He may not be very tall, but his speed and physique enable him to cope with even the toughest of defenders. He is surprisingly strong, and can hold on to the ball in style, as if it were stuck to his feet. There is simply nobody like him anywhere else in the game. He is also a specialist at all dead ball situations, especially free kicks and penalties.
These passes are where most assists come from, and indeed, Messi has the most assists per game from these kinds of passes of any forward, by a large margin. And again, despite making twice as many attempts as most people, he beats expectations.
On May 5, 2012, the Leo Messi legend was extended in the derby against Espanyol, when he made it to an unprecedented 50 goals in a league season, having scored four goals in three different matches. A remarkable season ended with one of the finest goals of his career in the Copa del Rey final against Bilbao. In the 2011/12 season he has scored in every competition he played in, totally an astonishing 73 as Barça conquered the Spanish Supercup, European Supercup, Clubs World Cup and the Copa del Rey. He ended 2012 with the record number of goals in a calendar year , thus beating the historic tally established by Gerd Müller (85 for Bayern Munich and Germany in 1972).
This Argentinian striker's footballing career started in 1995 at Newell's Old Boys, where he played until the year 2000. At the age of 13, Lionel Messi crossed the Atlantic to try his luck in Barcelona, and joined the Under 14s.
In fact, the more involved Messi is in a shot attempt, the more likely his team is to score. He has scored on 22.1 percent of his regular (non-set, non-penalty, non-shootout) shots for Barca himself. The people to whom he’s dished assists and chances have scored on 18.1 percent of their shots. Meanwhile, Barcelona shots that didn’t come from Messi’s foot12 or Messi’s passing scored just 12.5 percent of the time.
Cutting out all the passing that doesn’t end in a shot, Messi generates the most points per touch of any player with a similar usage rate. But there are a couple of other important things to notice in this graph: Despite not taking as many shots, Messi uses more possessions per game than Ronaldo does. This is generally because Messi is much more likely to take on defenders, and thus is much more likely to lose possession of the ball or turn it over entirely. (He is also relatively more likely to set up a potential assist.)
In their Group F World Cup match late last month, Argentina and Iran were still deadlocked after 90 minutes. With the game in stoppage time and the score tied at 0-0, Lionel Messi took the ball near the right corner of the penalty area, held it for a moment, then broke left, found his seam, took his strike and curled it in from 29 yards. What was going to be a draw was now a win, and Messi had put Argentina into the Round of 16.
There are a few lines where Messi’s stats are considerably worse than his peers’ (meaning Ronaldo’s): He doesn’t get a lot of clearances — although this is partly style, as Messi is more willing to pass out of defensive territory (or even take on defenders). And he doesn’t go for (or succeed at) a lot of aerials (50-50 balls in the air). While I haven’t studied this aspect of his game in depth, soccer experts in the FiveThirtyEight office theorize that it has something to do with his stature.
But without settling for that, the Argentinian went even further in the 2010/11 season, scoring no fewer than 53 official goals, a Spanish record only matched by Cristiano Ronaldo (that very same season). Messi, like in Rome, played a vital role in the Champions League final at Wembley were scored a scorcher from outside the area to put his team ahead. In 2011, he also won the Ballon d’Or for the third time, a feat only previously achieved by Cruyff, Platini and Van Basten and a year later became the first player ever to win it four times. In 2013 and 2014 he came second, making it eight years in a row that he has been among the top three footballers in the world.
Messi is both of those things. And what’s more, his passing profile is nothing like the other Barcelona forwards, who typically send 72 percent of their passes back or square. Messi is far more likely to try to advance the ball toward the goal, and far more likely to succeed:
The 21st of those outside-the-penalty-area goals was Messi’s extra-time winner against Iran, which came from 29 yards out (33 yards to where it went in). That goal was quintessential Messi: He got the ball on the right side of the field, held it for a few seconds, broke to the middle and — in heavy traffic — swerved it in on off his left foot. Plus he did it all without an assist.
On May 1, 2005, he became the youngest player ever to score a league goal for FC Barcelona - against Albacete when Messi was only 17 years, 10 months and 7 days old. That record would eventually be beaten by Bojan.
Given that, it’s no surprise that Messi excels at the through-ball, the delicate and gorgeous play that requires perfect circumstances and perfect timing to be successful. Messi attempts almost twice as many of these passes as any other forward, and still manages to beat the trend.
But that’s just what happens once the shots are lined up. If we want to explore a player’s efficiency, we have to look into his touches more deeply. For this purpose, I created a stat called “possessions used.” It’s a little bit analogous to usage rate in basketball, and incorporates the number of touches in which a player:
The following championship-winning season, Messi made his first appearance in an official match on October 16, 2004, in Barcelona's derby win against Espanyol at the Olympic Stadium (0-1). With several first team players seriously injured, the services of several reserve team players were called upon, and Messi became a regular feature of Barça squads.
