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Lionel Messi: Evolution in role, growth in responsibility



Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

Lionel Messi has always evolved and adapted to fit the needs of the Barcelona side. Looking into some statistics over a few key stages of his career, changes are apparent.

To illustrate Leo’s evolution, we’ll be focusing on three seasons: 2010/11, 2014/15, and 2019/20. Almost evenly splitting the decade that Messi dominated, these seasons also serve as important points of reference due to the unique context provided by each one. In the 2010/11 season, we saw Messi in arguably the peak of the Guardiola era, with that team considered by many the greatest of all time.

Then 2014/15 saw the birth of MSN and the arrival of Luis Enrique. Messi adjusted, as did the rest of the squad, to the new personnel and managerial style. With a treble win and a return to the top of Europe, those alterations certainly paid off.

Finally, we come to the most recent version of Messi, from the 2019/20 season. With two managers sacked, the embarrassing defeat to Bayern Munich, zero trophies, and Messi coming the closest he’s ever been to leaving the club, it could have also been the most tumultuous season in his time at the club.

With these three seasons, these three versions of Messi in mind, we’ll be looking at what the stats say about his role and responsibilities in each side. In doing so, we can also explore some potential weaknesses of the team as a whole, and look towards some improvements that need to be made for the coming season in order to maximize the Argentine’s talent.

Introduction to possession value

The main metric we’ll be using to measure Messi’s contribution is known as expected possession value. Essentially, it is the probability of a possession ending in a goal for the team with the ball. There are different variations of expected possession value, taking into account different factors, but we’ll be using one based on ball location. This model was created by Laurie Shaw, a research scientist and lecturer at Harvard University, and a grid-based on it can be found here.

Now, for an example of possession value in action, let’s take a look at one of Messi’s best passes in the 2019/20 season. In Barça’s 2-2 draw away at Celta Vigo, Messi stepped up to take a free kick in the twentieth minute. The expected possession value prior to Messi taking the kick was 0.055. So, on average, around 5.5% of possessions where the ball reaches that area end in a goal.

Then, with a stroke of genius, Messi played a pass instead of going for goal. It was received by Luis Suárez in an area with an expected possession value of 0.409, so an incredibly high 40.9% probability of the possession ending in a goal.

Now, for quantifying the value of that pass by Messi, we’ll look at its net possession value (net PV). Very simply, it is the difference between the possession value at the end location of the pass, and that of the start location. Thus, passes that move the ball into more dangerous positions will be rewarded with a high net PV. For this example, Messi’s pass had a net PV of +0.353, increasing the probability of a goal by 35.3%.

Possession value is not a perfect metric, especially in this model which does not include more advanced factors like the positioning of defenders. However, it still paints a very good picture as to which players are creating danger and advancing the ball with their passes.

Thanks to data provided by StatsBomb, we can calculate the net PV of each pass from every La Liga match in Messi’s career. So, let’s get into the numbers.

Creating vs. Receiving

Just as net PV can be used to show the danger a player creates with their passing, it can also give insight into the positions a player is getting into to receive the ball.

A typical center forward will create a low net PV with their passing, as they receive the ball higher up the pitch and are less likely to pick out teammates ahead of them. But, they will usually have a very high net PV received, as they are the focal point of the attack and the target of many dangerous passes.

On the other hand, a more creative player, one who’s more responsible for progressing the ball, tends to have a higher net PV created and a lower received. With this in mind, let’s look at Messi’s share of Barcelona’s total net PV for both metrics in the three seasons.

The percentage of Barcelona’s total net PV that came from passes played by Messi (left) and received by Messi (right) in each season.

A clear trend is shown over the course of the decade. While he has always been a brilliant creator, 2010/11 Messi served much more as the “tip of the spear” than he does now. That season, the passes he played made up 13.2% of the team’s total net PV, while the passes he received made up 29.56%.

Moving into 2014/15, where the two were close to level. He was now creating 19.55% of the team total, and receiving 21.25%. So, he had clearly evolved as a creator and gotten more involved in ball progression. However, with Dani Alves, Xavi, Iniesta, Neymar, prime Suárez, and prime Alba all chipping in with dangerous passes as well, the burden on Messi seemed to still not be too much.

