Myths and magic: Numbers from Lionel Messi and Barcelona’s unusual start

Lionel Messi
Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
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There was an astounding and provocative point on a broadcast Wednesday morning, as a pundit laid claim that Lionel Messi’s poor performances were the biggest problem with Barcelona.

La Liga’s powerful Catalan club is off to a poor start this season in domestic play, well off the title pace.

The 33-year-old Messi is the century’s best player and considered by many to be the best to ever play the game, but his eight goals and four assists in 15 appearances this season are off his normal extraterrestrial pace.

[ RELATED: Messi to PSG? | Man City move on? ]

So we thought we’d do a dive into the numbers behind those numbers, using a number of statistical services to plug into Barcelona’s quarter-season.

We’ll update the numbers after Barca’s 3 pm ET scrap with Real Sociedad, one of three table-topping teams on 26 points.

Overall rating

Messi is the top-rated player in La Liga by several stats site, though the margins are a bit finer this year.

WhoScored.com overall rating
1st: Messi, 8.04
2nd: Iago Aspas, 7.59
3rd: Karim Benzema, 7.46

That’s a 0.45 rating above second place. His 8.71 last season was 1.24 above Casemiro. In 2018-19, Messi’s 8.48 was 0.91 better than Luis Suarez and three seasons ago his 8.68 was 0.74 above Cristiano Ronaldo.

Sofascore.com overall rating
1st: Messi, 7.94
2nd: Aspas, 7.60
3rd: Toni Kroos, 7.45

Messi’s 0.34 lead on Aspas in significantly down from the 0.94 he carried over Toni Kroos’ 7.49 last season. Messi was 0.80 ahead of Aspas in 2018-19 and beat Ronaldo by 0.58 in 2017-18.

Understat.com xG+xA/90 minutes
1st: Messi, 1.05
2nd: Mikel Oyarzabal, 1.03
3rd: Aspas, 0.86

Messi’s 1.17 xG+xA/90 last season was 0.34 better than Benzema. His 1.38 bettered Suarez’s 1.01 In 2018-19, and Ronaldo’s 1.27 three seasons ago came within 0.05 of Messi’s top league mark.

Barcelona struggles

Barcelona has 17 points through 11 matches this season, which has the Catalan club in eighth place, nine points off the top of the table.

It’s not quite that bad, as Ronald Koeman’s men have played less matches than five teams above them and have the fifth-best points-per-game.

But Barca is about silverware and their nine-point deficit to Atletico Madrid is in the same amount of games as Diego Simeone’s men.

Looking back at the last five seasons, Barcelona’s numbers the past two years are off the pace of the previous two, when they held off Real and Atleti to win La Liga.

So what happened? Well Neymar left for PSG before the 2017-18 season and Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Malcom, and Antoine Griezmann have failed to combine to deliver the same level in his place.

Perhaps Messi has been shooting more this year because Barcelona’s defense has been battered and the Blaugranas have needed to score a bit more but it’s largely because Martin Braithwaite, through no fault of his own, is not Luis Suarez. Barca lets its star center forward walk for nothing, and Suarez has five goals in eight matches for Atletico Madrid.

But really, as we’ll see in our final section, this may simply be down to fortune. Barcelona is shooting more and conceding less than it has in a half-decade and still has more of the ball than anyone else in the league.

They just aren’t finishing, and it’s an odd coincidence that Barcelona and Man City are having the same exact problem.

Barcelona goals/goals allowed per game
2020-21: 1.94/1.00
2019-20: 2.26/1.00
2018-19: 2.36/0.94
2017-18: 2.60/0.76
2016-17: 3.05/0.97

Barcelona shots/shots conceded per game
2020-21: 15.8 (1st) / 9.1 (t-3rd)
2019-20: 13 (t-2nd) / 9.8 (4th)
2018-19: 14.7 (2nd) / 10.8 (t-5th)
2017-18: 15.3 (2nd) / 11.7 (t-7th)
2016-17: 17.1 (2nd) / 9.4 (1st)

Barcelona possession per game
2020-21: 60.7 (1st)
2019-20: 63.2 (1st)
2018-19: 61.4 (1st)
2017-18: 60.0 (1st)
2016-17: 62.1 (1st)

Barcelona table standing / point distance between 1st and 2nd
2020-21: 8th
2019-20: 2nd (-5)
2018-19: 1st (+11)
2017-18: 1st (+14)
2016-17: 2nd (-3)

Messi versus Messi

We used Squawka’s comparison matrix to put a number of notable attacking stats per 90 minutes from Messi’s last four La Liga seasons against his early season with Barcelona this season.

