Lionel Messi Ballon d’Or win would have been less controversial if he had joined Man City – Dominic Farrell

Lionel Messi Ballon d’Or win would have been less controversial if he had joined Man City - Dominic Farrell

Lionel Messi’s record-breaking seventh Ballon d’Or win might have caused some Manchester City fans to fleetingly ponder what might have been.

Messi lifted football’s most coveted individual prize once again thanks largely to his efforts in carrying a broken Barcelona through to May, before inspiring Argentina to a first major honour since 1993 at the Copa America.

During 2021, he scored 28 goals in 29 appearances for Barca, lifting the Copa del Rey and keeping Ronald Koeman’s team in the race for LaLiga almost single-handedly.

Nevertheless, Robert Lewandowski’s latest phenomenally prolific season at Bayern Munich made a compelling case and Messi himself addressed the Poland striker in his acceptance speech, saying: “Robert, you deserve your Ballon d’Or.”

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“We never can say that it is unfair Leo Messi wins the Ballon d’Or. He is too much good,” said his old boss Pep Guardiola on Tuesday.

“It’s a show, a nice business to make football more entertaining. Big compliments to Leo for another one. If he deserves it or not, I am not the guy to say.

“Never will it be unfair if he wins it. Lewy, the season he has done the last two years, the amount of goals he’s scored, it would have been fair [if he had won].”

What might have been

Messi’s sometimes underwhelming form since joining Paris Saint-Germain contributed to the outcry against him getting the nod over Lewandowski, while City fans now largely accept that the Leo ship has sailed as he sits unquestionably on the downslope of the most phenomenal career football has ever seen.

But in August 2020, when Messi expressed his desire to leave Barca and believed he could engineer an exit, City were his chosen destination. It is intriguing to wonder how that might have panned out.

Lionel Messi of Paris Saint-Germain is challenged by Rodri

Looking at the end results of City’s 2020/21 campaign, it is hard to make a case for too much that might have been improved, save for a certain night in Porto.

But it is easy to forget that fumbling start to the campaign, the abject defeats to Leicester City and Tottenham, and Guardiola’s truculence and generally heavy demeanour during this period.

These struggles all came against a backdrop of Messi having reportedly offered assurances that he would be able to make the move to City happen, the Blues dropping alternative transfer plans in attack and then ending up empty-handed.

Had the great man arrived as advertised, it is unlikely City would have needed to compile a phenomenal 28-match unbeaten run in all competitions. The Messi bounce would have overridden any early-season turbulence.

Slipping into the old routine

Yes, he did fail to settle immediately at Paris Saint-Germain, but that was after a fraught summer and a move he did not want to make, joining a club in a state of permanent flux.

By contrast, slipping back into the old routine with Guardiola, who unfurled several variations of the false-nine setup he pioneered with Messi more than a decade earlier, would surely have yielded some memorable early results.

Guardiola managed Messi at Barcelona

The glow of the honeymoon period would then have faded into the dark of winter and questions over whether Messi could do it on a cold evening at Turf Moor and the like. Seeing himself, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe adopt an emphatically laissez-faire approach to pressing at the Etihad Stadium last week leads to obvious questions over whether Messi would have been suitable for City’s mid-season hard slog.

But arguably the most important element in how City adapted to pandemic football was the manner in which they took their foot off the gas. Their direct speed – the speed at which they moved the ball up the field – was 1.12 metres per second, according to Opta.

This was the slowest figure in the Guardiola era, while they also allowed opponents the highest average number (11.5) of passes per defensive action (PPDA) since 2016/17. While City’s pressing was effective, it was more targeted and relied on players picking their moments rather than bursting their lungs.

Just like you, we can’t get enough of Manchester City! That’s why we’ve decided to supplement our expansive City coverage on the Manchester Evening News with a more fan-oriented platform catered specifically to City fans – City Is Ours.

Writers and presenters who share your passion for the blue side of Manchester will be producing written, visual and audio content to reflect the mood in the stands as well as the press box.

Follow our team on Twitter (@DomFarrell1986 and @alex_brotherton)!

Crowds are back now, Premier League football feels more high-octane once again and Messi is a year older. The current version might hinder City.

But, in the particular circumstances of 2020/21, it is hard to imagine the player again crowned the best in the world doing anything other than thriving.

Messi could also have been the key ingredient in terms of getting City over the line in the Champions League. Had he been reunited with Guardiola, yesterday’s heated Ballon d’Or debates would not have been discussions worth having.

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