First, to ensure that we’re celebrating the greatness of Messi and not the greatness of Barcelona, we need to make sense of Messi on Barcelona. The easiest way to do that is to evaluate Barcelona without Messi, also known as the Spanish national team.
To generalize a bit, some of the value a shooter provides comes from taking more and better shots (e.g. taking them closer to the goal, at a better angle, amid fewer defenders, etc.), and some of it comes from putting in those shots more often. For example, Messi’s typical regular (non-set piece) shot comes from 14.9 yards out, while Ronaldo’s average shot comes from 20.1 yards out. ESPN/TruMedia has a model for estimating the chances of a player making each shot he takes based on type and location (this metric is known as expected goals). The difference between a player’s actual goals and his expected goals is called “goals above average” (or GAA). Because Messi takes shots that are more likely to go in, his average attempt has an expectation of .182 goals, while the average Ronaldo shot has an expectation of .124 goals — so we would expect Messi’s shooting to be more efficient based on that alone. However, Messi has also exceeded that expectation by a greater amount than Ronaldo has. Messi scored .220 goals per shot attempt for .038 GAA per goal. Ronaldo scored .139 goals per attempt, so he had .015 GAA per goal.
Of the 866 players who qualified for that plot — by playing in 50-plus games and averaging at least one shot attempt per game — Messi is the ninth-most efficient shooter overall (Ronaldo is 173rd), and he’s by far the most efficient of anyone with a similar shot volume. The highest-volume shooter who is more efficient is Mario Gomez, the former Bayern Munich striker, who takes about two-thirds as many shots as Messi.
Of course, these are raw shooting percentages and don’t account for the types of shots each player is taking or assisting, or the number of attempts. It’s generally harder to stay valuable over a larger number of shots, and we haven’t yet factored in that difficulty.
How should Argentina fans feel about all this, given the disappointment they’ve experienced in World Cups past and the hopes they’ve pinned on Messi this year? So far in the 2014 tournament, Messi has been erasing whatever gap there was between his Barcelona stats and his Argentina stats, with style. And that gap was never really as big as it appeared.
Since the 2010 World Cup, Messi has scored 19 goals and six assists for Argentina in 22 games (.9 goals per game and .3 assists per game, compared to 1.1 and .4 for Barca). For shooting/assisting efficiency, he has scored .199 GAA per game for Argentina versus .262 for Barca. He also has better defensive stats for Argentina, so even if there are persistent differences, it’s quite possible it has to do with style and Messi’s role on each team rather than the quality of his play.
The following season Messi moved up a gear and astounded the world with goals such as the one he scored against Getafe in the Copa del Rey. In the 2006/07 season, and even though the team didn't win any titles, the Argentine was second in the FIFA World Player awards and third in the Ballon d’Or. He continued to develop in the 2007/08 campaign, when he scored 16 goals and gave 10 assists in the 40 games he played in. In 2008, Leo Messi was runner up in the FIFA World Player awards for the second season in a row.
Between Messi’s shots taken and chances created, he is responsible for about 48 percent of Barcelona’s regular (non-penalty, non-set play) shot attempts. Yet he and the players he assists score about 60 percent of Barca’s goals.
Messi is an excellent, sensational, unique player. He is astoundingly creative, has amazing individual skill and is able to constantly put his rivals at unease. A natural left footer, he is stunningly versatile, and can play either in the middle or on whichever of the wings required, although it is out on the right that he feels most comfortable. He may not be very tall, but his speed and physique enable him to cope with even the toughest of defenders. He is surprisingly strong, and can hold on to the ball in style, as if it were stuck to his feet. There is simply nobody like him anywhere else in the game. He is also a specialist at all dead ball situations, especially free kicks and penalties. His cold blood and ability to take on responsibilities are other virtues that make Leo Messi simply the best footballer on the planet.
But how does he do it? The biggest obstacle to evaluating Messi’s passing ability is accounting for the fact that he plays for the most pass-happy team in the world. Watching Barcelona can be a bit like watching a playground game of keep away. Barcelona’s players are infamous for their “tiki-taka” style of play, which relies on an enormous amount of short, high percentage passing. Above all else, they try to maintain possession of the ball until a chance opens up. This sounds like a great strategy, but there’s a reason it isn’t employed universally: To make it work, a team has to be stocked with amazing passers, and it has to have strikers capable of creating chances against set defenses.10
I think it’s fair to say that goals mean more in soccer than points do in most sports. And Messi scores a lot of them. Since the end of the 2010 World Cup, Messi has been responsible for 291 goals and assists in the 201 of his games in club and national team play tracked by the sports analytics company Opta. How does that compare with other soccer stars across top leagues around the world? (The Opta data set includes 16,574 players and 24,904 games in both league and international play since the end of the 2010 World Cup.)