It’s hard to say the same when looking at 2019/20, especially given the context. This past campaign, Leo’s passes accounted for an astonishing 31.52% of Barcelona’s net PV. That’s an additional 12% compared to 2014/15, and more than double his share in 2010/11. His receiving share also continued its trend, going down again to 19.32%.

Admittedly, some variation in these metrics is completely fine. All players go through changes throughout their careers, and it makes total sense that Messi is dropping deeper more and thus becoming more of a progressive presence. But the concern comes from the magnitude of these changes. The fact that Messi now provides almost a third of the team’s passing value is a testament to his improved intelligence and creative ability, but also clear evidence of the harmful growth of “Messidependencia”.

Involvement in different areas, with different partners

Changes in manager, team shape, and dozens of transfers over the years have pushed Messi into different areas. This can come down to a new position, like false nine, or a new teammate that gives him a great option to combine with. Looking into the 25 most valuable passes Messi played and received in each season can reveal some of these shifts.

The 25 passes with the highest net PV that were played by Messi (left) and received by Messi (right) in each of the three seasons.

Right off the bat, Messi’s centrality in the 2010/11 season stands out. As the false nine in that Guardiola system, almost all of his most valuable passes came from the area between the start of the attacking third and the edge of the penalty area, either very centrally or just in the right half space.

In 2014/15 we can see a bit of a shift to a deeper, wider right area. Also, the signature Messi diagonal through ball to the left side of the pitch becomes more apparent.

It gets pretty crazy, though, looking at his 2019/20 passes. Not only have his most valuable completions (outside of his corners at least) continued to come from some deeper positions, but a great deal also came from the left side of the pitch. This seems to reflect the “free-roaming” Messi that we’ve seen in recent years, who migrates to find space all across the attacking third.

While more about Messi’s positioning can be taken from his passing, looking at his receptions seems to say more about his favorite teammates to combine with. In 2010/11, almost all of Messi’s most valuable receptions were played from the center or right side of the pitch. This should make it unsurprising that the teammate who played most of these passes was Dani Alves, who had 11 out of the 25. The next closest were Pedro and Xavi, with 3 each, showing how strong that Messi-Alves connection was.

In 2014/15, we start seeing much more activity in terms of Messi receiving valuable passes from the left side of the pitch. Jordi Alba and Neymar (who each played 2 of those passes) are certainly reasons for this. Dani Alves on the other side was down to just 3 of the 25. Another noticeable difference that season is a higher concentration of passes received right around the penalty spot and center of the six yard box. Luis Suárez, who led the way providing 6 of Messi’s top 25 receptions, certainly deserves much credit for that. The Uruguayan was always ready to provide a cutback or square ball to the center.

Finally, looking at last season, the absence of Dani Alves is clear. There was very little activity from the wide right areas, especially closer to the end line. Even worse, Nelson Semedo did not provide a single one of these highest value passes. Instead, Leo had to rely more heavily on the left side players – Alba with 4, Griezmann with 6 – and balls from the deep-lying Busquets, who had 3.

Once again, there’s nothing wrong seeing some changes over the years. It’s understandable, and even beneficial sometimes, for Messi to be playmaking from deeper areas and developing connections with new players. The issues arise when you start to ask why, though.

Why has he had to rely more and more on receiving dangerous passes from the left? Because the club sold his favorite partner for combination play and has failed to recruit an attacking right back since. Why has he had to produce his dangerous passes from deeper and more varied positions across the pitch? Because the rest of the side has become weaker in progression and buildup, in addition to lacking dynamism and creativity. We’ll go deeper into that point now.

Importance in buildup

For our final dive into the stats, we’ll be looking further into Messi’s “deep-lying” tendency over the years. That is, his tendency to drop off and advance the ball from deeper positions. To start, let’s look at the big picture, using heatmaps for where Messi received passes in each season.

There are some things that stand out. For instance, his centrality in 2010/11, and the fact that he does appear to be dropping deeper near the halfway line and into the defensive half in 2019/20. However, this is a good example of surface-level data with a lack of context. Nothing looks too different here, especially between 2014/15 and 2019/20. When adding that context, though, it becomes apparent how much more work Messi has had to in those deeper positions in recent years.

