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.
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)
– Turkish Süper Lig: Adem Ljajić (Beşiktaş)
– Austrian Bundesliga: Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg, now RB Leipzig)
– Danish Superliga: Mikkel Damsgaard (Nordsjælland, now Sampdoria)
– 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)
– 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)
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.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.