Last updated on January 9th, 2023
Lionel Messi is a 7-times Ballon d’Or winner, Barcelona legend, Argentinian captain, and arguably the best football player of all time. Having scored a total of 706 goals in 863 appearances, there is no questioning Messi’s ability to lead the frontline of any team in the world.
Over the years, we saw Messi play in different teams including Barcelona, Argentina, and now Paris Saint Germain under multiple head coaches. It is amazing to see how he maintains his quality playing alongside different situations and new teammates.
As most people say, he is a gift born with footballing talent, but do you understand how Lionel Messi operates? How exactly does Messi contribute to the attacking formula of a team?
To answer those questions, we must unravel the basics of Messi’s game, including the position that he plays. Is Messi a Winger or a Striker? The following will be a deep dive into Messi’s position and his evolution throughout the years, stay tuned!
Lionel Messi by the numbers
Before diving into Messi’s role and position, here are Lionel Messi’s statistics to show you the magnitude of his capability as a footballer.
|Appearances and Goals For Club|
|Paris Saint Germain||2021-2022||39||13|
Appearances and Goals For Country (excluding friendlies)
Once you understand how Messi changed and adapted his game as his career progressed, you will see how amazing it is for him to be able to maintain such a high standard for decades.
La Masia: Messi’s initial position
Messi moved from Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina to join La Masia (Barcelona youth academy) in 2000. He spent his youth playing in the left wing role while occasionally taking up the number 10 role as an attacking midfielder.
He continued playing on the left side of the field with Barcelona C and Barcelona B, a role he rarely played after debuting professionally.
Introduced as a right-wing (RW)
At just 17 years of age, Messi made his professional debut with Barcelona in 2004 under Frank Rijkaard. FC Barcelona was filled with prolific attackers including Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, and Ludovic Guily.
Messi’s position as a left-wing and attacking midfield was often occupied by Ronaldinho, whose role often involves him cutting into the centre as a number 10, exactly like how Messi used to play in his youth career.
Hence, Rijkaard played Messi as a right-winger, forming a front three of Ronaldinho-Eto’o-Messi. In his early years, Messi’s role was to run the right flank and provide balls for both Ronaldinho and Eto’o.
Messi’s game revolved around his dribbling and he scored 7 goals in his first 24 appearances. This is impressive considering how young he was at the time.
Messi started to pick up his scoring boots in 2006. Instead of just opening the play for Eto’o and Ronaldinho, Messi developed what later became one of his signature moves, which is dribbling wide and cutting to the centre to shoot. This new tendency of his saw him scoring a new career-best of 24 goals and 16 assists in La Liga in just 2 years.
Continuing as a false nine
Pep Guardiola came in to replace Frank Rijkaard in June 2008, this is the starting point of Lionel Messi reaching his footballing prime, which also marks FC Barcelona’s most glorious days in recent decades.
A lot changed with Pep Guardiola, big players such as Deco, Ronaldinho, and Eto’o were excluded from his plan. Especially with the absence of a striker like Samuel Eto’o, FC Barcelona was needing a striker to lead their frontline.
That is when Pep Guardiola started to play Lionel Messi as a false nine, which means Messi is now a deep-lying striker whose job is to open and exploit space for his teammates including Pedro and Henry who runs the flank, and Xavi and Iniesta just behind Messi.
Messi played here from 2008-2014, where he started registering unbelievable stats such as contributing to 40% of FC Barcelona’s goals in all competitions during the 2013-2014 season.
It was during this time that Messi won 4 of his 7 Ballon d’Or, which is deserved after scoring 212 goals and 76 assists in just 6 years.
You can find out more about clinical finishers in this article here.
The arrival of MSN: switching back to right-wing
FC Barcelona signed Neymar in 2013 and Luis Suarez in 2014, shaping up one of the most feared front three in modern football. With the arrival of Luis Suarez as a number 9, Messi’s role as a false nine was no longer needed.
Instead, Luis Enrique played Messi back in his old role, as a right-winger. This time around, Messi has developed into a different right wing. Instead of staying in the flank, Messi spent the majority of the game cutting to the middle, opening up space for Suarez upfront.
In attacking set plays, it will be the right fullback’s job to cover Messi’s position, this provides an option for Messi to link up with Barcelona’s attacking-minded fullback in Jordi Alba, who is always ready to feed Messi, Suarez, and Neymar in attack.
Post-MSN: establishing dominance in Barcelona
Neymar left Barcelona for Paris Saint Germain in 2017, ending the legendary MSN trio. To replace Neymar, Barcelona signed French prodigy Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund for a deal worth over €105 million.
Neymar’s departure was followed by Luis Enrique as he decided not to sign a new contract with Barcelona, who was replaced by Ernesto Valverde.
Messi mostly played as a second striker behind Luis Suarez under Ernesto Valverde. In his first season without Neymar, Messi played 33 times as a second striker, 13 times as a right-wing, and 8 times as a centre forward, registering 45 goals and 20 assists in just 40 games.
You can find out how a striker compares with a centre forward here.
Messi continues to lead Barcelona’s frontline even after Suarez left in 2020. Playing with a much younger and inexperienced player, Messi scored 38 goals and 14 assists in his last season with Barcelona.
Messi in Paris
In 2021 Lionel Messi made a shock move out of his boyhood club FC Barcelona to the French capital with Paris Saint Germain. In his first season, Messi played under fellow Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino, who received a lot of criticism for not utilising his star players well, especially Messi.
Messi only scored 11 goals and 15 assists in his first season with Paris Saint Germain, which even though it was a decent number was not really up to Messi’s standard. This statistical decline saw him missing the Ballon d’Or shortlist for the first time since winning it in 2009.
You can find out how the Ballon d’Or differs from FIFA’s The Best here.
Messi is often played as a right-winger by Mauricio Pochettino, but constant changes and lack of direct involvement with the front three were said as one of the few reasons why Messi had a lacklustre season under Mauricio Pochettino.
The images above showed how Pochettino played Messi in 3 different positions in 3 consecutive games towards the end of 2021. Messi failed to score any goal in those 3 games which sum up his first season in Paris.
Mauricio Pochettino was sacked by Paris Saint Germain and immediately replaced by French manager Christopher Galtier.
Galtier built a new PSG side utilising the 3-4-2-1 formation. He plays a front three with Messi on the right side, Neymar on the centre, and Mbappe on the left side.
Playing in a familiar position with his former Barcelona teammate Neymar, Messi finds his form back and has scored 12 goals and 14 assists in just 19 games, which definitely puts him back in contention for the 2023 Ballon d’Or.
Messi is currently playing as a right-wing in Paris Saint Germain. However, he occasionally filled in for Neymar and played back as a false nine.
Looking back at how he started as a left-wing and switched back and forth between right-wing and a false nine, no one position can be labelled onto Lionel Messi. Instead, we think of Lionel Messi as a versatile attacker who can do it all, and one that is on a different level from any attackers of our generation.
You can find out how a winger’s role differs from a striker here.
Moreover, if you’re curious about Cristiano Ronaldo’s true position, you can check it out here too.
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