To do this, I’ve tried to use possession value, but restrict it to deeper areas of the pitch. The product: Deep PV – the net PV of passes that were played from outside of the attacking third. This is what it says about Messi:

messi importance

More dramatic differences between the three seasons. Compared to 2010/11, Messi’s responsibility based on this metric was 2.25 times greater in 2014/15, and 3.44 times greater in 2019/20.

For context, Griezmann’s share of the 2019/20 team’s deep PV was just 0.39%. Suárez, Fati, and Braithwaite, actually all had negative deep PV values, as when they drop deep they usually end up just playing a back pass or lay off.

To hammer home this point even further, let’s look at where Messi’s share ranked in the squad. In 2010/11, he was 9th (behind Xavi, Piqué, Alves, Iniesta, Abidal, Busquets, Mascherano, and Maxwell). In 2014/15, he was 3rd (behind Piqué and Mascherano). Then for 2019/20, he ranked 1st in the squad. That’s right, no player created more value from outside the attacking third, than an actual member of the attacking trio.

Finally, for the last metric we’ll be looking into here, we have progressive distance. It’s a much simpler stat – the distance a pass travels towards the opposition goal line – but it illustrates the same trend.

lionel messi buildup

While the differences aren’t as dramatic as the ones shown for deep PV, Barça have once again grown more and more reliant on Messi to get the ball forwards. Additionally, Messi’s average forward completion traveled 16% further towards goal in 2019/20 compared to 2010/11, which really adds up. This average was even higher in 2014/15, which could perhaps reflect the better options Messi had for through balls and long passes (Neymar, prime Suárez, prime Alba).

Ultimately, the club have made Messi’s life so much harder by failing to adequately replace those who excelled at progressing the ball to him. With the losses of Xavi, Iniesta, and Alves in particular, Messi has lost a lot of the luxury of having teammates who can bypass pressure and pick him (or others) out in dangerous positions. Thus, he has been forced to do more and more himself. That seems to sum it all up, really – Messi doing it himself.

What it means heading into 2020/21

It may be against his will, and against his well-being, but Messi is still a Barça player. Whether he eventually leaves for another club or for retirement, there is not much time left to fix the side’s issues and make the most out of the final stretch of his legendary career. There are serious structural issues at all levels of the club that may take years to fully fix, but there are a few adjustments that could make a world of difference on the pitch.

Signing a consistent, attacking right-back has to be a top priority. While it’s far easier said than done, Barça have already been failing in that area for years with the wrong profile of player, so any risk taken on a player who seems to have the right tools is a necessary one. Sergiño Dest of Ajax looks like a strong candidate, but whoever it is, he just needs to be willing to take risks and give Messi that combination option that he has been lacking for years.

The midfield needs to become more progressive, more dynamic. Since the departure of Xavi and Iniesta, the interior positions in the midfield has been an area of many failures. The only signing in that area who can truly be seen as a success – so far – is Ivan Rakitić. Luckily, though, there seems to be a reason to be hopeful. With Frenkie de Jong and Riqui Puig, Barça have two young interiors with loads of potential. Both are dynamic and agile, making them resistant to pressure, and have shown the ability to drive forwards with the ball and pick out passes between the lines. These two, and hopefully Miralem Pjanić and Carles Aleñá as well, could help lighten the progressive burden on Messi.

Additionally, Messi’s fellow attackers look like they could also provide more dangerous passing this season. Griezmann has had a year to adapt, Ousmane Dembélé may finally be healthy, and Pedri and Trincão arrive with dynamism and creativity. Admittedly, this is a ton of hypothetical, optimistic thinking. However, in many areas in the squad, the talent and ability seems to be present, it just hasn’t been maximized. If Ronald Koeman can get the most out of these players, life will become so much easier for Messi, and much more success will come to the club.

Final thoughts

Change is not a bad thing. In fact, it makes Messi even more dangerous that he has evolved and enhanced a variety of different skills over the years. But it’s reached a point where Messi’s evolution, mainly the squad’s increased dependence on him in these areas we’ve discussed, no longer serves a good purpose.

These changes aren’t tactical tweaks, or Messi shifting to become harder to defend, they are him attempting to cover up the cracks of the side. These cracks have been appearing, and quite clearly so, for years, yet they have been allowed to continue to grow. For the sake of Messi, and for the sake of Barcelona as a whole – which some fail to realize – these cracks have to start being filled.

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