The numbers compare favorably except for goals and conversion percentage which, let’s face it, happen to be the most important ones in terms of winning football matches.

What the stats seem to say is that, so far, the Argentine is scoring less despite putting more shots on frame, passing more, and seeing more of the ball than he has in five years.

Messi’s conversion rate of 11.63% is less than half of what he’s done over the past four seasons despite his shot accuracy being far and away the best in that period.

What does that mean? This is purely speculative but either he’s terribly unlucky and hitting the ball right at the keeper, or the keeper is able to focus on Messi’s shots because of the lack of threat around the forward.

Lionel Messi
squawka.com/en/comparison-matrix/

Conclusion

We won’t say that everything is fine, as it clearly is not. Barcelona will need to trim salary and Messi is unhappy. He’s likely to leave the club this summer for nothing unless Barca decides to accept a fate below the top two and take some cash in January.

The club is not healthy.

But Messi is still producing. He’s been Man of the Match in five of his 10 La Liga starts for Barca and is still the top performer in the league.

Unless he’s literally forgotten how to finish, he’s going to be fine even at 33. If Messi was finishing at even 15 percent — still well below his standard — Barcelona would be within a point or three of the table lead.

There was a moment against Levante at the weekend where Messi had an easy through ball to give a 75% chance to his left wing but instead tried to dance through three bodies.

He’s trying to do too much right now, but it’s still likely enough to keep Barcelona in every competition with a moderate improvement in finish.

And you’d have to bet on him for that.

Newcastle vs West Ham, live: Score, updates, stream link, video highlights

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Newcastle United can become the third Premier League team this season to cross the 40-point marker when it meets West Ham on Saturday at St. James’ Park (watch live, 12:30pm ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Magpies have been terrific at home in all competitions, including at midweek where they finished off Southampton to claim a spot in the League Cup Final.

STREAM LIVE NEWCASTLE vs WEST HAM

And while the 40-point marker used to just mean safety, Newcastle would stay within sight of second-place Man City and first-place Arsenal.

Meanwhile, West Ham’s mix of bad luck and substandard performances have them just a point above the drop zone, in 16th. A win here would be huge,

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Newcastle vs West Ham.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


Newcastle vs West Ham score: Mad start at St. James’ Park has it 1-1

Callum Wilson goal video

Lucas Paqueta goal video

 


How to watch Newcastle vs West Ham live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 12:30pm ET, Saturday
TV Channel: NBC
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

The Magpies won’t have their best all-around player in influential Brazilian midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, and center forward Alexander Isak will miss out following a head injury suffered against Saints. Sean Longstaff will need to shine again after scoring twice against Saints.

As for West Ham, they have three attackers out but can look to Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen to continue upturns in form.


Newcastle team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Bruno Guimaraes (suspension), Alexander Isak (concussion), Javier Manquillo (undisclosed), Matt Targett (foot), Emil Krafth (knee)

West Ham team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Gianluca Scamacca (knee), Maxwel Cornet (calf), Kurt Zouma (thigh), Danny Ings (knee)

Tottenham vs Manchester City: How to watch live, stream link, team news

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Manchester City can gut the gap to Premier League leaders Arsenal to just two points with a win over Tottenham in north London on Sunday (watch live, 11:30 am ET on USA Network and online via NBCSports.com). 

STREAM LIVE TOTTENHAM vs MANCHESTER CITY

Arsenal (50 points) were handed just their second defeat of the season on Saturday, beaten 1-0 away to Everton as Sean Dyche made his debut as Toffees manager. Now level on games played for just over 24 hours, Manchester City (45 points) are once again within striking distance, but Tottenham (36 points – 5th place) have given them fits in recent seasons, when few others could.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Tottenham vs Manchester City

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Tottenham vs Manchester City live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 11:30 am ET, Sunday
TV channel: USA Network
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

When these sides met just two weeks ago, Tottenham found themselves 2-0 up at halftime and threatening to cause the Man City upset yet again, effectively handing rivals Arsenal a three-point boost in the title race. Then the second half kicked off, and the two-time defending champions poured in four games, including three in the first 18 minutes. Another fantastic half wasted by Tottenham, though it was typically a poor start followed by a frantic finish of their own. Harry Kane will pass Jimmy Greaves as Spurs’ all-time top scorer when he scores his next goal, taking his total in all competitions to 267. If Kane scores that goal in a Premier League fixture, the record goal will also be his 200th in the league.

Erling Haaland (25 goals) is the only player with more PL goals than Kane (16) this season, and though his numbers are certainly eye-popping, his arrival has clearly unsettled Pep Guardiola’s tactical system to some degree. A season ago, Manchester City conceded just 26 goals in 38 games (0.68 per game). This season, 20 goals in 20 games, up nearly a half-goal per game.


