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Analysis

Using statistics to find the most similar players to Lionel Messi around the world

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by David Ramos

There is only one Lionel Messi, but with data, different players can be identified who perform similar to the Argentine. Let us dive into one methodology for finding these players and examine some of the results.


The method used for this analysis is known as factor analysis. Essentially, it allows someone to start with several “base-level” metrics – shots, dribbles, tackles – and it looks to explain the variance found in these numbers. Using the relationships between the different metrics, it “simplifies” the data into fewer categories known as factors, that explain as much of the variance as possible.

Say the input consists of 20 different metrics; the output will have been cut down to maybe five or six factors. How a player performs with respect to each stat has either positive, negative, or no correlation to their score in each factor. This correlation will be further examined in each of the factors later.

The leagues included in this process were the first divisions of the top 20 nations in the UEFA club coefficient rankings for 2019/20, the second divisions of the top five leagues (Spain, England, Germany, Italy, and France), and the first divisions of the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile.

To qualify, a player must have played at least 1,000 minutes in one of these leagues in the 2019/20 season, and they must have had centre forward, winger, or attacking midfielder listed as their primary position for the season. This started off as a pool of 2,600.

Here are all of the statistics included in the factor analysis:

Note: All statistics were measured per 90 minutes of playing time, and they were all provided by Wyscout.

Factor analysis results

From those 22 initial metrics, the analysis output five factors which were nicknamed based on what they seem to reflect. By running through each of them, we gain a better understanding of what type of player they portray. The factors will be presented in order from most explanatory to least explanatory, meaning the first factor was responsible for the greatest portion of the explanation of the variance in the data.

That first factor has been named “Drops Deep In Possession”. The metrics with the strongest positive correlation (having more of these causes a player to score higher in the factor) were passes, passes into the final third, and progressive passes.

Those with the strongest negative correlation (having more of these causes a player to score lower) were their rate of received passes that were long passes, aerial duels, and expected goals per shot.

The attackers who rank highly here are those who drop off and are very involved in progressing the ball to attacking areas, while not getting in behind for long balls or competing in the air often. This tidy, possession-based style is reflected with the likes of Hakim Ziyech, Lionel Messi, Isco, and Bernardo Silva, ranking above the 90th percentile.

Up next is “Dribbler”, where it is important to have multiple dribbles, progressive runs, and crosses, in addition to having low aerial duels, expected goals per shot, and rate of long passes received. The high scorers are once again, the ‘technical’ players, and in this case, those who like to pick up the ball and drive forward at the opposition defence.

As a result, there are many explosive attackers above the 90th percentile, including Jeremie Boga, Youcef Atal, Adama Traoré, Neymar, and Wilfried Zaha. While these first two factors have more reflected actions that work to progress the ball into dangerous areas, the next one is more about players who get into those dangerous positions themselves.

That is because factor three, “Box Presence”, reflects a high number of touches in the penalty area, deep completions, and shots. The strongest negative correlations are to defensive duels, possession-adjusted interceptions, and average pass length.

Those who score the highest here – the likes of Messi himself, along with Kylian Mbappé, Mohamed Salah, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Odsonne Edouard – are not afraid to pull the trigger, possess strong poacher instincts, and tend not to drop back as much defensively.

Up next is “Direct Progressor”, which highlights those who almost always prefer taking a peril in a high-risk, high-reward situation. The metrics with the strongest positive correlation are the rate of passes played forwards, passes into the final third, and the rate of passes played long.

Conversely, having a higher rate of passes played backwards, touches in the penalty area, and expected goals per shot are punished. With this in mind, it should be no surprise to see the likes of Ziyech, Bruno Fernandes, Mohamed Ihattaren, Neymar, and Calvin Stengs putting up high scores.

Lastly, in “Wide Creator”, there is a determinant that mainly displays more traditional wingers. For this final factor, it is important to perform well in crosses, passes into the penalty area, and expected assists (xA), while having a low backwards passing rate, aerial duels, and expected goals per shot.

