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Is Lionel Messi finally in decline at Barcelona?

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We had an in-depth look at the captain’s form in 2019-20

Barcelona V Real Sociedad Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Is this finally the year? The year of the Messi decline? This is a question that has plagued footballing circles ever since Messi crossed the wrong side of 30. Perhaps it’s a pertinent one, then? There’s no denying it, the Argentine is not getting any younger. He turns 33 in the summer.

This season has been an interesting one for Messi. While he remains the top goalscorer and assist provider in La Liga, with 19 and 12 respectively, many have felt as if this could be the beginning of the end. Messi has often looked dejected on the field, uninterested almost. Without his partner-in crime Luis Suarez, he is isolated in attack, tasked with every aspect of attacking play. In the first half of the season, Messi was producing at an unsustainable rate. At the time of Ernesto 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.

Ever since Quique Setien’s appointment, the trend has reversed. The purple patch is gone. Since the Cantabrian’s arrival, Messi has scored six goals in La Liga 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). 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.

How different is this season from the ones before, then? Is it really a *gasp* downturn? Well, not really. Messi’s creative numbers are down a little bit from 18/19 but not to the extent that it becomes worrisome. Moreover, the 18/19 season was freakish in every sense of the word, there was going to be at least a slight drop-off.

Messi as a goalscorer/provider

This season Messi has an xG+xA p90 of 0.96, as compared to 1.08 from last season. So, yes, there is a drop-off, but that was inevitable. 1.08 is not sustainable over the course of multiple seasons, and the data is a testament to this. In 17/18, his xG+xA was 1.01 and it was 0.9 in 16/17. Through that lens, 0.96 does not seem anomalous at all.

In terms of shots and dribbles, this season is not all that different either. In 19/20, Messi is averaging 4.5 shots on target p90 alongside 10.5 successful dribbles, as compared to 5.2 and 10.8 in 18/19, 5.4 and 11.3 in 17/18 and 4.2 and 10.2 in 16/17.

Messi as a dribbler/shooter

The numbers seem to suggest that this isn’t a drop-off at all. Messi is still operating within the range of the status quo ante, from previous seasons. It is a similar story in terms of creative passing. This season, Messi is averaging 8.49 passes into the final third, 6.4 passes into the box and 4.6 through balls p90, as compared to 9.5, 8.5 and 4.3 respectively in 18/19 and 8.9, 7.1 and 3.7 in 17/18. No drop-off. Nada.

Messi as a ball-progressor

Perhaps, to understand this “bad” patch form, at least as compared to last season, we need to look at the circumstances around Leo. Last season, Messi had an on-song Suarez around him alongside wide support from Ousmane Dembele. Without either of them, Messi has been forced to both create and get on the end of chances. A slowdown, therefore, is to be expected. Faulty planning in the transfer market has meant that, as it stands, Messi does not have an able deputy in either department. It is only a testament to his abilities that he is putting up similar underlying numbers across the board as he did in prior seasons.

However, and this is important, the club needs to treat this situation as if there has been a drop-off, even though that isn’t the case. There needs to be some sort of sharing of the workload, to ensure that Leo does not burn out. That is essential. His last few years must be utilised properly, as to ensure a smooth transition. The temporary ‘burnout’ this season could be a sign of things to come in the near future. After all, the clock only ticks one way. Soon, these burnouts could be longer and more severe. The club needs to ensure that doesn’t happen, and this complacent facade must be done away with.

Yes, it would be premature to draw long-term conclusions from this ‘drop-off’ ( if you can call it that). However, it is possibly indicative of the future. And that is something that cannot be ignored.

Hopefully, Barça are paying attention.