With a second trophy on the line this week in the U.S. Open Cup final against the Houston Dynamo and still a chance of completing an unlikely run to make the playoffs, Inter Miami at summer’s end is hardly recognizable compared to the start. But if this Inter Miami side is to be as successful as expected in the seasons ahead, it won’t be because of tactical innovation. It will be because coach Tata Martino did just enough to allow his players to gel and combine.
Lionel Messi’s two months at Inter Miami have been a whirlwind introduction for Messi to U.S. soccer and for U.S. soccer to Messi. During this period, there has been a trophy won and another final reached. It has been less an arrival in Major League Soccer and more an arrival in the Leagues Cup and the U.S. Open Cup, but regardless of the competition, there has been an undeniable makeover of the Inter Miami franchise.
There’s been a change in mentality under Gerardo “Tata” Martino, but that was made possible by the club’s preparation for a summer of change and ultimately a successful implementation that’s allowed Messi and Co. to do their thing. Let’s dig into each of those, as well as some of the playmaking and shapeshifting that’s brought on the success.
The tactics can be analyzed, the Miami without Messi can be compared to Miami with Messi and success can be measured, but the biggest changes at Inter Miami in the Messi era have been the aura and atmosphere around the team since the biggest star in world soccer arrived in Florida. The whole vibe is different. This looks and feels like a completely different team from the one that came before it.
The best comparison with a team in Europe might be with Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid and maybe even the previous version under Zinedine Zidane. This has been about getting the most from certain key players, creating an atmosphere to facilitate this, and building a team in which players complement each other in order to let the stars, and star, shine. MLS has its designated players, the assigned stars at each team whose wages can exceed the salary cap. In many ways, it feels like Inter Miami is something of a designated club. The Galácticos of MLS.
Of course, MLS roster rules and regulations prevent the Galácticos model from being applied fully. Any MLS squad will need to be bolstered with players who are relative unknowns to the rest of the world, but some of those occupying the less glamorous roster spots for Inter Miami could become household names by association and via their own performances under the new spotlight.
And if Inter Miami looks and feels like a completely different team as it enters its Messi era, it’s mostly because it is. This sea change is mostly down to Messi’s arrival, but it would not be as pronounced without everything, and everyone, accompanying him as the club rebooted in the summer 2023 transfer window.
Along with Messi came Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. The familiarity. The chemistry. At the same time came 20-year-old Paraguayan Diego Gómez, plus Argentines Facundo Farías (21) and Tomás Avilés (19), who joined from clubs in their native countries in South America. The youth. The energy. The desire to build something new and futureproof. The aforementioned aura around this new-look team and its home in South Florida, where Messi had previously holidayed, has revitalized Inter Miami’s new talisman just as he has revolutionized the franchise.
The Opta Power Rankings are a good gauge on how much Messi’s arrival has turned Inter Miami into an MLS powerhouse. On the day of his debut – July 21 – Inter Miami were the 891st-ranked club in the world. Just over two months later, they are now ranked as the 189th best men’s club side in world football, a rise of 702 places, which is more than any other MLS side over that period.
Inter Miami had been preparing for Messi’s arrival for some time, not just by making sure their squad complied with MLS roster rules, but also by adding vitality to the team in the early part of the 2023 season, pre-Messi. It made sure the young players, including homegrowns, who would play a part in the Messi era were getting senior appearances and MLS experience ahead of his arrival. Miami is a team of still-effective old stars and well-scouted, enthusiastic young potential—perhaps the ideal way to build an MLS roster within its restrictions, combining two successful approaches.
When looking for someone to guide this team and blend all of this together, there was one obvious candidate. Not only had Martino managed Messi at both Barcelona and Argentina, he had also won an MLS Cup during his time steering Atlanta United through its first two seasons in the league. This Inter Miami is not too different to an expansion side given the extent of the Messi revolution this summer. Martino won the Cup in his second season with Atlanta, and the Miami hierarchy will be hoping for something similar in 2024.
By the time all of this happened, MLS was almost a write-off for Inter Miami in 2023 as the team were bottom of the overall standings when the cavalry arrived. It is for that reason much of the focus was on the Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup.
Though Messi was set to revolutionize MLS and his appearances have been billed as such, in truth, he’s yet to play a substantial amount of minutes in the league. He has made a total of 12 appearances for Inter Miami since his high-profile move in July, but only two of his starts have come in MLS itself.
Messi’s American fairytale has so far taken place most notably in those two cup competitions. The Leagues Cup level has already been completed at Miami won its first club trophy back on Aug. 19. The shift in quality displayed by the club was stark to say the least, amounting to a last-place side in MLS following seven unbeaten matches in the Leagues Cup with five more games in all competitions without a defeat. The 12-match unbeaten run came directly after a 13-match span with eight defeats. Messi scored 10 goals in seven Leagues Cup appearances as Inter Miami bounced all the way to the final on the back of Messi-mania, defeating a stubborn Nashville side after extra time and penalties in the final itself with goalkeeper Drake Callender playing a key part.
