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We can’t be confident that former Inter Miami assistant coach Jason Kreis has a time machine, but at this point it’s best that we don’t rule out the possibility entirely.

“I firmly believe that if you put Lionel Messi on the worst team in Major League Soccer, they would still be the worst team in Major League Soccer,” told the Deseret News in 2014, while he was embedding with Manchester City ahead of taking charge of newly formed City Football Group club NYCFC. 

Fast forward some 3,345 days to June 1, 2023. Kreis has been dismissed from his role as Inter Miami’s top assistant alongside head coach Phil Neville. The two were fired after Miami had been (by some margin) the worst attacking team in MLS. Since the two joined Miami ahead of 2021, their side ranked rock-bottom in MLS on a per-game basis in expected goals, shots, chances created and touches in the opponent’s box while ranking near the bottom in nearly every other meaningful metric.

Six days after making the coaching change, Inter Miami announced the impending arrival of not just any old attacking catalyst, but Messi himself. So begins what will be one of MLS’ great experiments: putting Messi in the worst attack of recent memory. How on earth can one begin to wrap their head around what we’re about to watch?

It helps to strip the mystique from the man here, to get a sense of how Messi got on during the back half of his final European club season. Taking the lessons from PSG’s collapse can help get a sense of where to get the most out of Miami’s new messiah. And while building a team around Messi requires careful curation of the personnel around him, there’s no doubt he’s worth the meticulous exercise.

Six months ago, Messi finally won a World Cup with Argentina, the only action which could overshadow his incomparably esteemed CV. So who is Messi, the player, now that his white whale of a World Cup title has been captured?

While PSG crashed out of the Champions League this past season, Messi did maintain strong form. His 16 assists were his most since the 2019-20 season, while his 16 goals more than doubled the six he mustered in his first Ligue 1 campaign. Understandable as it may be, however, there was a clear dropoff in his form and impact after league play resumed in January. 

One important caveat: after alternating between playing as a striker and a right winger before the World Cup break, Messi logged a greater share of his minutes as a center forward upon his return. While this helps explain the downtick in assists and passes into the area, it is jarring to see a player of his singular caliber suffer such a steep dropoff in his shooting accuracy. It could be a case of riding the high from that great World Cup victory, or a need to factor for Neymar’s absence by donning a greater pressure to score. Being so close to goal requires one to shoot, after all, with less time to set a shot up than an attacking midfielder might enjoy. 

Make no mistake: Messi is still a world-class player. Even as he approaches his 36th birthday, that much is undeniable. Outside of the European spotlight, he may be better able to play his game on his own terms rather than cumbersomely fitting into his bygone French lineup. By the end of the Mauricio Pochettino era, Paris Saint-Germain was akin to a fancy restaurant which welcomed a dozen award-winning chefs into its kitchen. At a certain point, it’s hard to get a coherent meal together with so many minds and egos at play. In Miami, there won’t be anyone to mess with his recipe.

Much has been made over the last few years about his sharp decrease in mobility, plain for all to see as he at times closer resembles someone on a leisurely stroll than an all-time great entertainer/footballer. To borrow a phrase from The Athletic’s John Muller: Messi walks like a camel. He thinks on his feet. That methodical approach will no doubt wreck the sleep cycles of many an MLS defender — but where will his best role be for his new stateside club?

In spite of that dropoff in his shooting accuracy, one may think it’s best to line up as a center forward. After all, Miami didn’t sign Lionel Andrés Messi to work the overlap with DeAndre Yedlin for 90 minutes every Saturday night. No, he’s here to score goals, get assists, create highlights which amplify the club, and ultimately make good on the potential of having the game’s greatest-ever player take his talents to South Beach.

That may not, however, be wise in order to maximize his skill set. Smarterscout rates players via many components of their game on a scale from 0-99. Rather than reading these like FIFA video game ratings, know that the numbers relate to either how often a player performs a given stylistic action (for example, volume of shots per touch), or how effective they are at it (for example, how well they progress the ball upfield) compared with others playing in their position. Looking at his final year with FC Barcelona and his two seasons in Paris, there’s one particularly worrying (if unsurprising) trend.