Once again, the top performers throw out some of the usual suspects for this style, such as Karim Bellarabi, Ivan Perišić, Kingsley Coman, José Callejón, and Traoré. With all five factors established, time to get into what they say about Messi.

How Messi performs

Now, how does the data reflect someone like Messi, whose skillset transcends beyond any single style? The six-time Ballon d’Or winner will drop to midfield to pick up the ball, and pick out a long through pass or weave through defenders.

Then, on top of that, Leo gets into the box, has a high shot volume, and is among the most lethal finishers of all time. His percentile ranks for the factors back up his well-roundedness.

Unsurprisingly, his scores were above the 98th percentile for four of the five factors. Only in Wide Creator (12.9th percentile) was the Argentine below average, reflecting his tendency to cut inside and drift into central positions. This is a testament to not only the diverse skill set he possesses but also the sheer amount of work he performs in the attack.

What does this mean for identifying those similar to Messi? In short, they have to operate in central areas primarily and have to be incredibly well rounded. This is certainly not easy to match, but if it were, Leo would not be so special.

Closest matches

Now for the ultimate goal of the process: picking out players who perform similarly. For the Argentinian forward’s top match in a certain league, a player must have played in that league during the 2019/20 season – when the stats were collected from. Without further ado, time to jump in.

La Liga: Martin Ødegaard

The Norwegian may lack some of the agility and end product of Messi. Still, after the starlet’s performance for Real Sociedad last season, it is hard to come up with another player in the league who more closely lives up to the comparison. Interestingly, though, now back at Real Madrid, his brilliant left foot and vision will be on display for Barcelona’s archrivals.

Premier League: Jack Grealish

Just beating out Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City was England international Jack Grealish. Similar to Messi, Grealish sports the number ten, is the captain of his club, and the source of the majority of their attacking creativity.

Bundesliga: Philippe Coutinho

Now a teammate of Messi’s once again, the reigning treble winner takes the top spot for the 2019/20 Bundesliga. Many attribute his lack of success during his initial spell at Barça to the similarity between the two, as they looked to operate in similar spaces and perform similar actions.

Coutinho has started off this campaign looking sharper, and hopefully, he can keep easing the burden on Messi instead of clashing with him.

Serie A: Josip Iličić

At six feet, three inches tall, Iličić stands far removed from the reigning Ballon d’Or winner in terms of height, but those who have tracked Atalanta’s incredible rise in recent seasons know the quality in the Slovenian’s boots. Like Messi, Atalanta’s #72 may have only a few seasons left in his career, but he is definitely making the most of it.

Ligue 1: Neymar

Messi’s former partner in crime has evolved into his closest match in the whole dataset. Since joining Paris Saint-Germain and becoming the main man, the Brazilian has taken on far more responsibility in the attack.

In doing so, he has become undoubtedly the closest thing to Leo in football today, and arguably the most entertaining player in Europe.

Top U-23 Match (All Leagues): Calvin Stengs

For those who are not already aware of the AZ Alkmaar wonderkid, it will only be a matter of time before they recognize his talent. The Dutchman has already been linked to Barcelona, and if his countryman, Ronald Koeman, remains at the helm, that could definitely be a potential move for Stengs down the line.

Other Leagues With a Player Within Top 100 Matches:

Portuguese Primeira Liga: Marcus Edwards (Vitória de Guimarães)

Russian Premier League: Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow)

Ukrainian Premier League: Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk)

Eredivisie: Oussama Idrissi (AZ Alkmaar, now Sevilla)

Oussama Idrissa.

Turkish Süper Lig: Adem Ljajić (Beşiktaş)

Austrian Bundesliga: Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg, now RB Leipzig)

Danish Superliga: Mikkel Damsgaard (Nordsjælland, now Sampdoria)

Mikkel Damsgaard.

Scottish Premier League: Odsonne Edouard (Celtic)

Czech First League: Vladimir Jovović (Jablonec)

Cypriot First Division: Michael Ortega (AC Omonia)

Serbian SuperLiga: Nikola Čumić (Radnički Niš, now Sporting Gijón)

Spanish Segunda División: Samuel Sáiz (Girona)

EFL Championship: Saïd Benrahma (Brentford, now West Ham United)

Saïd Benrahma.