Tottenham team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Lucas Moura (calf) | QUESTIONABLE: Richarlison (adductor)

Manchester City team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: John Stones (thigh), Benjamin Mendy (suspension – MORE) | QUESTIONABLE: Phil Foden (foot)

Follow @AndyEdMLS

Wolves fire three past Liverpool as top-four miles away from Reds

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Liverpool can’t worry about its European positioning when it’s currently getting outfinished by relegation-threatened Wolves in a 3-0 affair at the Molineux on Saturday,

It’s the third meeting since early January between the sides following a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup and a 1-0 Liverpool win in the replay, and Wolves will feel they deserved the full three points in several ways.

WATCH WOLVES vs LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY STREAM – LINK

A Joel Matip own goal after six minutes was worsened by Craig Dawson’s goal on debut for Wolves in the 12th minute, and Liverpool could not break down Julen Lopetegui’s defense despite Mohamed Salah’s best efforts.

Adama Traore tortured Liverpool’s lifeless defense to set up Ruben Neves’s 71st-minute goal, and the Molineux crowd was Ole-ing every last touch of a stoppage-time possession in utterly unpredictable fashion.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]

The expected goals total was kinder to Liverpool, but that and the club’s current situation count for little more than a handshake; The Reds now sit 10 points outside the top four, the 10 next to their name wild given their status under Jurgen Klopp (even considered their terrible injury list).

Wolves entered the day in the bottom three and exits it in 15th with 20 points. That’s two points clear of the bottom three but the upward trajectory is real.


Lopetegui’s Wolves feast on wounded Reds


Stars of the Show

Ruben Neves

Rayan Ait-Nouri

Matheus Nunes

Thiago Alcantara

Max Kilman

Wolves vs Liverpool
fotmob.com

Jurgen Klopp reaction: ‘I have no words for it’ (231 words later)

“Conceding early goals is not unfamiliar to us but the way we conceded them today was not acceptable. When you see the whole game, throughout the game in moments we played an outstanding game without scoring and a good away game without scoring, the third goal I don’t count because it was the first time they passed the halfway line in the second half. The other two goals, going into a game with all the things we said during the week and before the game then this is the start is horrible.

“You do yourself no favors in these moments, giving easy balls away. We were passive in the two goals, everything we wanted to do was be compact and active but we were compact and passive. I can’t explain it, I think why would you do that? But they did it anyway.

“The leadership [defensively] is missing but this is not my first explanation, I really think in the specific situation we could have and should have done better. We have to do better in these moments by not coming to this situation in the game so not chasing the game. We didn’t finish things off properly, we missed the last pass, the intensity we played at times was good but we have put ourselves in a really average position for the two goals.

“We better change it. That’s true, 100%. I have no words for it really, I’m sorry.”


What’s next?

Wolves will feel they can enter a purple patch with a trip to Southampton and a visit from Bournemouth on the next two Saturdays.

Liverpool has to snap to life quick: There’s a Merseyside derby at home to Everton, then Newcastle away followed by the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 vs Real Madrid.


How to watch Wolves vs Liverpool live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10am ET, Saturday
Online: Premier League on Peacock


Liverpool own goal video: Wolves 1-0 Liverpool

Craig Dawson goal video: Debutant makes it 2-0 to Wolves with rare goal

Ruben Neves goal video: Adama Traore turns on style as Liverpool goes to sleep

 


Key storylines & star players

Winning games is about scoring goals and only two Wolves players have more than one. Daniel Podence has collected five, while Ruben Neves has four. Even more surprising, Wolves are still waiting on a goal from Raul Jimenez, Diego Costa, or injured Pedro Neto. Perhaps Matheus Cunha or Pablo Sarabia will chip in soon.

Liverpool has one win from its last three Premier League outings, but there’s a heaping helping of bad luck to their struggles. The Reds have 24 goals from open play and 20 allowed in that same situation. Their expected goals in those spots is 34.6 – 24. Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez have been especially unlucky despite combining for 12 goals and six assists on the season.


Wolves team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Pedro Neto (ankle), Sasa Kalajdzic (torn ACL), Boubacar Traore (undisclosed), Chiquinho (knee)

Liverpool team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Virgil van Dijk (thigh), Roberto Firmino (calf), Ibrahima Konate (hamstring), Luis Diaz (knee), Diogo Jota (thigh), Arthur Melo (thigh)

Buoyant Brentford smash sorry Southampton

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Brentford hammered sorry Southampton 3-0 in west London as the long unbeaten run continues for Thomas Frank’s side and the Bees are dreaming of Europe.

