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

Lionel Messi
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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.

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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.