What would Messi be like in the Premiership?

The diminutive Argentine scored a hat trick as Barcelona crushed Atletico Madrid. Quique Sanchez Flores remarked after the game that Messi was ‘the Di Stefano of the 21st century.’

But a question is being asked; how would Messi do in England against English sides?

In this league of passion, unpredictability, damp nights up north and Joey Barton, would the Argentine be able to produce? It is a question the discredited Andy Gray posed just a couple of months ago, suggesting that Messi may not be able to produce against Stoke on a cold Tuesday night. He can score in European Cup finals, run rings around the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Inter Milan, yet the strange question persists that he may not be able to do it at the Britannia Stadium. This is a suggestion that should be treated with the scorn it deserves, and ignored. But a more general question of how he would cope in the Premier League is valid, and based on the difference between his form for his club compared with that when he plays for his country.

The two times World Player of the Year has a question mark over himself, having failed to produce the same form for Argentina as he has for Barcelona. To begin with, this is a little harsh. In Argentina’s four games at the World Cup Messi did better than he was given credit for, and was exceptionally unfortunate not to have scored, particularly when repeatedly bamboozling the Greek defence.

But to discredit Messi on the basis of his inability to maintain his high standards at international level is to misunderstand football entirely. It is a team game, and whilst individuals attract particular praise, it is still a game in which the very best are reliant on their team mates, as Juan Roman Riquelme pointed out once. Without anyone to make runs for his passes, his creative brain and passing ability would be rendered pointless.

Similarly, Messi’s most impressive skill is his ability to manipulate space and second guess the movement of his opponents. The way to counter such skills is through closing down the space available to Messi. This doesn’t make Messi any less able to second guess his opponents, but it means there is less space for him to use, and therefore makes a team less vulnerable to his brilliance.

This is why Messi and Barcelona are the perfect match. Full backs, Dani Alves and Maxwell overlap and move into wide positions deep in their opponent’s half during matches, widening the pitch, and with Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona usually find them in possession. It is at this point that the game is stretched most, and with the opposition forced to close down the full backs, space is created in the centre, with two centre backs fatally exposed more often than not to Pedro, David Villa and most of all, Messi.

This does not happen at international level. Argentina do not use space to its full effect. Under Maradona, they often played with centre backs at right and left back, and as a result were deprived of natural width to create the space in which Messi thrives. Under new boss Sergio Batista, there are signs that a more sophisticated tactical approach could liberate Messi more than he has been to date at international level.

So how would Messi do in England? It is a guess, but for a start it depends on the team he plays for. At Arsenal or Tottenham he would be at his most lethal. Both sides play not just with attacking flair, as do Manchester United, but unlike Sir Alex Ferguson’s men they tend to attack as though defending was a lesser priority. As such, they tend to create more space in the opposition half, particularly Tottenham, who play wider than Arsenal.

Secondly, there is the consideration of this crucial aspect of Messi’s play; space. The Premier League is a physical league, some say too physical, with the emphasis on long balls, power and pace rather than any precision. Yet football is a game played with the feet, and Messi’s are quicker than any other. In a team that creates space, Messi would thrive, his intelligence and ability to trick an opponent with a clever touch, close ball control and impeccable exploitation of space creating a formidable combination that few teams in the world can cope with, if any. To imagine that a few physical players could rough up Messi is to ignore the Spanish league, where the Argentine regularly receives a kicking. The biggest fear for Messi in England would be that players such as Ryan Shawcross or Joey Barton, who don’t take too kindly to being made to look a fool, would react to the forward’s trickery with intentionally over the top challenges. Players in England will go to great lengths to nullify the creative, and to injure those who dare to express their skill by embarrassing their opponents. It is this clash of cultures that Messi would find so strange, having come from Argentina and a continent where individual skill is applauded, rather than reviled. But were he ever to try his hand at English football, there is little to suggest Messi would have anything other than the last laugh.