As many of you surely anticipated, Messi will offer next to nothing with his pressing compared to the modern striker. His lack of mobility could allow teams to break a full line of Miami’s shape without any pressure, resulting in them essentially starting possession a full 10 yards further up the field. That wandering, nomadic tendency can be better masked if he plays in the game’s waning glamor position: the free-roaming No. 10.

While a 25 isn’t “good” by any stretch, playing in a shape with a No. 10 generally includes flanking that playmaker with a forward in front of them as well as two wide midfielders or wingers on either side, plus a pair of central midfielders behind them to mop up anyone who slips by. As Argentina proved in Qatar, it’s still possible to win any competition on Earth with a less mobile Messi — you just have to adequately support him. 

Signing (by some margin) the best player in a league’s history raises unintended consequences for exercises like these. Specifically: how do you begin to estimate how he’ll fare against MLS defenders?

In general, we’re looking for similar player profiles in terms of both style of play and overall caliber. Toronto’s Federico Bernardeschi was a bit-part player in his final season at Juventus. Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri is inconsistent. Both are talented players, but neither comes close to being world-class, now or at any point of their career.

Instead, it’s less forced to just review how two players who were still regulars for a team in Europe’s Big 5 leagues fared upon arriving in MLS compared to their final year across the Atlantic. Namely: Carlos Vela (who left Real Sociedad midway through 2017-18 for expansion Los Angeles FC) and Lorenzo Insigne (who traded Napoli for Toronto last summer) — both of whom left Europe to play for Bob Bradley.

It’s imperfect, but it’s the best that MLS’ collective of franchises have done.

Having left Sociedad midway through his final season, it’s better to review his last full campaign at the Basque club. Compared to his last impact in La Liga, Vela was far less involved in LAFC’s defensive approach. Also curious was a steep decline in his ball retention — something which was among his strengths in Spain.

It’s fair to frame these changes as inevitable when Vela went from a key starter to being The Man at his new club. Every major metric involving dribbling, progressive passing, and his overall attacking actions spiked upon arriving in MLS. To a less dramatic extent, the same was true for Insigne.

Toronto FC fans would be forgiven for dropping their phones in shock when seeing how Napoli was able to get Insigne involved in team defending. The Euro 2020 winning winger saw an increase in his defensive impact while dropping in his intensity, disruption and recovery ratings. Like Vela, his ball retention ability plummeted — perhaps a sign of opponents locking onto a team’s chief facilitator in an attempt at containment. 

While this is far from a one-size-fits-all analysis (and please, do not read it as such), these two individual case studies show what changes when a team can only have up to three stars for opposing defenses to focus on. No disrespect to Messi’s new teammates or those of Insigne and Vela in years past, but being the clear top option on a side means opponents can better tailor their gameplans to neutralize a great attacker’s strengths. 

The good news, of course, is that the lesser-heralded teammates of theirs are well-equipped to be what a European club would view as a “role player” or “specialist” as teams fit them into their salary cap considerations. Nevertheless, it’s likely that we’ll see another tweak in Messi’s approach once he debuts in MLS.

Another, more helpful model compares the level of competition across 14 prominent soccer leagues, thanks to the “Valuing Actions by Estimating Probabilities” model.

This model (last updated after the 2020-21 club season, per sidelineHD co-founder Canzhi Ye) values players using event-level data (dribble, pass, shot, etc) in all phases of play. It studies player movement across all leagues to estimate how good each league is relative to the rest. On average, a player moving from Ligue 1 to MLS could expect a 26% increase in their overall VAEP upon arriving Stateside.

Just imagining that potential is startling: Messi, but 26% more effective in all phases given the leagues’ level. And, as long as Miami doesn’t somehow mess this up, that uptick should be reflected in his goals and assists. There may finally be someone ready to take on Carlos Valderrama’s record of 26 assists in a single MLS season. Of course, for that to happen, Messi will need someone else in Miami to start scoring goals.

Comparing Ligue 1 to MLS is a difficult task, one not made any easier by Shaqiri’s difficulty to transition from Lyon to the Chicago Fire. Equally difficult: assessing how Messi could fit into a team which, at the time of his announcement, did not have a permanent coach.