Through 12 games in all competitions, he’s up to 11 goals and five assists. We don’t know if Messi will be able to maintain this level for the duration of his contract into the 2024 and 2025 seasons of MLS, but his performances in these cup competitions were as good as any that have been seen on American shores. The hype was justified. From the days of Pelé and George Best in NASL to the designated players and stars of MLS, little has matched the quality on show from Messi during his first kicks in U.S. soccer and his so-far brief, whirlwind tour of some of its soccer stadiums.
With this in mind, it makes complete sense that Martino has saved Messi for the upcoming U.S. Open Cup final, resting him in MLS games and disappointing a few fans along the way. The Open Cup is the closest U.S. soccer has to the English FA Cup or the Spanish Copa del Rey, including teams from outside MLS all the way from amateur level to other professional leagues such as USL. Inter Miami had already made progress in this tournament pre-Messi under previous head coach Phil Neville, and this made sure its new star had another semifinal in which to compete during this early part of his American story. In that semifinal, MLS league leaders FC Cincinnati were eventually defeated following extra time and a penalty shootout after two Messi wonder-assists for Leonardo Campana dragged Miami back into the game having gone two goals down.
Those assists were as remarkable as any golazo Messi might score and has scored. They were an indication of something Messi has forced into this new-look Miami side – creativity. Even if Messi himself isn’t present or isn’t directly in on the creating, the new build of this team is much more enterprising going forward.
Chance creation can be a good judge of how effective a team is in attack. Not just the number of chances, but their quality. Inter Miami’s top three games for expected assists (xA) are all Messi-era games. Only one of these, however, a 0-0 draw against Nashville in MLS, saw Messi play the full 90 minutes. The numbers are a testament to an improvement in the whole team, and an indication of what’s going on at Inter Miami in the shadows of Messi, influenced by him if not always including him.
One of Inter Miami’s best performance of the season in terms of expected goals (xG) was the 3-2 win against Sporting Kansas City (2.12) when Messi was away on international duty. Such isolated stats can be overly situational, based on unique incidents in a game such as penalty kicks and close-range chances, and not necessarily indicative of a wider trend, but there is a pattern across the various stats that shows an uptick in output since this version of the team has been assembled.
Five of Inter Miami’s top eight games for total xG in MLS this season have comesince Messi’s arrival. Campana makes up a good amount of this and is averaging 0.70 xG (excluding penalties) in his three MLS starts since Messi’s arrival. Campana has not always started games with Messi, as Martino has often preferred Josef Martínez, but he has been another beneficiary of this new Miami.
The MLS game against Nashville (not to be confused with the League Cup final) was Inter Miami’s most dominant MLS performance in terms of possession (69%) and territory in club history (bearing in mind it only began play in 2020). As the passing network below shows, the team played much of the game in the opposition half and Messi’s average position was further forward than any of his teammates.
Inter Miami attempted 484 passes in the opposition’s half, of which 63 were Messi’s. Busquets, Alba and Kamal Miller all had over 100 touches in that game which finished 0-0. Part of that had to do with the game Nashville wanted to play, defending its own area and looking to counter-attack, but the fact that teams are now doing this against Inter Miami shows what a different proposition this new version of the franchise is. Martino has had to adapt his side based on such obstacles, testing out different personnel and formations.
The players around Busquets play an important role, especially in transition. If there is space on either side of Busquets it can be easy for opposition sides to play through-balls in the half-space. These areas can also open up if Inter Miami plays with a back three and the lateral center-backs drift wide. These central defenders, whether two or three, also influence the attacking shape. Serhiy Kryvtsov has done some playmaking of his own from the back behind Busquets, while the width of the right-sided center-back when using a three has a knock-on effect on how far forward the right wing-back ventures.
Avilés plays a big part in what DeAndre Yedlin can do down the right as he attempts to be the American Dani Alves. Though perhaps slightly under the radar, this right-sided “defensive” pairing could be one of the success stories if this team fires using a back three, which is especially impressive given Avilés is only 19. This is shown below in Inter Miami’s formation versus Cincinnati in the Open Cup semifinal. Avilés is in possession and Yedlin is high up on the right wing. Messi (circled) has already begun to drop into that position farther left, closer to where he would make those two assists in the second half.
There has not been a typical shape as such, but there have been typical roles. The above image outlines a diamond of attackers and midfielders, but it could also be viewed as a 3-4-3 should Messi remain in his starting position on the right. Martino has been most consistent in those big games in the Leagues Cup, but it will be interesting to see what he does with his backline in the Open Cup final, and whether he goes with a four or a three. The three he started off with in that Open Cup semi, as shown above, didn’t seem to work as the team went two goals down and the team came back into the game following a formation switch, but it might prove useful in the future.
