How would Lionel Messi fare in the Premier League?

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Alternate reality time: if Lionel Messi had gone to the Premier League this summer instead of MLS, how would he have fared? For argument’s sake, let’s say he went to Newcastle United – Parveez.

As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Lionel Messi remains a sensationally good creative player. I’m sure that even in the Premier League there’d have been plenty of goals and assists. That said, I’ve been taken aback by just how easy he found it in the Leagues Cup, just how much space he was given. His impact in his three MLS games to date has been less eye-catching, so it may be that in the more-established competition, defensive structures are more coherent; certainly if a 36-year-old can dominate MLS as he dominated the Leagues Cup, I’m not sure it’s a great sign for the level of the competition. Yes, he did it at the World Cup, but the international game, of necessity given the lack of time available to coaches, is far less systems-driven than elite club soccer and so privileges the individual.

Related: Germany call time on Hansi Flick’s chaotic reign as Euro 2024 looms | Andy Brassell

But the real issue Messi has had, probably from 2016-17 onwards, is that he no longer defends. That doesn’t matter much when his side dominates possession but, when when they do not, they are defending with one player fewer, which is one of the reasons Barcelona started losing by big scorelines when they went out of the Champions League. It was also a contributory factor to PSG’s early exits in his two seasons there. I don’t know if any side in MLS is good enough really to take advantage of his lack of defence but had Messi joined Newcastle, that would have caused problems when they played teams like Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United.

As a Leicester fan I’ve always wondered why Jack Grealish is considered better than James Maddison? Maddison has more goals and more (just about) assists. They’re both a little flash and annoying to opposing teams/fans. What am I missing? – Harold.

They’re both clearly very talented players and to some extent I think direct comparisons of “who is better?” aren’t especially helpful when so much is to do with context. If there is a perception that Grealish is better than Maddison (and I’m not even sure about that), it may just be that he’s two years older and got his move to a Big Six/Seven club two seasons earlier – and obviously playing well for Manchester City draws more attention than playing well for Leicester. I think there is a sense that Gareth Southgate was sceptical of the defensive capacities of both but came round to Grealish after he’d spent time under Pep Guardiola. Plus, Grealish seems the more natural winger and it’s easier to accommodate that sort of flashiness you speak of in wide areas. But Maddison, although he had a pretty poor game for England away to Ukraine on Saturday, has started the season superbly for Tottenham in a central role and the way he operated a little deeper in the win over Bournemouth suggested his tactical nous.

The NFL has a couple of games a year in England, Germany and Mexico. The NBA plays a few preseason as well as regular season games in Abu Dhabi, Paris and London. The NHL plays a few games a year in Finland and Sweden. MLB has played series in Mexico, England and Australia. Why can’t soccer, the biggest sport in the world and its big five leagues, play matches outside their home countries? – Kurt.

I think there’s a good chance that fairly soon they will, but why should the rest of the world follow what US franchises do? There is still a residual sense that European clubs represent their communities, one that gives football a social role beyond just making money for their owners, and there would be huge resistance to dragging the club away from that community. I’m not even sure why other countries would want to host a travelling circus; far better, surely, certainly with a sport as universal as soccer, would be to develop their own leagues with clubs to represent their own communities.

There’s an old saying in football, the American kind, usually attributed to coach Bear Bryant, that “offence sells tickets, but defence wins championships”. In soccer, what’s more important to title winners, conceding few goals or scoring plenty? – Kári

The beauty of soccer is that there are multiple ways to play, and the boring answer is that a balance between the two is necessary. It probably depends as well whether you’re talking about leagues or knockout games. I remember after Manchester United had lost 3-2 to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final in 2000 – a game that is weirdly misremembered as United being outplayed, when in fact they dominated long periods, scored an own goal, missed a load of chances and should have been given a first-half penalty for a handball on the line that would have seen Aitor Karanka sent off – that if you have 20 shots and the opposition five, you’ll win most of the time, but if you have five chances and the opposition none, you cannot lose. I think that came to dominate Sir Alex Ferguson’s thinking and, after a swing away from that over the past decade, as seen in all the wild comebacks in Champions League knockout ties, we may be edging back towards that mentality.

How far can multi-club ownership go? I think this structure could alter profoundly the free market structure soccer used to have in player transfers. For instance, a Bundesliga club could see a transfer from RB Bragantino in Brazil denied because of the influence of RB Leipzig in Germany. A club does not act in its own greater benefit, rather it serves a higher club in the structure. Conversely, a club which is apart of a multi-club structure may also have easy access to players who would not be available in normal conditions – Leonardo.

I think it’s potentially extremely damaging and soccer authorities seem weirdly blasé about it. To begin with, I don’t see how the smaller clubs in the relationship can be happy: why would, say, Strasbourg, a club with a proud tradition, want to be a feeder club for Chelsea?

But there is also the issue of sporting integrity. The Saudi PIF owns Newcastle, but also four clubs in the Saudi league. It is rich beyond imagination. I’m not suggesting anything untoward has happened, but the possibility is there for manipulation. Newcastle need an injection of cash? What’s to stop a huge bid from one of the Saudi league clubs for one of their players? A promising young player develops at one of the Saudi four; why would Newcastle not be in a privileged position to sign him? Newcastle’s Premier League rivals could be undermined by the PIF’s four Saudi clubs picking off their best talent. And it could happen the other way round: say Newcastle have a couple of poor seasons and the PIF loses patience with the project: what’s to stop Newcastle’s squad being effectively divvied up between the Saudi four? As I say, there is no evidence of anything untoward having happened so far but the perception of integrity is essential to a competition.

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