German 2. Bundesliga: Mats Møller Dæhli (FC St. Pauli, now K.R.C. Genk)

Italian Serie B: José Machín (Pescara, now A.C. Monza)

Major League Soccer: Ilsinho (Philadelphia Union)

Liga MX: Fabián Castillo (Querétaro, now Club Tijuana)

Argentine Primera División: Eduardo Salvio (Boca Juniors)

– Campeonato Brasileiro Série A: Giorgian De Arrascaeta (Flamengo)

Giorgian De Arrascaeta.

Uruguayan Primera División: Juan Ángel Albín (Rampla Juniors, now Defensor Sporting)

Colombian Categoría Primera A: Deiner Quiñónez (Independiente, now Atlético Nacional)

Chilean Primera División: Cristóbal Jorquera (Palestino, now Fatih Karagümrük)

Conclusive Thoughts

So, what does this all mean in the end? For one, it is a quantifiable method of displaying just how ridiculously skilled and special Messi is even though he is ageing. Just consider some of those aforementioned players.

There are more-traditional tens like Ødegaard and Grealish, some inverted wingers like Stengs, and even a more-traditional number nine popping up in Odsonne Edouard. Little to no other footballers have a skillset like Messi’s where such a diverse set of players could match them in certain bits and pieces of their play.

Then there is the player identification side of things. While this model is still relatively basic – it only uses event statistics and does not take into account aspects like positioning, physical metrics, and advanced metrics such as Expected Threat – it still does a solid job at pointing us in the right direction.

It denotes the likes of Neymar and Stengs, who have been the subjects of heavy links to Barça in the past. It can also bring up names like Saïd Benrahma and Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United, 22nd closest overall match), who are young, exciting playmakers to keep an eye on. With the Wyscout data, the biggest value may even come with including those very obscure players that can be uncovered.

Neymar is the closest statistical match to Lionel Messi in world football; does not come as a shock, to be fair. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Ultimately, one also has to remember that no two footballers are ever a carbon copy of one another, and this is especially true in the case of Messi. However, for identifying potential replacements, backups, or even simply new players to watch, the use of statistics partnered with traditional scouting serves as an excellent tool.

“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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  1. Avatar

    Ariel

    11/11/2020 at 14:10

    This is some great stuff. Any way to make it even more accurate? Maybe a “finishing” category? Seeams odd to me that ødegaard is so close to Messi. I dont recall him being a clinical finisher.

    • Samuel Gustafson

      Samuel Gustafson

      11/11/2020 at 21:21

      Hey there, thanks for the kind words! For finishing, you are correct that Ødegaard is definitely not a prolific goal threat. However, looking at the best scorers in La Liga – Karim Benzema, Gerard Moreneo, Iago Aspas – they all fare much worse than Ødegaard relative to Messi in other areas like creativity and dribbling. Now, for scouting and recruitment purposes, if it was a requirement that the player had to help make up for Messi’s goal scoring output, then the next step would be to examine the player’s finishing, possibly using their scoring rate or their ratio of goals to expected goals. In La Liga, though, there is not someone who comes close to Messi across all of these areas (like Neymar), so the closest match is the player who comes close in as many ways as possible – Ødegaard.

      • Avatar

        Ariel

        13/11/2020 at 09:16

        Thanks for the reply!
        I feel like when talking qbout Messi one can not talk about his quality infront of goal, but i guess it’s not a quality that helps as much qhen doing this kind of analysis so i understand your point.
        Any ways,the fact that this analysis came up with so many players who do resemble Messi in the “eye test’ is a testament to it’s quality.
        Any chance you could publish the top 20 in the list? Just curious.
        And what are the chances of making thia into a mini-series and making a same analysis for Xavi, Iniesta, Dani Alves or a prime Bousquets?

        • Samuel Gustafson

          Samuel Gustafson

          28/11/2020 at 20:01

          Unfortunately the accessible Wyscout data only goes back a couple seasons, so there is no real way to do this for those players unless you wanted to see one for current Busquets. I can email you the top 20 list for Messi.

