This season, Barça have an xG of 51.81.
They have scored 63 goals.
What makes the difference? Leo Messi, really.
Over the years (and especially under Valverde) Barça began to create fewer high-quality chances p90 and instead began to rely more on individual brilliance. In 15/16, for instance, Barça had a cumulative xG of 113.5. They scored 112 that season. Last season, Barça had an xG of 80 goals; they ultimately scored 90. That xG gap has widened this season, and just like with Barça’s pressing, it’s gone the wrong way. In the first ten games of the season, Barça overperformed their xG nine times, doing so by a margin of two on four occasions. Things were looking grim. Barça were scoring goals, yes, but they were playing worse than ever. Almost all their high-quality chances were coming through Messi. There had been Messi-dependence, and then there was this. Without Messi, this team looked hapless (the freak result vs Betis aside).
And Messi himself was producing at an unsustainable rate. At the time of Valverde’s departure (January 5th), Messi had a xG of 6.70. He had already scored 13 goals by then. He was taking every chance he got, be it inside the box or far away from it. For instance, Barça have an out of box xG of 5.72, yet they have scored 12 from that very situation, with Messi scoring eight of them. Now, yes, out of box situations always have a low xG value attached to them. But, the fact that the difference is sizeable, and that ¾ of the goals come from Messi, points to that fact that the difference comes down to him, not the collective.
A case in point is Barça’s game vs Celta, which finished 4-1. Barca finished the game with an xG of 1.5, and yet ended up scoring four. Messi, who scored a penalty as well, converted two direct-kicks, which had a cumulative xG of 0.12. That is staggering. Messi’s expert finishing ability has allowed Barça to get away with poor creativity all round. In fact, no-one apart from the Argentine has even overperformed their xG by a margin of more than two goals, suggesting that Messi still remains Barça’s difference maker, and by a disproportionate margin. What is important to realise is that this is a Messi that is less supported than ever. He is dropping deeper than ever, and without his partner Luis Suarez, is forced to handle all aspects of Barça’s attacking play.
And yes, many will say that this trend of overperformance by Messi is nothing new. And there is some truth to that. Messi has consistently overperformed his xG, over the years (by 7.1 in 14/15, 10.1 in 16/17, 5.8 in 17/18 and 10 in 18/19). However, the extent to which he was overperforming (in the early part of the season) was unprecedented, especially considering the extent to which the team itself was underperforming. Surely it was unsustainable?
Well, it has proved so.
Ever since Setien has taken over, the trend has reversed. Gone is the hot streak. Since the Cantabrian’s arrival, Messi has scored six goals against an xG of 8.47 (Importantly, four of those goals came in the same game). At the same time, Messi has also taken nearly double the shots p90 as he did under Valverde (6.75 to 3.94). There is no doubt about it, Messi has had a suspect time in front of goal of late. And as they say, when Messi underperforms, the team follows. In eight matches under Setien, Barça have scored 14 goals against an xG of 18.1. Barça have also created 4.13 big chances p90 in these games (as compared to 2.79 under Valverde) but have, nevertheless, seen their goals p90 drop down to 1.63 from 2.36.
Is it Setien’s misfortune, then, that he has taken over the team during Messi downturn or is this trend part of something more permanent? I suspect it is the former. Nevertheless, I think there are some valuable lessons to take from this patch of ‘bad form’ (remember this is still relative to Messi’s astronomical standards). It is a reminder to Barça, and one that will start to come ever more often in the seasons to come. Messi cannot do everything. Sounds simple, right?
Well, yes and no. Right now, nearly every productive move in the final third goes through Messi. He scores, he creates and he aids in build-up. Messi is everywhere. That means that when his form dips, the whole team suffers. The truth is that Messi has been consistent for so long that it would be irresponsible of Barça, if you will, to not be dependent on him. That, in itself, is not troubling. What is troubling is the lack of a plan B. Messi or bust, simply put. Messi will be 33 next season; it is both unrealistic and, frankly, stupid for a club of Barcelona’s stature to continue to put all their eggs in one basket. Messi’s duties must be delegated, and fast. Whether that means a sharing of the creative burden or the goalscoring is up to the club. What is clear is that the status quo cannot remain.
In economics, the goal of a model like Keynesianism is to shorten the extent of the booms and busts of the business cycle, the highs and the lows, to minimise the chance of a recession. Barça must follow that same maxim. A step forward for the Blaugrana would entail minimising the effect of the boom and bust cycles of Messi and his form, thereby avoiding an implosion mod-season. There is no denying that, with age comes a certain instability, which only shortens the periods of boom and lengthens the periods of bust. Even a genius of Messi’s stature cannot escape time. All Barça can hope to do is mitigate whatever that entails.
And that, in itself, may prove to be the toughest task in the history of the club.