Lionel Messi Changing the Boundaries Again

Messi article header photo

Much has been made of Lionel Messi’s supposed role change this season. A year after the arrival of Neymar and with Luis Suarez’s Barcelona debut now imminent Messi’s role has changed in order to allow Barca’s wingers to play more centrally and further up the pitch. Messi himself has explained this.

“I changed my way of playing this season because the other forwards play more in the centre now. Before we played with real wingers.” – Lionel Messi, 2nd October 2014

Collin Trainor also did a brief piece showcasing that Messi is now picking the ball up less in central areas, as such spaces are being occupied by other players. Additionally, with Xavi now being less of a first team starter, there has become extra onus on Messi to be a creative passer, making chances and goals as well as scoring them. The combined result of both has been evident in Messi’s chance created and assist numbers this season.

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Messi has adapted brilliantly to the role and has so far claimed 9 assists from just 11 games in La Liga and the Champions League this season. One of the things I’ve always found incredible about Messi is that he’s managed to coincide super human goalscoring with being a high level creator as well, almost on a par with the likes of Mesut Özil, Frank Ribery and David Silva. So with reduced need to score himself, and greater incentive to create for others, just what can Messi achieve? Can he change what we can hope to realistically expect from creators, just like he has done, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, with goalscoring in the last few years?

Messi tweet

So is Messi set to break the assist record and potentially shatter it? I decided to compare his current start with the best assist seasons from the 2009/10 season onwards in Europe’s top 5 leagues (when public Opta data begins). These are all seasons with at least 16 assists, plus David Silva in 2011-12, Andrea Pirlo the same year and Frank Ribery a year later (I wanted to get wider league coverage).

Assist trends

Messi is just 8 games into the season, but with 7 assists already he’s got off to a better start than any of the best assist seasons in the last five years have, including his own in 2010/11. But is it sustainable? I used data from all of the graphed seasons, plus every season from Messi himself, Özil, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas, Ribery, Reus, Götze and Hazard and sorted them by the best KP per 90 minutes. This is how the top 20 or so look.

Top KPs

Although Messi has improved his chance created figures to world class levels, it’s not to unprecedented levels at all. Özil topped it in all three of his seasons at Madrid and Fabregas, Reus, Ribery and Silva have all done better in their best seasons. If Messi isn’t actually creating more chances than these guys have at their best we can’t expect him to keep churning out assists at rates far beyond what they have can we?

Indeed, a simple plot of these seasons, comparing their key pass rates and assist rates shows Messi sticks out like a sore thumb as having a ridiculously higher assist rate among all of the high volume key passers. After all whether chances and converted can be a bit random and such high conversion rates usually aren’t sustain nable.


In fact honestly, when setting out to try and answer the question of whether Messi could break assist records, my early indications where that the answer was no. Just comparing his current key pass rate to the likes of Özil and Silva made me think he’d be unable to maintain such high assist figures. But after looking through his past seasons in closer detail I realised that Messi has always done this. His ratio of key passes per assist has always been low since records began and it’s something of a consistent trend, both over his career and in comparison to other players.

From the players I looked at I used the six most consistently efficient creators (those who had the lowest key pass per assist ratios) and compared them over all the seasons where their key pass and assist volumes were high.

KPs per assist last six seasons

In a full season none of them have reached the highs of Messi in 10/11 and 12/13 and not even Messi’s current rates have yet. Is this a Barca thing? The idea that they’re predominantly a passing team and only shoot if they’re in a really good position or have a high chance to score makes sense. Fabregas’ ratio fell somewhat substantially upon arriving at Barcelona (it’s probably too early to make conclusions for this season at Chelsea) and Andres Iniesta hit ridiculous heights in 12-13 of just 2.75 key passes every assist, though his rates have been a bit more random.

Comparing Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the clubs where the players in the above graph featured most prominently, it’s clear that Barca have mostly converted their shots at a better rate in the last four seasons. Shot conversion isn’t the most repeatable stat but there is enough evidence Barca usually do it well.

Shots Per Goal

There’s also the chance that Messi creates much better chances than everyone else. It wouldn’t be at all unlike Messi to defy the norm so heavily, and a brief sample at his chance creating work so far shows many of them passing into really dangerous areas. Messi certainly doesn’t seem to bloat his key pass numbers from simply passing to someone deep and them shooting from improbable distance. To really asses whether Messi creates better chances than others we need to start trying to look more into key pass quality. This is something I’ve started looking into and will hopefully post something on the matter around the halfway mark of the season.

