By the measure of most players, Lionel Messi enjoyed an individually successful first season as a Paris Saint-Germain player. Messi, however, is not most players. He is perhaps the greatest football player of all time and so PSG are entitled to feel they have yet to see the best of the 35-year-old whose arrival in France last year was such a landmark moment.
PSG are now a very different club to the one Messi joined only 12 months ago. A new approach has been adopted at the Parc des Princes with Christophe Galtier appointed as the French champions’ new head coach and Luis Campos hired as sporting director. Whereas before PSG were a collection of individuals, they are now intent on forging a team unit.
Bright start to the season
The early signs have been positive. PSG have won both of their first two Ligue 1 fixtures of 2022/23, scoring 10 goals in the process. Messi has shone, hinting that Galtier’s system will harness the Argentine better than Mauricio Pochettino’s ever did last season. Galtier has built his team around his best player.
Pochettino never found a natural place for Messi in his 4-3-3 formation. Galtier, however, has remoulded PSG in a 3-4-1-2 shape with Messi as the central playmaker behind the front two. This position allows the 35-year-old to occupy a deep position and conduct play in front of him and make late runs into the box where he can provide a goal threat.
Last season, PSG lacked the midfield operators to use Messi in this way. Now, though, they have Vitinha to offer cohesion and energy between the midfield unit and the frontline. Renato Sanches, signed from Lille last week, will also help in this regard. Galtier and Campos recognised the need for players who work for the team rather than just themselves and targeted Sanches and Vitinha.
The back three implemented by Galtier has also freed up Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes to offer greater width in the wing back positions. Without them, PSG’s play would run the risk of becoming congested through the middle of the pitch. Pascal Kimpembe and Sergio Ramos are capable of offering cover in behind.
A complementary trio
It’s not just Messi who looks like a different player for PSG this season. Neymar has also found his best form, registering three goals and three assists in just two appearances. The Brazilian’s dribbling and quick feet gives PSG the guile they need to make Galtier’s approach work while Kylian Mbappe provides verticality through his sheer pace and directness.
On the basis of individual talent alone, PSG’s attack is the strongest in European football. Until now, though, the trio of Mbappe, Messi and Neymar was dysfunctional as a unit. Galtier has made significant progress on this front with PSG’s attacking trio all complimenting each other for the first time.
Messi was always likely to drop deeper into midfield as he got older. The 35-year-old is one of the best goalscorers in football history, but he’s also one of the best passers. He is averaging 1.5 through balls per game this season, more than any other PSG player, and is in the 99th percentile for passes into the final third per 90 minutes (7.62). Messi is also averaging 5.5 shots on goal too, for good measure. He is a one-man attacking hub.
“He is very sharp, very clear tactically,” Galtier said when asked to explain Messi’s role for PSG this season. “He sees very quickly where he has to be, the way he has to position himself to play. He’s in a zone he likes. He likes playing with players around him. When Leo smiles, the team smiles too.”
Champions League test awaits
Of course, the true test of Galtier’s team, and his system’s suitability for Messi, will come in the Champions League. Even as PSG struggled last season, they finished top of the pile in Ligue 1. Managers of the Parc des Princes outfit aren’t judged by what they do domestically. Galtier is expected to make PSG European champions, or at least get them close to that objective.
There is still room for further improvement. While Mbappe, Messi and Neymar all finally appear to be on the same wavelength, Hakimi and Mendes could still do more to recognise the late runs of Messi in particular. The 35-year-old often finds himself in space 20-to-15 yards out from goal with Mbappe and Neymar occupying opposition defenders.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta has publicly stated his desire to take Messi back to the Camp Nou when his PSG contract expires next summer and so this season might be the French side’s last opportunity to get the best out of arguably the best player in history. Galtier, though, has a plan and there are signs that it’s working.