As a trained journalist who has been working with words for the better part of three decades, sometimes eloquence fails and you just have to fall back on what even the least-trained wordsmith can relate to.
Someone ran the numbers on Messi, his goals and assists, and determined that the net result, if you remove those tallies and assists, is 2 points in the standings. So Barça would be 4 points behind RM instead of 2, and in the same spots in Copa and Champions League.
In reaction to this, one BritPress outlet came flying in with a headline about “hat tricks and only 2 points,” and this stuff makes me giggle. Information and metrics about the game have never been more available to the average supporter than they are right now. Want to know how a player scores when it’s above 60 degrees F while shooting with his right leg? Voila. Want a breakdown of penalty conversions by game minute? Okay. But that isn’t all.
Vernacular that used to be the sole province of the tactics nerd, formations and positional breakdowns, have become part of everyday conversation. Ten years ago would you have been able to see, much less take part in a discussion about the false 9 and its benefits in a 4-4-3 that shifts to a 5-5-1? Nope. And you would have rolled your eyes if you had because really, what does that matter?
In these different times when there has to be a reason for everything, I always go back to childhood, when we asked our parents question after question – “Why is the sky blue,” “Why do dogs have fur,” “Where do babies come from,” “How come my tummy makes noise when I’m hungry?” At at some point our parents reverted to, “Because.”
To call people who would somehow endeavor to diminish the accomplishments of Messi as metrics-addled fools isn’t the point as much as the futility of trying to reduce what players do to numbers. Some were muttering about the number of touches that Ter Stegen had against Villarreal as being something like the approach of the apocalypse, but why? If Barça is playing in a more relaxed/reactive way, as long as none of those touches is taking the ball out of his own net, just take the time to marvel at his passing skills.
Messi is on the pitch. Even when he doesn’t score or assist, Messi is on the pitch. Walking, running, Messi is on the pitch. We can discuss precisely what he does while on the pitch if we like, but the influence of the best player in the game starts with being on the pitch. There is no metric for the “Holy shit!” factor that ensues when Messi gets the ball, even if he doesn’t do anything with it. Defenses shift, CBs get that curious tightening in the chest that a sudden blast of adrenaline does for you.
And Messi hasn’t even done anything yet.
Can a metric evaluate space gained by a lesser player because of the presence of a greater one, or the goal that comes just from influence, standing there attended to by 2 or 3 opposing defenders, allowing a teammate to pop free? No. Such a metric doesn’t exist because it’s unquantifiable, that sort of influence. A Messi/Munir/Pedro front line is a lot scarier than a Neymar/Munir/Pedro front line, Neymar’s gifts notwithstanding. Because great players are capable of a moment of genius that extends their influence far beyond anything that they might or might not do on the pitch.
We rely on numbers and statistics for so much, but they fail us when it comes to breaking down excellence. In Xavi’s best year, he had 6 goals and 18 assists. Those numbers can in no way shape or form define his influence in shaping every match in which he played for club and country. If a pass splits the defense in a way that makes the pass another player makes for the assist as easy as pie, how do you measure that? Key passes? Not really. There is no way.
Iniesta doesn’t score goals. He never has. He doesn’t really assist goals in a number commensurate with how often he has the ball. But he’s there. And because he’s there, so is danger. I mentioned in the Villarreal post before this one how different things are with Suarez scoring. It’s more than the goals. It’s the way that he influences the match even when he doesn’t have the ball. He runs and defenders move. He drags defenders around like luggage.
I like stats as much as the next guy (note: That’s a lie, actually.), and objectivity notwithstanding, I wish that, more often, we sat back and simply said, “Look at that.” It’s reveling in the beauty of a game that is always filled with countless moments of joy, from nutmegs and elasticos to runs and shimmies. We can do equations later.