Lionel Messi is impossible, an anomaly. A footballing machine of that sort should not exist. And yet he does. In his prime, Messi did not have a fault in his game; there was no Achilles heel there. Moreover, Messi’s career, from a developmental point of view, has been intriguing to watch. Leo has gone from a pacey dribble happy winger (who, in 07/08, managed 8.4 dribbles per 90) to a goal-oriented false nine to a literal Swiss army knife. As it stands, Messi is Barça’s attack. Almost everything of consequence is either started by him or finished by him. It’s frightening.
It is interesting to see Messi’s evolution, in terms of expected goals.
Messi has outperformed his expected goals (xG) in every season since 2005. That is genuinely staggering, and a testament to why Leo is indeed impossible. He has doubled his xG in two different seasons too (08/09 and 12/13). It’s hard to fathom just how stupendous that is; it is a level of efficiency that has not been seen before (and probably won’t be seen for a while). However, the efficiency alone is not what makes Messi stand out; that efficiency is coupled with extraordinary consistency and longevity.
Perhaps the greatest example of these two factors is the stretch from 2011-12/(early 2013). In that time, Leo scored 96 league goals against an xG of 64.1. In 2012, he scored 91 goals in the calendar year. At false nine, Messi was unstoppable. With his dribbling, Messi could move inwards, link up with ‘that’ midfield duo and progress up the field. With his passing range, he could also pick out the two inside forwards and play them in. And, with his finishing, he could just stay in and around the box and bag a hattrick.
The goal map above is really telling. Under Guardiola, Messi had completed a quick transformation. He had moved inwards and developed an uncanny eye for goal.
When you compare this map to the one from last season (given below), the difference is clear. There are fewer deep pickups in 2011/12 and far more one touch goals. With service from behind, Messi turned himself into a lethal goalscorer. Without it, he became the team’s creative brain.
It is interesting to see this shift. It is not as if Messi’s creative output was lackluster when he was a false nine. He was still managing 2.4 key passes per 90 alongside 1.32 through passes. He was just focused on different things. With a solid base behind him, Messi could be a part of the system, instead of the very system itself. This allowed him to focus on skill sets and roles, instead of on everything at once.
Messi’s 14/15 season is often hailed as a ‘complete’ performance, and in many ways that is true. With Luis Enrique’s arrival, Leo was shifted to the right (or at least, more to the right). However, because Messi wasn’t really a wide player at that point, he acted more as an attacking midfielder. And since Barça’s midfield had a Xavi shaped hole by that point (he wasn’t a regular starter anymore) Leo began to handle aspects of ball progression. Yet, in an attacking sense, 14/15 isn’t better than 11/12. At least, not quite.
What is interesting is that Messi’s change in role has coincided with a decline in Barça’s team, and that isn’t a coincidence. Messi’s changing role has allowed the team and its management to settle into the status quo. Because he is anomalous, it is somehow working. Yet, it is impossible to expect a 70 odd goal season from Leo anymore, not because of his age but because of the lack of a support structure. At this point, Barça is Messi. The management has allowed that to happen because it was the easy thing. It hasn’t looked at other plans or styles of play. They haven’t thought of easing Messi’s workload.
Because it is the easy thing.
Just because Messi is impossible doesn’t mean he’s invincible. This season, Messi has not had any partners in attack; as a result, he’s often looked off-colour (by his own lofty standards, of course). This ‘mistreatment’ of Leo is disrespectful to the years of relentless service he has provided to the club. Hopefully, it is rectified soon.
If it isn’t, hoard the highlight videos and seasonal DVDs; once he hangs up his boots, they’ll be priceless. Lucky for us, genius really doesn’t fade.
The art that Messi has created on-field remains timeless.