Regardless of the specific quality of his key passes, Messi has shown enough repeatability in his key pass conversion for us to assume it is a trend that will continue. If we were to take his average conversion rate over the last five full seasons of 5.32 and applied it to his current key pass figure of 3.5 per 90 minutes, it would give him an assist per 90 minutes figure of 0.66. Given his ludicrous start to the season Messi has had, he already has extra ground on any of the best assist seasons recently. If he were to match his minutes last season, his lowest amount in the last 5 seasons may I ad, and play another 1798 minutes this season, at the rate of 0.66 assists every 90 minutes, he’d end the league season with 20 assists, beating the record in Europe’s top five leagues over the last five seasons, one more than the record of 19 in Europe’s top five leagues since 2009.

There is, however, one more factor we need to consider and that is the impending arrival of a certain Luis Suarez, generator of 181 shots and 31 goals last season. He has the potential, and likelihood, of boosting Messi’s key pass and assist volumes further. Quite the impact he’ll have we don’t know, but it’s unlikely to be detrimental to Messi’s quest for assist greatness.

Whether or not he will break, or indeed shatter, the 19 figure we can’t be sure. His key pass figure should remain at such a level, it’s a reasonably repeatable stat and with Suarez coming it should only head up if it’s going to dramatically change. His conversion rate of key passes to assists is a bit more random, but it’s always been low with Messi. It could realistically be a bit higher or a bit lower than the average value I mentioned. Injuries we never know what will happen.

If I were a betting man my money would be on him getting 20+ assists, thereby reaching unprecedented levels since Opta data emerged publicly in 2009. Quite how high the figure is will depend on whether he, and his teammates, can keep such high levels of performance up, as well as a contribution from good old luck.


Di Maria flourishes away from the limelight

Angel Di Maria has defied the doubters to prosper under the faith of Carlo Ancelotti 


It was a fantastic strike.  The ball popped out to him via a corner and he struck it beautifully on the bounce to send it whistling through the array of bodies into the bottom corner from 25 yards out.  There was no whistling, no accusations of obscene gestures and, for the moment at least, no doubts about his future at the club.  

For Ángel Di Maria it was a yet another response to the critics and doubters who have been so prominent in the Spanish Capital this season.  Rumours to premier league clubs, the arrival of Gareth Bale and controversy with the fans have meant Di Maria hasn’t had it easy this season. But helped by the faith given to him by his new manager Carlo Ancelotti, Di Maria has continued to show his worth and bit by bit is doing his best to quell the rumours and speculations.  

His long range strike, Madrid’s fourth of their five-nil rout of Real Betis, was Di Maria’s seventh in all competitions this season, and came after what was his ninth assist earlier in the day.  He’s already almost equaled his goals and assists tally for the league and Europe for last season, in Mid January, despite this being a season where his starting spot became under more question after the purchase of Gareth Bale.  

During Bale’s initial injury plagued start Di Maria was particularly profitable in the Champions League, and has so far netted three goals and five assists in just four starts in the competition.  His performance against Copenhagen was an astonishing display of pace skill, featuring a truly astonishing rabona cross to Cristiano Ronaldo.  What more, even after Bale’s return Ancelotti has regularly opted to play Di Maria in a midfield three behind the attacking trio of a 4-3-3, instead of the alternative of playing Isco in the hole of a 4-2-3-1.

Ancelotti’s faith in the Argentine’s ability has gone beyond simply finding a way to feature him in a game against Real Betis, however.  After the summer signings of Isco and Bale something had to give, both financially and to keep a reasonable amount of options for a limited number of spaces.  Many in the media predicted Di Maria to be the sacrifice, but astonishingly Ancelotti chose to part company with Mesut Özil instead.  Many questioned the decision but Di Maria has gone someway towards proving the belief in him was well directed.  

Away from the dressing room, Di Maria has not had such assured signs of confidence directed his away, however.  The Argentine has had to deal with constant transfer speculation, firstly rumours to Arsenal in the summer and more recently further rumours to Arsenal and talk that he could be on his way to Old Trafford.  Last week speculation even propped up that he could be moving to Galatasaray.

In truth, he could be forgiven for trying to force a move.  He’d be all but a guaranteed starter at all of those clubs, as opposed to having to compete with Bale, Ronaldo, Isco and co at Madrid.  And in a World Cup year, where he has to fight with the likes of Messi, Higuain, Lavezzi, Augero, Tevez and Lemella for a starting birth, those extra minutes which could’ve been gained away from the Bernabeu could be pivotal.  He’s not exactly always been made to feel welcome this year either, with the fans and media seeming to be on a crusade to drive him away from the club.  