  2. Zafer Cincil

    Zafer Cincil

    12/11/2020 at 10:22

    Just had the opportunity to examine this in detail, and I have to say that this is an absolute masterpiece. Thank you, Sam.

  3. Avatar

    Dan Burcea

    15/11/2020 at 13:57

    Special and unique details! Absolutely fabulous!

Analysis

Erling Haaland — One for Barcelona to chase

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo via Getty Images

Erling Haaland is set to dominate the world of football for the next decade, and Barcelona will regret if they do not sign him in the next summer window.


Whenever Barcelona are linked with new players, one question always emerges: “Does he have the Barça DNA?” Although a vague term, Barça DNA has come to mean the traits that a Barça player should have, whether already at the club or a prospective transfer. These traits include everything from being technically sound to fitting a possession-oriented style — think of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Lionel Messi.

It’s natural for a club to want players that fit their ethos, especially Barcelona who have such a well-established identity, but where should the line be drawn? Should the Blaugrana miss out on top players because of an inhibition to change tactics, or should the team mould itself around them?

This is where Erling Haaland comes into play. At only 20-years old, Haaland has already solidified himself as one of the best young players in the world, and his position at centre-forward fills a dire need for the Catalans. And to the joy of Culés, the links to him have already begun, with Joan Laporta particularly interested in signing him for the club when and if he becomes President.

Rumours around his signing prop up two eternal arguments: He’s a world-class player that we need versus, he doesn’t fit our player profile.

How do Barcelona navigate this tricky situation?

Who is “The Terminator”?

Dubbed ‘the Terminator’, Haaland burst onto the world stage in the 2019-20 season with Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg, tallying 24 goals in 20 appearances. He also made headlines with the Norwegian international team in the under-20 World Cup, where he scored nine goals in one match.

Haaland meditation PSG

His ‘meditation’ celebrations are among things Haaland has caught attention for. (Photo via Imago)

In January 2020, he made a mid-season switch to Borussia Dortmund and has been wreaking havoc ever since. Now in the midst of his first full season with the German club, Haaland has scored 33 goals in 31 appearances, winning the Golden Boy Award as well, looking set to dominate world football for the next decade.

Player Profile

Haaland is notorious for his finishing, goal-scoring instincts, and intelligent off-the-ball movement. He scores in a variety of manners, whether with powerful long-range shots or well-placed finishes. As aforementioned, his goalscoring record speaks for itself, having already scored 17 goals in 13 appearances this season.

At 6’4″, he is a menace for opposing defenders, boasting a natural ability in the air as well as blistering pace, a combination unheard of, and feared. Earlier this year in a match against Paris Saint-Germain, the Norwegian reached a top speed of 36 kilometers per hour.

The 20-year old tends to play off the shoulder of the defence, menacingly waiting for a through-ball or long ball from his creative teammates.

Below is Haaland’s heat-map from this season, representing his average positions on the pitch. Evidently, he lurks in and around the box, waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Haaland’s heat-map from for the 2020/21 BuLi season. (Courtesy Sofascore)

With the ball at his feet, his pace and physicality allow him to out-run his defender, and without it, his world-class positioning always results in him being in the best spot to score a goal. His movement also drags opposing defenders, putting his teammates in prime goalscoring opportunities. Haaland is a nightmare to defend and must be closely marked because all he needs is a sliver of space to score.

Though not his best attribute, he can link up well with his midfielders, playing small one-twos, then receiving the ball in the penalty box.

Haaland header

Haaland is a versatile scorer, who can do a lot with creators like the ones Barcelona has behind him. (Photo via Imago)

Haaland is a counter-attacking threat as he can use his pace to capitalize on regrouping defenders. He’s also adept at holding up the ball, fending off defenders with his physicality and laying the ball off to his teammates. He’s an old-school number nine, with drops of a brilliant, adaptable player who can score goals out of thin air.

With at least a decade in front of him, Haaland can still improve, and one can only wonder what his ceiling is.

