Lionel Messi is an exceptional footballer, although I’m sure you have already noticed. His record-breaking haul of 73 goals and 28 assists are totals that may never be eclipsed, and it is almost certain that he will add to his three Ballon D’Or trophies – if not this year, then probably the year after, or the year after that. Despite all the claims to the contrary, Messi has built up a solid argument for the title of the best of all-time in our sport even without winning the FIFA World Cup, and all by the tender age of 24 (Leo’s 25th birthday is a little under a month away). To put it simply, there is nothing that man cannot do while on the field, however, does Lionel Messi have what it takes to go one step further in his career and become a manager after he hangs up his boots?
I’ll admit, it’s a bizarre reality to even contemplate; especially this early into his career. After all, Messi can expect to play on for another 7-10 years at the very least and when you look at this current Blaugrana squad there are guys like Carles Puyol or Xavi who seem like more obvious candidates for a future managerial role. However, what if we were to contemplate the improbable; could Messi have what it takes to be a "Pep Guardiola" of the future?
Tactical Nous and Decision-Making
While his finishing is indeed world-class and he dribbles the ball in a way that very few in the history of the sport could wish to emulate, there is another vital – yet very much underrated – element in Messi’s playing style: his "footballing brain". Lionel Messi made his breakthrough in a time when athleticism was regarded as king, but thanks to his emergence, and the rise and rise of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta many nations are now realising that there is more to a football player than his height, speed and power. At La Masia, Messi learnt the Barcelona way, but as all truly great players must do, he adapted that style to suit his strengths. For example, look at Xavi and Iniesta – both are La Masia graduates, but each play with their own unique style as Xavi prefers to chip away at a defense while Andrés tends to play a little more "direct" in terms of his dribbling and passing.
Many players graduate from that La Masia system, but a philosophy will only get you so far. Players that excel at youth level might struggle once they turn professional, but those with a "footballing brain" will excel all throughout their career. Physical attributes such as pace, strength and fitness will degrade over time, but tactical nous will not, and for the most part, it will improve with age. It is Messi’s ability to read the game in the way that he does, the vision he displays and his reactionary decision-making that sets him apart. You can train mercilessly to improve pace, fitness and power, but you cannot learn how to spot passes, and you cannot learn the ideal reaction for every given situation. As a world-class player, you need to make decisions that could change the game – do you pass the ball to a teammate when through on goal, or go for glory? However, you need to react as a manager too, making decisions that are supposed to increase the chances of your team winning the match.
On Friday night, Messi was at his mesmeric best. Athletic Bilbao were supposed to be a difficult opponent, and Marcelo Bielsa was supposed to have a plan to deal with the Argentine. While there is a question mark over the first part of that sentence, there is no doubting that Bielsa did have a plan to deal with Messi; it’s just that Messi reacted to the situation and tore that plan to shreds. With Fernando Amorebieta acting as his shadow, Messi reacted to the events that unfolded before him and dropped deeper, thus dragging Amorebieta horribly out of position. With the Venezuelan out of the picture, Bilbao were left with three at the back to deal with Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and the forward runs of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. I think the scoreline reflects that it didn’t turn out too well, but take the third goal as an example.
The third goal was Pedro’s second of the night, and came as the result of a quickly taken free-kick. Given the circumstances of the goal it would be easy to suggest that the free-kick was the primary reason why Pedro scored, but take a look at the position of Fernando Amorebieta when the free-kick is won. As per usual, he is a few yards away from Messi, but tellingly he is only a few yards from the referee – not in his usual central defensive position. As a result of his orders and Messi’s intelligence, he is nowhere near the box when the free-kick is taken so Xavi can hold up the ball with relative ease and tee up Pedro for his second. Even by the time the ball hits the back of the net, Amorebieta has only just entered his own defensive third.
It’s this intelligence that sets Messi apart on the field and it’s this intelligence and reactionary decision-making that Messi could use if he became a manager in the future.
Traditionally, to become a manager you have to display good leadership skills. This applies in any field of work, but football is an interesting case, simply because there is more than one way to display leadership skills and both can pave the way to a managerial career. Obviously the best and most obvious way to lead a team is as captain. Is it a coincidence that our current captain Carles Puyol has been rumoured as a potential Barca coach of the future? Especially at a club like Barcelona, the captain is seen a future manger because they have defined the club for their entire career – who knows the system better than them? Before Tito Vilanova was appointed there were many who linked Luis Enrique to the job, not because of his managerial credentials but because he would continue the philosophy having previously captained the club. Perhaps in the future Lionel Messi will captain the Blaugrana, but for now this is a little irrelevant. However, there is another way to lead a club.
As a player, Pep Guardiola was not only the captain, but also he was the hub of the team and the majority of play revolved around him at pivote. To an extent this is why there are rumours of Xavi becoming manager in the future – after all, he is widely regarded as the modern day Pep Guardiola even if Sergio Busquets is his true successor. On the other hand, is Xavi really the brain of this team? While it was certainly the case in years gone by, it seems the midfield maestro’s influence is waning and that torch is now being carried by Messi. Slowly but surely, the number of assists Xavi records each season is falling, while Messi’s continues to rise – perhaps this is a misinterpretation of the situation, but there were times this season that it was obvious that Messi has taken over as hub of the team, with the matches against Chelsea and Real Madrid the most obvious. Xavi still had the most touches – he does play in midfield after all – but both Chelsea and Real gained favourable results after nullifying the Argentine. They "killed" the brain, and the rest of the team shut down, unable to really create anything of note.
While the majority of modern players-turned-managers used to ply their trade in midfield, there are others who made the transition to management after leading a team from the front. Marco Van Basten is a good example, as is Jurgen Klinsmann, but perhaps the best example would be Johan Cruyff. Much like Messi, Cruyff was one of the guys who could change a game in an instance, he made the spectacular look ordinary – the impossible became possible. Like Messi, he had a phenomenal tactical brain with a concrete philosophy to follow. That combination ensured that he retired as not only one of the best players of all-time, but one of the best managers also – could Messi follow in his footsteps?
Public Image/Media handling
For many clubs, this "trait" is not a necessary requirement. With the greatest of respect to Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, some value trophies over public opinion, some have no opinion either way, with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger two great examples of men who can both be gracious losers yet also use the media to their advantage and then you have clubs who value their image more than anything else. They usually appoint managers who are unlikely to create controversy, opting for Mr. Role Model as opposed to Mr. Morally Grey. Barcelona are perhaps the only example (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) in the upper echelons of football who fall into the latter category.
If you have read Graham Hunter’s book, you will know that Barcelona rejected Jose Mourinho in favour of Pep Guardiola because he would "start too many fires". Under Mourinho, success would have been nigh-on guaranteed, while Guardiola was a risky bet, yet Pep was The Chosen One and Barcelona benefitted. Més Que un Club needed a public face and the elegant Guardiola was the man for the job – is Messi a similar case?
Over the years that stereotype as the shy child prodigy of the group has been shaken off, and what we have now is a guy who is growing in confidence, but still remains humble. He knows the right thing to say; whether it’s because he genuinely believes it or because he has a brand to uphold is inconsequential. There have been times where Guardiola has answered a question with a response he may not believe himself, but to uphold the Barcelona brand – which begs the question about whether the straight-talking (outspoken?) Xavi could adapt if he follows in Pep’s footsteps.
Lionel Messi as a manager is a difficult reality to envisage, but I’m sure people said the same about Diego Maradona some 25 years ago. Maybe Messi will retire from the game entirely like Pele; just throwing this idea out there...