My blog concerning Bayern and Barca’s Champions’ League visits to England a few weeks back, drew comparisons between the effectiveness of their simple passing setup. The Barca v City game has been playing on my mind ever since, in particularly the performance of the Catalan’s little Argentine-wizard, Messi.
Admirer of Messi
For me, (and probably every admirer of modern-day football), Messi is the best in the business. I place him in a higher regard than Cristiano Ronaldo because of his natural ability, and whilst this isn’t a criticism of Ronaldo’s play, Messi would’ve succeeded in any generation – a test the world’s greatest must stand up against, in my opinion. So with all this predetermined hype surrounding Messi instilled prior to Barca’s visit, I left the Etihad feeling somewhat underwhelmed by his performance. And it wasn’t until this disappointment had settled that I began to contemplate, why?
The world-beater I was familiar with would drift in and around the final-third, wandering towards the wingers, he’d be hungry for the ball – I didn’t get a sense of this during the City game, nor have I done the past few times I’ve seen him play, albeit they’ve been TV appearances. Even Wednesday’s return leg at the Nou Camp revealed an intermittent Messi; popping up here and there, although to devastating affect with his goal – obviously, I’m not questioning Messi’s finishing capabilities. But watching the fuller picture, high up in the stands in the first leg, allowed me to contemplate a difference in character. I understand I wasn’t in a position to judge Messi’s positional play based purely on one European game against 10-men. So with this in mind, I spoke with friends over at Prozone to fuel myself with information on Messi’s performances, over the past few years, in a bid to understand whether or not his overall game had altered.
Prozone told me:
- Messi passes the ball less both in terms of total volume and as a proportion of Barcelona’s passes.
- With it, the total number of times he receives the ball per game has also fallen.
- He’s shown greater tendency to both dribble and play the ball into the final third, indicating he has more space in front of him and is therefore playing deeper and more direct than he was in 2010-11.
- He has also devolved some attacking responsibility to other players, taking a smaller proportion of Barcelona’s attempts on goal when playing.
- All this points to a less-involved Messi than four years ago; a player who is less likely to drift across the pitch to receive the ball.
Fascinating insights, particularly when you consider the trend in change, season on season – ‘…he has more space in front of him and is therefore playing deeper and more direct than he was in 2010-11’. The analysis highlights my initial thoughts on his positional play and allows me to better understand his gradual change within Martino’s squad.
But to understand this further, Prozone provided these heat maps, which highlights the concentration of Messi’s touches per position.
- The heat maps helps us to illustrate a less-involved Messi compared to four years ago; this season his touches are concentrated in central areas whereas four years ago he would happily go searching for the ball in wider zones.
A less-involved Messi?
As the heat maps and analysis suggests; Messi’s become less-involved than four years ago, but why? One notable difference seems to point towards Barca’s reliance on their full-backs joining attack – a point Dani Alves perfectly summed up by bagging half of Barca’s goals over the two legs vs City. With the fullbacks entering the attacks, the space Messi used to groom (as highlighted in 10/11 and 11/12 heat maps) is now fulfilled by Alba, and more notably, Alves. Messi is now forced retrieve the ball much deeper and as a result, becomes more isolated from those wider roles.
Guillem Balague and I discussed the current Messi debate in depth earlier this week, a debate that resulted in us both creating blogs. Guillem makes the point Barca are keeping the ball away from their star man, although unintentionally, but to a certain extent I’d have to agree. On the flipside, Martino’s fullbacks are experiencing such success on the flanks, it’s no longer essential to seek Messi each attack; Alves and Alba create an average of one shot opportunity per game. Fullbacks on average create 0.75.
So far, we’ve established that Messi’s positional play has shifted from the flanks to a more central role, but how has this affected his overall play and goal tally? Messi’s goals per 90-minutes improved season on season until the current season (combined – La Liga & Champs’ League):
- Season 08/09 – 0.84
- Season 09/10 – 0.99
- Season 10/11 – 0.99
- Season 11/12 – 1.35
- Season 12/13 – 1.41
- Season 13/14 – 1.11
An improved goal-tally
The heat maps, which suggest Messi’s touch per position gradually moves more central each season, marries with his improved season-on-season goal analysis, as above. So, whilst he’s experiencing a difficult season due to injury, the previous two seasons suggest the further in-field he plays, the better his goals per 90-minutes. In short, Messi’s become a more prolific goal-scorer as a result. However, the signing of Neymar and as mentioned, injury, dilutes Barca’s reliance on Messi this time around and could well be a factor of their current league position, although being just four points off the lead isn’t catastrophic at this stage.
If Barca had a fully fit Messi, would they be better off? It’s worth considering, especially as he contributed 40% and 44% of Barca’s goals over the past two seasons vs just 20% for 2013/14. Again, it could be argued that due to injury, the introduction of a striker – Neymar, and Alexis Sanchez’s 16-goals this season, Barca have had no option but to share Messi’s goal-scoring duties.
Whilst the data leans towards a less-involved and perhaps less-entertaining Messi, his goal-scoring statistics favour this shift into a deeper role in search of the ball, again, his current scoring-form has been marred by injury. A likely cause for his less-involved change is the ever-available wingbacks, they’ve become more suited to the positions Messi used to obtain when retrieving the ball from the wingers, and as a result, Messi’s positioning himself deeper and collecting the ball from the centre-backs.
Which Messi is better?
Messi’s less-involved than four years ago; his touches are concentrated in central areas and he’s less likely to drift across the pitch to receive the ball. Up until the current season though, this shift has indicated an improvement in his goal-scoring statistics. So what Messi do you prefer? An eloquently, free-scoring Messi that plays deeper and makes more passes into the final third or a Messi that scores fewer, covers more distance but is fundamentally part of Barcelona’s typical tika-taka style?
I’d have a 31 goals, free-flowing Messi, as opposed to a 46 goal, deeper and less-involved Messi any day. But they’re just my thoughts as a spectator and admirer of a more-involved Messi.
Thanks to everyone over at Prozone for providing this week’s data.