“I’ve maybe been around too long but I have never seen a guy since maybe Messi or Ronaldo that developed at such a young age. That’s very unique and he has all the possibilities to become a really world class player.”

 Norway coach Lars Lagerback 

The Numbers Behind the Player

In his young career, Haaland has already established himself as one of the most lethal finishers in the world. He recently became the youngest and fastest player ever to reach 15 Champions League goals, as well as the youngest to score four goals in a single Bundesliga match.

The Norwegian-international has taken 91 shots on target in his professional career, and scored 72 goals, giving him an astonishing shots on target to goals ratio of 79%. He’s averaging 4.21 shots per 90 minutes this season and 2.59 shot-creating actions. Additionally, he comes up with 0.53 goal creating actions a game, showcasing how much of an all-around threat he is.

The following graphic compares Haaland’s statistics in the last two seasons with top-five league forwards.

Haaland barcelona

(From: footballslices.com)

His goalscoring attributes (red) clearly stand out and his creative stats (yellow) are promising too.

The graphic below compares Haaland’s stats in the Bundesliga over the last two seasons with Bayern Munich’s talisman Robert Lewandowski.

(Graphic from Understat)

The stats are eerily similar, albeit Haaland has played almost half as many minutes as Lewandowski, arriving not before January. The most noteworthy one being the G90 (goals per 90) and A90 stats (assists per 90), where he eclipses the Pole. A goalless outing today barely provides a dent to what has been a fantastic start to life in the 2020/21 Bundesliga season.

Should Barça sign him?

Haaland is evidently a world-class forward, yet questions about his fit persist. Some fans question whether his player profile suits the Catalans, and many are wary of his lack of “Barça DNA”.

While he’s not as much of a creator as Barça might want in the striker position, he’s by no means inept and still has so much time to improve. Furthermore, Barça’s front line is filled with creative players like Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, and they desperately need someone who is lethal in front of goal. He may not be renowned for his passing or creating in tight spaces, but he excels in the most important duty of a goalscorer: scoring goals.

Erling Haaland PSG

The goal against PSG is testament of the plethora of goals Haaland is capable of scoring, something Barcelona crave for. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts)

On the other hand, Barça typically face teams that like to sit-deep and form a low block. How would Haaland fare against opposition that won’t allow him to maximize his pace and darting runs? Given his ability and instincts, it’s safe to assume that with the right creative pieces behind him, there’s no doubt Haaland could thrive in any setup, especially given his height and built, which can help him bully the strongest defenders in the box.

Above all else, it’s necessary to consider whether Haaland would even want to go to Barcelona, let alone whether the Catalans should pursue him.

The club is an institutional mess, and the squad is performing poorly. It’s not exactly an ideal spot for any player. Barcelona are also struggling financially, and can not realistically pursue Haaland without offloading a lot of other players. Haaland does have a fixed release clause of €75 million, though, and certainly, that plays into Barcelona’s lap. The centre forward would definitely need assurances of being an undisputed starter, as his ability certainly warrants that.

Another reason Barcelona should definitely get into the action to bring him to Spain is because rivals Real Madrid are the clear favourites to sign Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain. Ansu Fati, for all his brilliance, is too young to draw comparisons with the Frenchman, but Erling Haaland is the man who can give him real competition, and if shove comes to push, even overtake him.

Closing Thoughts

Alongside Kylian Mbappé, Haaland might be the best young player in the world right now. He has all the necessary attributes to shine anywhere and is a transfer target for most of Europe’s big clubs. The 20-year old could potentially lead Barça’s front line for the next decade, and he could be Barça’s next iconic number nine, following in the footsteps of Luis Suárez, David Villa and Samuel Eto’o.

Erling Haaland dortmund

Haaland is set to dominate the decade, and Barcelona will regret not getting him. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

He would surely astonish the Camp Nou, even without the so-called “Barça DNA”, but his transfer depends on navigating the financial crisis, and his on the pitch success depends on the right coach. However, just having Haaland on the team sheet, Barcelona would return to instilling genuine fear into their opponents.

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