Comparing Lionel Messi to anybody else is a futile endeavor. He's been that dominant for that long. There are only so many ways to say that Messi is the best. But, comparing Messi to himself is a different matter entirely. At 33 years of age it's not surprising to see that Messi is at least starting to slow down. What is surprising is seeing just how much the way he's playing has changed.
The important thing about Messi this season, possibly his last at Barcelona, is that he has completely reinvented himself. Messi, more than at any other point in his career has morphed into an out and out gunner. With Luis Suarez gone, teenager Ansu Fati and high-priced shoot-a-holic Philippe Coutinho both injured, it's been Messi who has taken up the shooting slack. Barcelona have broken out of their deep early season funk by asking Messi to shoot more than he ever has before, and he's taking them up on that offer.
Ahead of Barcelona's Champions League round of 16 first leg vs. PSG (streaming on CBS All Access on Tuesday), here are three numbers which fully capture just how differently the new, volume-shooting Lionel Messi is from his former self.
1. Shots per 90 minutes: 6.08
This is the lowest bar to clear. If Messi is shooting more the numbers better show that Messi is, in fact, shooting more. And he is. According to StatsBomb.com's Messi data biography this is the first time in his career that Messi is averaging over six shots per 90 minutes on the pitch. There are ways that statistic could be misleading, of course. Maybe he's taking lots more free kicks but his game hasn't actually changed much for example. Well, that's not the case. Well, not according to the Stats Perform data. He's taking 4.20 shots from open play per 90, the most since 2009-10.
The other possible option here would be that Messi has just become even more dominant. Maybe he's taking more shots now because he's getting into great positions even more frequently than he was just several years ago. If the increased shots are just leading to more goals then there's nothing to really comment on except for the fact that the greatest the world has ever seen is getting even greater. Sadly, however, that doesn't appear to be the case.
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2. Expected Goals per 90 minutes: 0.66
The problem with all of Messi's increased shooting is that it's leading to very little increased scoring. Mess's goals per 90 minutes have only increased from 0.78 per 90 to 0.81, and those are the two lowest totals of his career since the 2009-10 season. Likewise his expected goals have only bumped up from 0.62 to 0.66. If we again look at what's going on during open play we see an even more dramatic shift. Despite Messi's shots from open play increasing from 3.16 per 90 last season to 4.20 this season, his xG per 90 has only gone from 0.38 to 0.39. Shooting more but not expecting to score more is not a great sign. It hasn't really hurt Messi this season because he's having a very strong finishing season and his goal scoring from open play has actually increased from 0.46 per 90 to 0.55.
Taking a look at where Messi's open play shots are coming from paints a clear picture. This season his shots are predominantly coming from outside the box or from relatively sharp angles. The circles are sized to the xG of the chance, and you can see that there just aren't a ton of really big dots which would represent great opportunities.
Let's compare that to the last time Barcelona won the Champions League. That team was a free-slowing side with Messi and Suarez joined by Neymar (now on the other side of the PSG vs. Barcelona divide, although he's injured for Tuesday's match) in attack. It was breathtaking to watch, and sticking Messi with two other attackers of that caliber meant that he could get into the center of the penalty area and finish the highest of high percentage chances over and over and over again.
The difference couldn't be more clear. This version of Messi is shooting a lot more, and from a lot further away, and is still scoring less than that version of Messi.
One thing it's important to note, is that this is only partially a Messi story. Clearly he no longer has running mates in the attack that are capable of close to what Suarez and Neymar were. The best way to understand what's going on with Messi is that by losing such talented teammates he's had to adapt his game. For years Messi's surrounding cast has been getting worse, and his game has been expanding to fill in the increasing large gaps.
Back in the day Messi was able to get on the end of a lot of great chances because somebody else started with the ball at their feet. Increasingly as the years have gone on, those players have left leaving Messi as the one who has to do both the creating and the finishing. This year that burden has started to become too much.
3. Percentage of team's expected assists: 19.5%
It wouldn't be alarming if Messi's increased shooting was coming along with an increase in his creative work. And indeed, that's what had been happening over the last several seasons. As Barcelona transitioned from a team with a front three to a team that relied almost exclusively on Messi, not only did his shooting go up, but he also became the team's main creator for his teammates. Each of the last three seasons Messi had an increasing proportion of his team's expected assists (a measure of how likely each individual pass a player makes is likely to turn into a goal), going from 23.9% to 27.2% to 28.0%. These numbers paint a relatively coherent picture of Messi's greatness. As he dominated the ball more he did all the things the greatest player in the world would do with it, both creating shots for himself, and his teammates.
This season his passing is falling off a cliff. He's receiving the ball more than he ever has, 69.67 times per 90 minutes, and he's playing 63.64 passes per 90 minutes, the most he's played in a decade. But all of that passing is leading to 0.33 xA per 90, the lowest total of the past four seasons (as long as the xA model has been around). Or, to put it another way, despite being on the ball more than ever Messi is only creating 19.5% of his team's xA, down from 28% a season ago.
Put all those numbers together and they paint the picture of Barcelona finally stretching Messi further than he is capable of going. Year after year he's carried this team becoming more and more central to everything they do. But this season, following the exit of Luis Suarez to Atletico Madrid he hasn't been able to scale the mountain. Messi is still the center of everything, shooting and passing and having the ball at his feet more than he ever has before. But, for the first time, his increased centrality is leading to decreased results. He's shooting more, but not scoring more, and he's passing more but creating much much less. He's still great, just not quite as great as he was. And, fair or not, he's increasingly not as great as Barcelona need him to be.