon exploited their numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch to get at the PSG back four, with Lucas Paqueta scoring a well-taken opener after Presnel Kimpembe was left a long way out of position. With so many attack-minded players on the pitch at the same time, PSG have so little margin for error. 

At times, the time and space afforded to Lyon in midfield was startling. More than once, Maxence Caqueret was able to control a pass, turn and stroll into 20 yards of space before being confronted by an opposition player. Time and time again, Lyon were allowed all the way to the edge of the PSG box without any friction.

While PSG were able to to fight back and claim a 2-1 win over Lyon, they won’t get away with making the same tactical errors against Manchester City in the Champions League next week. The Premier League champions will control the contest through the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan and Jack Grealish if Pochettino fields a midfield two again.

An attacking sacrifice must be made to address the issues PSG have experienced over the first few weeks of the season. This could see di Maria drop out of the line-up. He would be the easiest player to drop given that Messi could slide over to the right side, giving PSG a 4-3-3 shape — the formation they have played in for the last few seasons.

However, di Maria is a valuable first team figure due to his energy and the way he leads the high press. Without the Argentine stepping up when PSG are out of possession, opposition sides might find it easier to play their way through. Mbappe, Messi and Neymar might not want to do the leg work on the defensive side of the ball, but this is where di Maria is most effective.

Of course, Marco Verratti, who missed out against Lyon, might make a difference when he returns from injury, but even with the Italian back the same structural issues will likely hold PSG back. For Messi to be truly integrated, Pochettino must find a way to make sure the rest of his side isn’t left exposed as a consequence.

This was always likely to be the biggest chance for Pochettino after a blockbuster summer window. It’s not just Messi that the former Spurs boss has to find a role for, it’s Georginio Wijnaldum too. At the time, Wijnaldum’s capture appeared to be something of a coup, but the Dutchman has struggled for game time this season, playing just four minutes in the win over Lyon.

Wijnaldum could help PSG find the right balance in the centre of the pitch. His pitch coverage and adaptability could prove crucial as Pochettino seeks a system that both harnesses his best attackers, like Messi, while still maintains a shape and structure to control matches. Wijnaldum has experience of doing this under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about the way PSG have played so far this season, both in Ligue 1 and in the Champions League, is how different their approach has been to the one that made Pochettino one of Europe’s most revered coaches during his time at Tottenham Hotspur. There is almost no parallel.

At Spurs, Pochettino’s team were renowned for being proactive. They would press high on opponents, force them into mistakes and get a head-start on launching attacks from the opposition half. There has, however, been no sign of this proactive nature in PSG’s play so far this season. Instead, they have been distinctly reactive out of possession. Lazy, even.

At this stage, Pochettino’s best course of action might be to drop Mbappe. This would be the politically easiest decision for him to make with the French forward currently out of favour with the club’s fans who have booed him more than once this season. This way, Pochettino could keep di Maria in the side for his high work rate, deploy Neymar in his favoured position on the left and install Messi as the dynamo through which everything flows.

A 3-5-2 shape could also work. Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes would provide width and attacking threat as wing backs, the midfield would be more secure with three bodies in there rather than two while Messi and Neymar would have the freedom in attack to link up as they did during their time together at Barcelona. This, however, would likely see Mbappe drop out. Managers are often quick to describe such selection headaches as a good problem, but make no mistake — this is a problem for Pochettino.

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