It’s far from assured, but the rumblings have started and the rumors keep increasing. A return to FC Barcelona for Lionel Messi after a two-year absence.
It’s certainly possible once the Argentine star finishes his two-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain. Relationships will have to be mended, a salary and other terms will have to be negotiated, but it’s all possible.
The question would then become: where does he play?
At the moment, for PSG, he plays in a #10 position, somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a second striker. He doesn’t drift into the box much, instead, he hangs back from three-fourths of the way into the edge of the box. It’s a role Italians would call the trequartista.
Such a position does not exist in Xavi’s Barcelona, which has tended to play either 4-3-3 or 3-4-3. In either case, the forward line is comprised of a center forward and two wingers. The midfield has two different configurations, but neither has a #10.
Should Xavi change his system? Perhaps, but maybe PSG’s system is not the best for Messi anyway. They have Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, Barça don’t. Barcelona’s main concern will be fitting Robert Lewandowski into the attack, and other key pieces such as Pedri into midfield.
At the moment, Messi’s clearest spot in Xavi’s system would be in the attack, as a right-winger. He can’t fit into the midfield (remember, there is no #10) and there would be no reason to displace Lewandowski from the striker position (you’d do whatever possible to have both at the same time on the pitch and Lewy needs to play as a #9.)
The issue is that Messi is far from an orthodox right-winger. In fact, he’s almost not one at all. You want him on the ball in central areas often to play his magical passes, and you want him getting chances to shoot from the edge of the box as well.
Argentina’s system perhaps suits Messi better, so if one were to look for inspiration one could look there.
Messi plays as a nominal right-winger there, but he’s given essentially a free role to cut inside and operate in the middle as he pleases. In order to make this work, Argentina’s left-winger (Ángel Di María) has to work hard to help the three-man midfield cover gaps. This is worth it if the team works hard and combines well with Messi. And of course, Messi needs to be on song for it to work - usually not an issue for Argentina.
This is also the traditional system Barcelona used to accommodate Messi as far back as the Luis Enrique era.
It’s not really Xavi’s system, though, which has had Ousmane Dembélé and Raphinha playing more traditional winger roles. But it stands to reason why - they are not Messi, nor do they play like him.
All reports say Xavi wants Messi in his team, which suggests he already has an idea of how it will all play out. It will be interesting to see how that plays out... if indeed it ever does. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A reunion is certainly possible, and some may even say probable, but it is far, far, far from assured.