The back four has been used in those Leagues Cup games against the Philadelphia Union and Nashville. As was the case in the MLS game 10 days later, Miami enjoyed a large amount of possession against Nashville (59%), compared to the game against the Union (53%).
And this is reflected by the slightly higher player positions against Nashville, shown below, and can be compared to the passing network against Nashville in the league, shown earlier.
One of the best players during Messi’s games in the Leagues Cup was the versatile Finn, Robert Taylor. He can be seen in the above shape on the left wing, (No. 16) but has popped up in numerous positions on either side of the pitch, including wing-back, finishing that tournament with four goals and three assists.
The Messi Role
In those games, or portions of games, in which Messi is absent, Taylor has been one of the players filling in roughly in the area the Argentine usually occupies. Farías has been another called upon to do some of the Messi-ing. There is no like-for-like replacement for Messi, but Farías does a lot of the kind of work that sees Messi drift from positions on the right to hanging around more centrally, or wherever else he thinks he is needed.
Messi’s two assists in that semifinal against Cincinnati came from positions on the left of midfield, which is somewhere Farías can also operate. In the recent 4-0 win against Toronto during which Messi left the field with “fatigue” (slightly injured so rested for the final) after 37 minutes, Farías pushed up from his position in midfield while Taylor replaced Messi from the bench. It was 0-0 when Messi exited, then Farías scored before the end of the first half and Taylor scored twice and assisted another in the second. They go some way to replacing Messi in the aggregate, at least positionally.
The other goal in that game was scored by a player who has also contributed significantly to this team’s mindset, Benjamin Cremaschi. The 18-year-old was born in Miami but is eligible to represent both the United States and Argentina at the international level. It is fairytale stuff. The teenager must be in dreamland playing alongside Messi, but his presence gives the great man more motivation to succeed with this team and help the players within it progress. Having a local-born player of Argentine heritage further reinforces the identity of this team, the bridge between Argentina and Florida, between Messi and U.S. soccer, representing numerous aspects of this team’s character all at once. He’s not too shabby on the field either, and played a memorable part in one of Messi’s best goals at Inter Miami so far, receiving an inviting through-ball from his mentor before returning it to him for a tap-in. Messi saw this goal, scored on his MLS debut against the New York Red Bulls, two passes before it was scored, getting the hockey assist for his own goal. Cremaschi was switched on enough to realize what Messi was trying to do and play his part to perfection.
The work of these other players when Messi isn’t there helps give us an idea of what Messi himself is doing. There will not be too much coaching instruction for Messi. Again, for many of these players, Martino will be managing in the Ancelotti way. Beneath that, there is a tactical structure in terms of team shape, roles to suit player’s strengths, and the types of players needed to support the MLS Galácticos. Combined, it involves Messi drifting from the right to wherever he feels he can best influence the game (see below in his touch map against LAFC), as the other players complement him while working within a shape. Their own individual styles of play do the rest.
The supporting cast of lateral runners and midfield shuttlers including Dixon Arroyo, David Ruíz, Diego Gómez and, out wide, Yedlin and Noah Allen, benefits Busquets as much as it does Messi. Two writing the songs and playing the solos and others providing the rhythm, with an occasional lead role.
in the most recent game, against Orlando City and without Messi, Busquets and Alba, Martino set up with what looked like a 4-4-2 on paper, but ended up more like a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 as Allen tucked inside forming a back three and Taylor operating as a left wing-back. Miami is never far off a 4-4-2 on paper given Messi’s tendency to float centrally or join the striker, but it is never quite a standard 4-4-2 on the field.
As with any side built around a star presence, an aura and a supporting energy, it is easy to dismiss the tactical element, but it is there. It needs to be, even if it isn’t everything. Like the Real Madrids of Zidane and Ancelotti, which won numerous league titles and Champions Leagues, if this Inter Miami side is as successful as it is predicted to be in the next two seasons, it will not be spoken of in terms of tactical innovation but in terms of its players and how the coach helped them gel and combine. Martino can combine a project of developing young South American players, as he did at Atlanta, with trying to get the best from a David Beckham and Miami-influenced star-studded bunch of Galácticos.
We can see this happening in real-time at the tail end of the 2023 MLS regular season. Miami still seems unlikely to find its way into the playoffs, needing to move ahead of five teams in its final five matches, but it has at least a match in hand on four of those teams. In the league, Messi has popped in to make his debut and occasionally contribute to this side’s formation and development as the players get used to each other, but MLS has so far been more about getting this team to bond. It is in the cups where Messi has really shone, and where he has given an indication of what might be in store for Inter Miami and U.S. soccer in the coming years.