As for Nathan Jones and Saints, he has lost seven of his eight Premier League games in charge and they are rooted to the bottom of the table as the away fans turned against their manager throughout another very disappointing display.

WATCH FULL REPLAY

Ben Mee and Bryan Mbuemo each scored in a three-minute spell just before half time, then Mathias Jensen finished Saints off late on as the Bees eased to victory.

The win moves them on to 33 points for the season, while Saints remain on 15 points.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


Savvy Bees make most of Saints’ weaknesses

Brentford are very good at whipping in crosses and winning balls in the air. Like Dracula, Southampton do not like crosses. This did not seem to be a good matchup for Saints before this game and it went exactly that way. Thomas Frank’s side were ruthless when their chances arrived and Southampton’s jumbled defense gave them too much time to pick out crosses and then switched off to defend the players arriving to score. These were basic errors from Southampton and it’s the reason they are bottom of the league. These crosses and the chaos they cause before, during and after the ball is coming in is also why Brentford are pushing for European qualification. Southampton’s biggest weakness (crosses) is Brentford’s big strength and this turned into a very routine win for the hosts as the pressure continues to mount on Nathan Jones with six defeats in his seven Premier League games in charge. Saints aren’t cut off at the bottom, yet, but it is getting to a very precarious situation for Jones as new players have arrived but there has been no real improvement for Saints since Ralph Hasenhuttl was fired in November.


Stars of the show

Bryan Mbuemo: Scored one, set up another and picked so many holes in Saints’ defense. We talk a lot about Toney, but what a season the Cameroon international is having.

Ben Mee: Won everything in the air, scored a beauty of a header and held things together so well. One of the best signings of the season across the entire Premier League.

Brentford vs Southampton
Graphic via FotMob.com

What’s next?

Brentford head to Arsenal on Saturday, Feb. 11, while Saints have a massive home game against Wolves on the same day.


How to watch Brentford vs Southampton live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10 am ET, Saturday
Online: Stream via Peacock Premium

GOALLL! Game. Set. Match. Mathias Jensen heads home after another wonderful cross into the box, this time from Rico Henry. Southampton all over the place. Brentford 3-0 up and Jensen’s final touch was to score as he is subbed off.

At the other end Saints twice go close as Theo Walcott is twice denied and Che Adams is clattered into by David Raya.

A quick free kick catches out Saints and Salisu clears off the line. So close to a third as Ivan Toney reacted first.

Much better from Southampton but they need a goal soon to try and launch a massive comeback.

A good start to the second half for Saints, as their two new deadline day signings are on for their debuts: Can Paul Onuachu and Kamaldeen Sulemana get them back in the game?

GOALLL! 2-0 to Brentford. Mbuemo slots home. The Bees are buzzing and catch Saints on the counter. Two goals in three minutes for the hosts. Saints look stunned.

GOALLL! Right before half time Brentford take the lead. Ben Mee bravely heads home a brilliant cross from Mbuemo. 1-0 to the Bees.

Not much going on in west London. Saints happy to sit back and Brentford struggling to create chances on the counter.

An even game so far with Saints having a few chances early on and Brentford have caused problems with crosses into the box.


Key storylines & star players

Last time out, Brentford settled for a frustrating 0-0 draw with Leeds, but before that they rattled off successive wins over West Ham, Liverpool and Bournemouth with just one goal conceded in three games. Ivan Toney is 3rd in the Premier League with 13 goals, trailing only Harry Kane (16) and Erling Haaland (an absurd 25). After initially struggling to replace the creativity of Christian Eriksen (4 assists in 11 appearances last season), Thomas Frank’s side is firing once again thanks to Mathias Jensen (4 in 20), Toney (3) and Josh Dasilva (2) picking up the slack.

After losing 3-1 to Newcastle over two legs in the League Cup semifinals, Southampton return their attention to the ongoing relegation battle. Having won just one of their last nine Premier League fixtures (1W-1D-7L), Saints made four first-team signings to strengthen the midfield and attack. They brought in some experience (30-year-old midfielder Mislav Orsic from Dinamo Zagreb and 28-year-old forward Paul Onuachu from Genk) along with some youth and potential (a pair of 20-year-olds, midfielder Carlos Alcaraz from Racing Club and winger Kamadeen Selumana from Rennes).


Brentford team news, injuries, lineup

OUT: Pontus Jansson (thigh), Frank Onyeka (hamstring), Shandon Baptiste (adductor)

Southampton team news, injuries, lineup

OUT: Valentino Livramento (knee), Kyle Walker-Peters (hamstring), Juan Larios (adductor), Alex McCarthy (ankle)

Follow @AndyEdMLS