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Analysis

Lionel Messi: Evolution in role, growth in responsibility

Samuel Gustafson

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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.

“Més que un club” is the saying that everyone knows, and for me it’s 100% accurate. Barça have given me so much over the years. Through all the highs, lows, triumphs, and heartbreaks, nothing can take away from the joy and entertainment I’ve received through watching this club play. Now, I hope that I can help spread these emotions with other supporters like me around the world.

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Analysis

Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo via Imago

With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?

Player Profile

Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.

Isak is Sweden’s next star. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.

Tactical and Statistical Analysis

Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.

Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.

Isak has the speed and strength to bully players anywhere on the pitch. (Photo via Imago)

Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).

In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.

Isak’s goal scoring locations for the 20/21 season, retrieved from understat.com

His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.

Where would he fit at Barça?

Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.

Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.

Isak is built for the modern game with immaculate pace and power. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.

Should Barcelona pursue him?

There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.

There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.

Isak is incredible, but he has a long way to go. (Photo via Getty)

He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.

While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.

Closing Thoughts

On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.

Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.

Maybe in a few years. (Photo via Imago)

Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.

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