Somehow, Messi has done even better when taking it on his own than when somebody sets him up. Moreover, on unassisted shots he shoots nearly 10 percent and .044 GAA better than the next best player (Sergio Aguero for Manchester City) does, despite taking the fourth-most such shots of the 28 players in the group.
At the Under 20 World Cup in Holland, Messi not only won the title with Argentina, but was also the leading goalscorer and was voted best player in the tournament. Aged 18 years, he had become one of the hottest properties in the world game. Shortly after, he made his first full international appearance in a friendly against Hungary.
Messi is an excellent, sensational, unique player. He is astoundingly creative, has amazing individual skill and is able to constantly put his rivals at unease. A natural left footer, he is stunningly versatile, and can play either in the middle or on whichever of the wings required, although it is out on the right that he feels most comfortable.
I think this criticism is fair — and I found it intriguing enough to look into the matter myself. So I gathered and organized data, crunched it, re-crunched it, and gathered more data2 and crunched it some more.
Perhaps this year will be different. Messi is finally having the kind of World Cup expected of him. He has scored in every game so far (four goals overall), including one on a beautiful free kick against Nigeria and the aforementioned game-winner against Iran. As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight gives Messi and his compatriots a 16 percent chance of winning the tournament — second only to host nation Brazil.
Technical profile Messi is an excellent, sensational, unique player. He is astoundingly creative, has amazing individual skill and is able to constantly put his rivals at unease. A natural left footer, he is stunningly versatile, and can play either in the middle or on whichever of the wings required, although it is out on the right that he feels most comfortable. He may not be very tall, but his speed and physique enable him to cope with even the toughest of defenders. He is surprisingly strong, and can hold on to the ball in style, as if it were stuck to his feet. There is simply nobody like him anywhere else in the game. He is also a specialist at all dead ball situations, especially free kicks and penalties. His cold blood and ability to take on responsibilities are other virtues that make Leo Messi simply the best footballer on the planet.
Ronaldo takes more than twice as many shots from this distance, but still has fewer goals overall. Messi, meanwhile, scores at a remarkable rate. Adjusting for shot quality with the GAA model, Messi is running 12.6 goals above expectation (based on shot-by-shot expectation, not the trend line in the chart). Ronaldo, with more than twice as many shots, ran just 5.5 goals above expectation, and no one but Messi is higher than 7.5 goals.
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Finally, Messi’s defense is consistent with that of a high-volume striker.15 That he’s practically munchkin-sized (he’s only 1.69 met — ahem, excuse me — 5’ 7” tall) seems not to matter.
For that, we turn back to the goals above average model, which compares each shot or chance outcome with its expectation. From this, we can tell whether a player has exceeded expectations for all of his shot attempts and chances created. Then we can do the same for all shots taken by his team without the player’s involvement, and compare the two. For example, if the player scored .02 goals above expectation per shot attempt, and the rest of his team scored -.01 goals less than expectation, that player’s value-added would be +.03 goals per shot (the value above replacement for that player on that team). Now let’s plot that added value against each player’s13 total offensive participation (the percentage of team shots he’s involved with):
His first championship would come in the Liga season of 2004-05. Since then, and playing a more prominent role every season, he has won every major club trophy at Camp Nou -- including a stunning haul of six in 2008-09 -- and claimed the World Player of the Year award four times in four years.
Finally, after however many charts, we see a diminishing return. At least for everyone not named Lionel Messi. He once again tops the field, impervious to the burden.
From the above, you might think Messi is a selfish player. Or you might assume that if Messi is so good at shooting, he’d focus on it to the exclusion of other skills. But, in true Wayne Gretzky-eque fashion, Messi is also one of the top assisters in our data set. Once again, that makes him a crazy outlier: No one else (aside from, yes, Ronaldo) even comes close to his combination of goals scored versus goals dished.
To make all those unassisted shots possible, Messi has to take on a lot of defenders one on one. There’s a stat for that, and in my view it’s one of the most revealing, reflecting both Messi’s skill and style, and the relationship between the two. Of all forwards in our data set who’ve played 100-plus games, he “takes on” defenders the most, and he’s the most successful at it.
Benjamin Morris 1970, Lionel Messi Is Impossible | FiveThirtyEight, Viewed 4 March 2016, <http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/lionel-messi-is-impossible/>.
Lionel Messi Player Profile 1970, Viewed 4 March 2016, <http://www.espnfc.us/player/45843/lionel-messi>.
Messi 1970, Viewed 4 March 2016, <http://www.fcbarcelona.com/football/first-team/staff/players/messi>.
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