Not that it should necessarily preclude us from trying to size up how Messi might line up with Miami. Most players have obvious best roles, where teams identify them for their fit in a certain spot with specific instructions for how to execute the team’s ideology. Messi, again, is not most players. From Pep Guardiola to Mauricio Pochettino, Luis Enrique to Lionel Scaloni, great managers must change their own philosophies to Messi’s talented beck and call. 

Whoever takes the post will have one hell of a task at hand, as they walk into the worst-performing team in MLS by some margin.

No team comes close to rivaling the attacking ineptitude of Miami through the season’s first half. Undoubtedly, that will change to some extent once Messi begins lining up in Fort Lauderdale. The question of how much his presence will boost the team’s effectiveness can only be answered by whomever’s voice bellows from the technical area.

On Tuesday evening, The Athletic reported that Miami has held preliminary talks with Gerardo “Tata” Martino. The Argentine previously won MLS Cup with Atlanta United in 2018. Presumably, Martino is the team’s first choice, having also coached Messi at Barcelona and Argentina before he headed up Atlanta’s first two seasons. 

Ever since his days at Newell’s Old Boys, Martino has wanted his teams to attack with breakneck speed. While he’s been a bit less prone to taking risks at his last two jobs (Atlanta and Mexico), there’s no doubt that he wouldn’t be asking Messi to, say, conserve his energy on the ball to help lead the press. Throughout his career, he’s preferred to play with a single striker up top in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, while occasionally switching to a 5-3-1-1 for cagier matchups. That flexibility in formation is a serious factor in Martino’s favor for this specific opening.

Coming to Miami would reunite Martino with not one, but two of his favorite charges. Along with Messi, it was Martino who unlocked the vast potential which Josef Martínez had failed to actualize with Torino. The Venezuelan striker went on to set a then-MLS record with 31 goals in Atlanta’s 2018 campaign, and left the Georgia club for Miami as a free agent this winter. Presumably, he’ll be leading the line with Messi operating underneath as a No. 10. Neither player is particularly keen to defend from the front. With all of this in mind, it would make the most sense for Miami to try dominating possession in the attacking and middle third to limit opponents’ chances of pulling off dangerous transition sequences.

It’s likely that some of Messi’s old colleagues will join the club in the coming months as the summer transfer window nears. A few areas are necessary to get the best out of a team with the GOAT at its heart. First, Miami will need to boost a midfield which lost both of its starters (Gregore and Jean Mota) to lengthy injuries by mid-May. Sergio Busquets will doubtlessly be the popular pick to join his longtime friend in Florida, but he may need a more industrious midfield counterpart to make it all work. 

Mind you, there’s some risk involved if the recruitment pool is largely contained to early 2010s Barcelona and Argentina rosters. Great players in their late 30s — from Andrea Pirlo to Giorgio Chiellini — have made note of the arduous heat and physical demands unique to MLS. Without younger teammates working into the mix to preserve the leading man’s legs, the fruitful Messi era may wither on the vine.

As constructed, Miami’s roster does not possess much firepower on either wing, instead playing with a partnership of Martínez and former Wolverhampton striker Leo Campana. To get the most from Messi, it’ll make sense to have runners who can get on the end of through-balls to stretch an opposing defense and create chances, either for the striker or a late off-ball run toward the box from Messi. 

It’ll be some sideshow to track in the weeks ahead between now and Messi’s eventual debut, whenever that may be. After years of speculation, it’s a task which MLS and the world has long wanted to study with a keen eye. In time, it’ll answer the question which Kreis raised nearly a decade ago: how much better can MLS’ worst team get with Messi among its ranks? …

It’s still a team game, of course. Miami will only reap the full benefits of this unprecedented bounty with smart decision-making in both the coaching hire and the additions needed to cater to Messi’s undeniable strengths, while acknowledging his weakness with supplemental talent around him. MLS’s nine-team playoff field in each conference could allow him a chance to sneak into MLS Cup contention this fall, a delightful boon for the first Apple-streamed postseason. 

Make no mistake, though: as long as Messi relishes in the calmer lifestyle away from Europe’s highest levels and continues playing near his still lofty standard, the team will have little excuse for anything resembling mediocrity. If Miami doesn’t make a mess of this and builds a competent roster under a qualified coach who’s up to the task, anything less than a run to the conference final in 2024 — Miami’s first full season with Messi and whichever new coach they decide on — would be a disaster. 

(Top photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)



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