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Analysis

Lionel Messi turns 33: A different birthday

In the 33rd birthday of Lionel Messi, is it time to plan for the future despite the nostalgia of the past and brilliance of the present?

Javier Giorgetti

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Header Image by Eric Alonso via Getty Images

Lionel Messi turns 33 years old today, in a different birthday as it is the first time that he is celebrating this special date at a club level with FC Barcelona. Every year that passes we continue to see the same genius of Messi. But why is this birthday crucial?


There is no doubt that Lionel Messi’s talent is unique. In the entire history of football, we have never seen someone as remarkable and extraordinary as the Argentine. In previous years, though, Leo had been spending his birthday on vacation or with his national team. Atypically, this 24 June will be different for him. After the pandemic, drastic measures were taken for the return of La Liga, making Messi spend his birthday for the first time at FC Barcelona and competing for the league.

Moreover, La Pulga is already 33 years old, an age in which the date to hang up his boots is slowly, and sadly, approaching. But what does this mean for the number 10 of Barça?

Lionel Messi since his 32nd birthday

Messi turned 32 on 24 June 2019. Right after having been crowned champion of La Liga, but also after having suffered a painful defeat in the final of the Copa del Rey and the tragedy at Liverpool’s Anfield in the Champions League semi-finals. Similarly, he was competing with Argentina in the Copa América, in which they were knocked out in the semis by Brazil. Even so, having completed his first season as the captain of FC Barcelona, Messi was prepared to think about the approaching future: the 2019/20 season.

If we go back in time, we would never have imagined that this campaign would be such a strange one for the world, for football, for Barça, and, of course, for Lionel Messi. Unfortunately, Messi‘s season did not start in the best way. With a foot injury, the little genius had to be away from the pitch for around 40 days, making him miss four La Liga games.

Lionel Messi Ballon d'Or Barcelona birthday

Lionel Messi continues to perform at unmatched standards | Photo by Imago

After Barça’s inconsistent start in La Liga, with a record of two wins, one loss, and one draw, Leo couldn’t wait anymore to be back and support his team, forcing his return despite not being fully recovered. This is how Messi made his debut this term against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. But something was clearly wrong. His goalscoring record was poorer compared to previous years. The games passed, though, and little by little the Argentine started recovering his best level. At last, he was already scoring regularly again.

Some time later, in January, and following the blaugranas‘ poor results, coach Ernesto Valverde was sacked and was replaced by Quique Setién. One more obstacle for Messi, who had to adapt to a new manager in midseason. At the end of Valverde’s era and start of Setién’s reign, the captain looked very fatigued. He wasn’t explosive and wasn’t as effective in front of goal. Partly because of the injury from the early months of competition, and perhaps because of age. The reality is that Messi was not the same. He needed rest, but could not get it due to the injuries of his teammates in attack.

A birthday competing for La Liga

Regrettably, some time later, the world of football was paralysed by the COVID–19. But, like all bad news, there are always some positives that can be taken. Regarding Barcelona, Lionel Messi had three months in which he could get rest and recover his fitness. Something which he desperately needed and that only this pandemic could give him. Finally, the real Messi could be seen, since he had been performing at a strange level for the majority of the 2019/20 season.

The first two games since the return of La Liga were fantastic for the Argentine. Two goals and two assists. Nevertheless, due to the new dense schedule in which the players have less rest, Messi has looked tired against Sevilla and Athletic Club. Furthermore, competition against Real Madrid for the top spot has forced Leo to play the full 90 minutes in all these four clashes. Undoubtedly, a different birthday than what the Barça legend had in mind.

Is it time to think about retirement?

The average age at which an elite footballer retires, or leaves the high-caliber football to play in less demanding leagues, is 35. Legends of Barcelona have hung up their boots in recent years and, of the golden generation that conquered the world a decade earlier, only Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets remain. Based on age, the number 10 is the next in line, along with Piqué. But how many years does Messi have left playing in a team like Barcelona?

Captain Carles Puyol retired at the age of 36, following a couple of seasons full of physical problems. Midfielder Xavi Hernández left the club at 35, magician Andrés Iniesta at 34 and tenacious defender Javier Mascherano at 33, all of them to play football at a less demanding level in a different continent. But what about Messi? Will he reach 34, as Iniesta, will he wait until Puyol’s 36, or will he face an atypical situation like that of one club man Francesco Totti with Roma, who retired at 40 years of age?

Lionel Messi Barcelona birthday

When will it be Messi’s turn to retire? A question no one wants to hear, but that Barcelona must ask themselves in order to plan the future better | Photo by Xavier Bonilla via Imago

Looking at his level, and putting it in a context of normal competition, there are still many good years left for Messi. Maybe until the age of 36, then retiring at 38, or, being optimistic, waiting until his 40s. Messi is a special and unique player in his existence. When it looks like he has done it all, he offers things that are not normal for his age. So there could still be many more years ahead of a brilliant Messi. Of course, injuries have to respect him, and maybe he will not play his last years at the level that we know him for. But he will continue to be the best of the best for a long time.

What does it mean that Messi turns 33?

As Leo turns 33, it means that Barça still have the best Messi, but that the club has to start preparing for when he is no longer there too. Building a project to ease the pain when the Argentine is gone. Of course, his departure will negatively affect many aspects, but it would not affect them as much if there was a solid project behind.

Is also implies that Barcelona have to advantage of the best Messi in these next three, four, five years to win great titles before he exits. It means that he can still lift important individual trophies and be crucial in matches. It means that there is still time to enjoy him and see him perform at his 100% in the most critical encounters. This birthday means that we have to be grateful to Lionel Messi, because the inevitable end is getting closer.

“I look at Messi, and he makes me laugh. A beautiful footballer who is still like a kid. A world superstar, but still a kid. Innocent, you know. He just plays”

Johan Cruyff

For now, let’s enjoy the unparalleled magnificence of Lionel Messi. Let’s pray that he can win as many titles as possible with Barcelona in the following years. Let’s hope that great football continues to be witnessed with him on the pitch. And, above all, let’s keep turning on the TV to watch Messi as if it was the first time that we saw the Rosario-born kid play. More than 15 years have passed and some things never change.

Happy birthday, Messi!


See more

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• Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club: Match review

The love I feel for this club is as great as the desire to share my admiration for it. Being a fan of Barcelona since when I was 8 years old and growing up watching games week after week. It makes no sense to feel so much love for this club. Being able to transmit all that love with more lovers of this sport is priceless.

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Analysis

Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?


While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.

The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.

While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?

Offensive effort

First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.

Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.

Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”

These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:

  1. Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
  2. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
  3. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
  4. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
  5. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4

Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.

How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?

barcelona work rate

As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.

A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.

Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.

Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.

However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.

Defensive effort

On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.

StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”

Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:

  1. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
  2. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
  3. Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
  4. Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
  5. Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2

Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.

Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?

barcelona work rate

Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.

With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.

The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.

With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.

Overall

Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.

barcelona work rate

The top five is comprised of:

  1. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
  2. Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
  3. Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
  4. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
  5. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2

Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.

Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:

barcelona work rate

The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.

Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.

While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.

The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.

Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.

Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.

Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.

Final thoughts

There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.

While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.

Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.

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