You’re tied at home with 15 minutes left in a match that everyone’s expecting you to win. For most coaches, there’s not a player they’d rather have on the pitch in that spot than Lionel Messi.
Not Paris Saint-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino.
Pochettino made one of the most talked-about moves of PSG’s season when he decided to yank Messi in the 76th minute of a French Ligue 1 match against Lyon. The score was 1-1 when the Argentine coach opted to bring in Achraf Hakimi in place of one of the world’s greatest players. The problem was that Messi wasn’t exactly on board with it.
In the 72nd minute, cameras showed Messi flexing his left knee as if it were giving him problems just moments before the substitution. But those same cameras also showed him flashing a thumbs-up signal in the direction of the bench, indicating that he’d be just fine.
With all eyes on Messi in his first match at his new home stadium, the Parc des Princes, he wasn’t about to leave the field with the game on the line. But his coach took care of that for him moments later.
Why was Messi’s substitution so controversial?
Messi’s exchange with his coach as he came off the field is probably best described as terse. It wasn’t your typical sub and his teammates on the bench seemed to pick up on it.
When social media got hold of the video and images, the sequence of events quickly spread:
“These are decisions one has to make for the team,” Pochettino told media postgame, according to a translation of his comments from French. “Everybody knows we have great players, but one has to make choices. Sometimes decisions are positive or not, but that’s why you have a manager: to make decisions. You can agree with [a decision] or not. I asked [Messi] how he was and he said to me that he was OK, no problems.
“Everybody knows that Messi is a great player. There are five subs (available) and it’s obvious that players never like to come off the field. One has to make decisions. I’m on the bench to make decisions. His reaction? Fine, no worries.”
What’s most interesting about Pochettino’s comments is that they really didn’t indicate he made the substitu out of an abundance of caution for Messi’s left knee. It seemed as if it was a tactical decision.
How often is Messi subbed out of games?
The 34-year-old Messi is in his first season with PSG after signing with the club on Aug. 10. He made his debut coming off the bench on Aug. 29 against Stade de Reims and made his first start in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday in Belgium against Club Brugge. The match against Lyon was his first start in Ligue 1 in front of his home crowd and he clearly wanted to leave a good impression.
But the substitution probably caught Messi off guard because he rarely gets subbed out. According to stats compiled by Transfermarkt, he has been subbed out of matches just four times since the 2017-18 campaign and 71 times across his 804 career appearances for Barcelona and PSG in all competitions (8.8 percent of his matches).
According to one Spanish outlet, the last time Messi came off the field in a non-injury substitution was in March 2010:
Combine Messi’s reaction with the pressure he’s under to deliver, the rarity of the substitution and Pochettino’s postgame comments, and you have yourself a moment that will likely be discussed for days to come:
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