It wouldn’t be fair to look at Ronaldo in this special series of World Cup Tactics without also seeing how we get the best out of Leo Messi.

A phenomenon, Messi has won everything with Barcelona but international glory has denied him. Argentina came so close last time around so can we see if he can go one step further in Football Manager? The bookies have us as contenders at least.

Our sister site, Total Football Analysis has a wonderful analysis of Sampaoli and how he is likely to approach the world cup in Russia. I have decided to use this as a basis for my tactics because it shows Messi playing in a variety of roles. Which is best in FM18?

Messi Scout in FM /  Best role for individual

Wow. These are the sort of numbers you’d only find in a newgen circa 2051 from Estonia that leaves you thinking the game has gone. Shame about the Long Throws though.

The best-attacking player in the game that I have seen has led me to the decision that the best role for Messi is not a player role at all. Instead, I think the best way you can use Messi effectively is to put him into space where he can hurt the opposition.

Argentina Team Context

This is the first team in this series where I have been able to call the actual 2018 World Cup squad.

Thankfully, it is a very good team.

Slight tweak in the squad to real life, at the expense of Salvio, I am taking Mauro Icardi as a striker because Aguero has picked up a long-term injury that means he’ll be Orange INJ when the World Cup starts. (Side note Icardi’s performances in the pre-tournament friendly means he starts instead of Higuain. More on this story to follow though.) Also injury related tweak – I have Romero available so Willy Caballero can do one. Rulli is my no1 anyway so doesn’t matter too much.

Like Portugal, I have question marks over the defence especially the fullbacks. Ajax’s Tagliafico is quite inexperienced but looks to have the attributes. Mercado on the right is the opposite!

In midfield, Lo Celso at the start of FM18 is not as good as IRL nor as good as he seems to become in folks’ saves. So he’s in the squad but not an automatic starter.

Set up in FM Tactics

So according to FM wisdom, I am taking Sampaoli’s preferred offensive shape – 2-3-3-2 as described by Tobias – and working it back into how the defensive set up would look like and guess what? Its a non-hipster 4-4-2 [hackz].

By selecting the appropriate roles the fullbacks and midfielders can be positioned correctly in the offensive.

The system gives the flexibility of playing Messi as DLF, WMR and CM (Mezzala) which means as matches progress gaps in the opposition can be identified and filled.

Initially, I want Messi to start as the DLF – dropping into space in the most dangerous area of the pitch. Hopefully, his clever movement will drag defenders about to create space for the AF centrally in the box and wide players (Winger and WB) to get behind.

Playing the World Cup

It is with great sadness that I must announce we were not able to make it a hat-trick of world cup wins in this series. Instead, we battled through to the Semi-Finals where Brazil put us out in Extra Time in an astonishing Super-Clasico.

We paid the price for a poor start to the competition, Messi scoring a peach to rescue the draw against Iceland (Higuain reinstated as first choice after a poor show from Icardi). That left us qualifying in 2nd pace behind Croatia and arguably a tougher side of the draw.

The campaign started with Aguero injured before the finals and continued along that vein as we lost player after player to injury. In no particular order Biglia, Rojo, Lanzini, Mercado, Otamendi, Dybala, Acuna, Meza, Icardi were all injured and missed games at some point. Losing Otamendi for the Brazil game was a blow as the defence struggled against Neymar Jr and chums. Lack of depth was especially sore as the team was getting tired into Extra Time.

We did have our fair share of crazy games though.

This comeback against France – with 94th-minute winner!

This shellacking of Spain

Messi Highlights

Injuries meant that Messi was forced to play in the roles described above rather than through choice but he was always most effective in the DLF role.

The advanced position meant Messi was on the end of a few tap-ins from crosses from the winger on the left. Arriving into space created by the movement of the AF. This goal in the 4th minute of injury time to beat France was one example.

The role allowed for creativity too. This goal for strike partner Higuain against Spain shows how he drifted into space to collect the ball before passing a beautiful assist through for Gonzalo-Gol to score.

There was a chance to showcase his talent with this outrageous free kick against De Gea – the best gk in FM18 that I have faced.

When up against a solid, defensive unit that we can’t break down, Messi was dropped into the deeper centre mid role to find more space. This cracker rescuing a point against Iceland in the opening game.

Messi Stats

Let’s look at the underlying data of Messi’s Finals to see if there is any insight into his performances.

In the 6 games played, Messi contributed 10 goals – 6 goals himself and 4 assists. The most effective player in the Argentina team.

Of the 290 passes he attempted, 17 were Key passes. The equivalent of 5% of all his passes led to chances for his team, that shows that playing him in the final, attacking third is where Messi is at his most dangerous.

The last stat that sticks out for me is the number of Dribbles made per game – 3.63. Nearly 4 dribbles completed every game highlights Messi’s skills and flair.

You can see why he’s such a problem for opponents. Go tight and he’ll dribble past you. Step off and he’ll create chances with a pass. Lose him and he’ll score.

You can read about another World Cup superstar, Thomas Muller, here.

So in conclusion

So near and yet so far! We achieved the FA’s expectations but if we’d snuck past Brazil I am sure Argentina would have lifted the trophy but it wasn’t meant to be.

Memorable games included the hammering of Spain, the comeback against France, the near comeback against Brazil.

Higuain got the Golden Boot award as Messi led the charge with 4 assists and 6 goals of his own.

In Sampaoli’s system, the best position for Messi was definitely the DLF with players offering him passing options all around. It will be interesting to see if this is what happens in Russia and if he has a bit more luck this time.