But that’s what has made this season from Di Maria so admirable.  There was an easy way out, the one which Özil took, but he chose to stick it out at Madrid and show he’s good enough.  He may never get the positive headlines that the Ballon D’or winner (Ronaldo) the world’s most expensive footballer (Bale) or Spain’s next big thing (Isco) will get, but he continues to be a vital cog in the Madrid system.  The critics and doubters will never truly derive from him, but bit by bit he’s doing what he can silence them.  Lurking in the shadows, sliding and gliding into the box like a silent assassin.  

For now at least, before the next blown up on field gesture or transfer rumour, he deserves some positive limelight.  

Dortmund’s Wastefulness Their Greatest Undoing

When flowing Dortmund are arguably unmatched in attacking prowess, but they’ll never surpass Bayern if they remain as wasteful as they are. 

Matts Hummels was sent off in a day of frustration for Borrusia Dortmund

Jürgen Klopp described his side’s performance at Borrusia-Park as “an extraordinarily good away game”.  And yet Borrusia Dortmund came up second best in t­­he “Burrusenderby” on Saturday, by a margin of two goals to nil.  Dortmund had supposedly played a game at a level above the norm, even defeating the realms of possibility in Klopp’s analysis, and yet, they were not only unable to penetrate the Mönchengladbach goal, but were loose enough at the back to have their own 18 yard box twice infiltrated in the final ten minutes, leading to the only two goals of the match.

Which begs the question, what constitutes a great game?  What merits an extraordinary away game if one can occur in a 2-0 loss?  If the quality of a performance is only determined by what occurs in the attacking frontier, more specifically build up play and the creation of chances, then yes, Dortmund had a superb day.  In fact the Black and Yellows rarely don’t.  But a football match consists of so much more.  Clinically in front of goal, ruthlessness and defensive security hold just as much, if not more, weighting to a game; perhaps more so than Klopp would like to think.  And that, annoyingly so, is where Dortmund meet their problems.

It may be harsh to pick holes from Saturday’s shenanigans.  One could argue it was a freak performance, one that won’t happen again soon and one, which just needs to be forgotten about.  Matts Hummels claimed the game was a contender for the most unfortunate and underserved defeats.  But is it that irregular?  No one doubts their attacking creativity, fluidity, and ability on their day, but there is a feeling that Dortmund could make better use of their chances at times.  It may not be a strikingly clear problem when they’re thrashing sides, as they did Freiburg the week before.  But even then, they only converted just over a sixth of their shots to goals, and just over a third of their shots on target.  It certainly is an issue, and for all the plaudits they get for their attacking football, if they want to catch up with all conquering Bayern, it’s something they need to improve.

For much of the game, the general feeling was of when Dortmund would score, not if.  There seemed to be an overarching feeling of enjoyment at the play, and not the real ruthlessness and desire to get the opening goal.  Hummels fired a close range shot straight at the keeper, Aubameyang had a shot across goal pushed too wide, another a through ball from Reus he pushed too close to the byline when trying to get around the goalie.  There was a general sense of Dortmund trying to do too much, trying to be too cute, and not enough of a ruthless desire.

Marco Reus was once again the perpetrator of all things good for Dortmund on the weekend, but he’ll have left his former home wondering how he failed to score himself, let alone how his side left without adding to their goals for tally.  Reus is phenomenal; he has all the skill and qualities needed for a modern day forward.  An ability to run at defenders with pace is combined with a sense for space and a great eye for a pass, all of which is rounded off with a stunning shot, which possess great power, thrilling curve and a vast long range threat.  He has all the makings of a young Cristiano Ronaldo – in fact the German had a better goals per game record than the Portuguese had at their respective 18-21 years.  Ronaldo was able to rectify a slightly erratic streak for a more efficient accumulation of goals and assists.  It remains to be seen whether Reus can do likewise.  Certainly the talent of something special is there.  The finished product? Not quite.

Bayern were only able to grab a draw at Leverkusen that evening, who themselves dominated a game but failed to convert enough of their chances to goals, meaning Dortmund’s slip up wasn’t too costly – they now sit a point behind Bayern.  But it will also create a sense of missed opportunity.  The way this Bayern side has operated since the start of last season – last week was a far more freak occurrence for Bayern than it was for Dortmund’s – they may not get many chances to rectify it.

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