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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.