The Argentine was asked to play a novel role that few could grasp at first, but his ability to adapt saw his old head coach’s tactics pay off
Lionel Messi has opened up on his evolution as an attacker, detailing his early days as a second striker with boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys all the way to becoming the most feared right-winger on the planet via Pep Guardiola’s introduction of the ‘false nine’ at Barcelona.
Messi is most commonly associated with playing on the right side of a front three – the Blaugrana continuing to take advantage of the Argentine’s ability to cause chaos as he cuts in from wide onto his preferred left foot.
And while many look at the 32-year-old as a player who could easily shine in most roles on the pitch, Messi revealed that his positional evolution generally came through good management – especially in his earlier years.
“Then when I arrived at Barca the 3-4-3 was used and that was perfect for me because I played at the top of the midfield diamond. I could still move the same way as when I was a kid. I was very free.
“Sometimes I played as a winger, too, but it was rare.”
Upon his graduation to the first team, Barca’s ranks were bursting with world-class talent, meaning a young Messi was initially played out of position for his debut under then-boss Frank Rijkaard. The choice to do so, however, led to other teams copying the idea.
“Rijkaard put me on the right – I didn’t have a choice,” he added. “It was a totally new role for me because I had never played in that position. I had to adapt and eventually I got used to it.
“Also, I was happy because I was playing and you always want to play, so little by little I got more attached to that position.
“When I was playing as an inverted winger I was cutting inside and coming on to my strong foot so it was easy to focus – you have the whole pitch in front of you so I got used to it quickly.
“[Ludovic] Giuly was in the team at the time, playing together with [Samuel] Eto’o and Ronaldinho, then I started playing his role. Later, we started to do it more and it became common to see teams using inverted wingers.”
One of the most famous roles played by Messi is the ‘false nine’, a position introduced by Guardiola ahead of a headline El Clasico date with Real Madrid – and one that sparked plenty of discussion due to the novel nature of the tactic.
“I remember it was a surprise to me because he called me into his office at the training centre the day before the game,” Messi explained.
“He told me that he had watched a lot of Real Madrid games, as he always did with all of his opponents, that he had spoken to Tito [Vilanova] and that they had thought about making me play as a false nine.
“They would put Eto’o and [Thierry] Henry wide and I would play as a false nine, to drop in with the midfielders.
“The idea was that the central defenders would follow me, leaving room for the two fast wide players to run in behind them. In fact, there was a nice goal that Henry scored that was created like that. It was a surprise for us and for Real Madrid.
“I remember in that game we had a lot of possession, we always seemed to have one more player in the middle of the field and I, despite having never having played as a centre-forward, already knew the position because it was about starting from deeper to get in front without being a fixed centre-forward. So it wasn’t a big change for me either.”
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Now entering the final years of his career at the very top, Messi says he is still adapting his game to suit the needs of the team.
“In recent years I’ve become more accustomed to dropping a bit deeper and looking for the ball, working with the midfielders to ensure more possession.” he said.
“That first happened when we stopped playing with Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta because we always had a lot of possession during games with them. Since they’ve gone, I’ve started to sit back more in order to create superiority – but I’m always thinking about attacking and scoring.”