Lionel Messi ended last season with his first five-goal haul in 10 years.
It was for Argentina against Estonia, but not for Paris Saint-Germain, where he scored just six league goals in 26 games after his move from Barcelona. It was Messi’s lowest result since the 2005-06 season when he was still just 18 years old.
Although his 14 assists for PSG were the second-highest in the league behind team-mate Kylian Mbappe, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s record-breaking form fell well short of expectations for a player who scored 672 goals for Barcelona.
This staggering tally included outstanding league seasons with 50 goals in 2012 and 46 goals in 2013, eight Spanish league scoring titles and six in the Champions League. At best, he scored five times against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012.
Fast forward a decade and his poor record for PSG has raised questions about whether he can adapt to a new system after so many years of mainly fantastic players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, and Neymar playing for him.
“The idea for him is to get more involved in the game and for his teammates to connect with him during matches, which didn’t happen much last season. The more connected the team is, the more the team produces,” incoming PSG coach Christophe Galtier said. “He’s totally invested from what I’ve seen. As for the rest, the whole world knows what he can do.”
Although Messi had a tough season last season, some questioned whether he was holding back at this year’s World Cup.
At 35, this will most likely be his last chance to win it with his beloved Argentina. The unique timing of the tournament from Nov. 21-Dec. 18 to avoid the summer heat in Qatar also means he will arrive with much fresher legs than if he was held in June and July.
Messi was inspirational in leading Argentina to the Copa America title last year, finishing top scorer with four goals and leading with five assists. It ended Messi’s tortuous wait for a major international trophy after losing one World Cup final and three other Copa America finals.
So he will have a huge incentive to possibly opt out of the international game with the biggest trophy of all.
A strong start for PSG could well set him up for success in Qatar, in a strong Argentine attack featuring Juventus winger Angelo Di Maria and Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez.
Di Maria’s absence hurt Argentina when they lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany 1-0, but his departure from PSG could actually help Messi at club level.
Previous PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino may have had too many attacking options as he struggled to cope with Messi, Neymar, Mbappe, Di Maria and Mauro Icardi.
Galtier also sticks to formations more than the experimental Pochettino, who should favor Messi.
Messi was also perhaps a victim of his own versatility last season and won’t be able to move around as much under Galtier. It means he won’t have to share a position on the flank with Di Maria and is likely to move inside less to fit in with Mbappe, whose most dangerous position is at centre-forward.
PSG will be best served by Galtier selecting Neymar and Messi either side of Mbappe in a solid three-man attack, with wily playmaker Marco Verratti in an advanced midfield role.
Messi opened the season with a goal as PSG beat Nantes 4-0 to win the Champions Trophy on Sunday.
PSG’s central defense has been strengthened by the arrival of Nordi Mukiele from German club Leipzig. It should take the pressure off the midfield and free up Verratti to combine higher up the pitch with Messi to open up the defence.
When Messi probes from the right, acting more like a creator in a system where Mbappe occupies the role of main scorer, he should be able to conserve energy.
This could be good news for Argentina.
PSG remains favorites and do not appear to have a serious challenger, similar to last year. The battle for second place and automatic entry into the Champions League is likely to be between Marseille, Monaco, and Lyon.
Marseille have a new coach in Igor Tudor, but they may still be relying too much on the old legs of playmaker Dimitri Payet.
The arrival of Lyon’s new American owner, John Textor, coincides with the return of two home-grown players, midfielder Corentin Tolisso and forward Alexandre Lacazette, after spells with Bayern Munich and Arsenal.
Monaco excelled last season under attack-minded coach Philippe Clement. But like Marseille, the club is too reliant on one player, French striker Wissam Ben Yedder.
His 25 league goals last season were second only to Mbappe’s 28.