Messi by the numbers, aka “Is there a way to evaluate sunshine?”

Y’all cray.

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.

Y’all cray.

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.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. I’m have to say I agree with every word of this, Kxevin. Spot on ! I just love those moments in a match where Messi has been walking and he breaks into a trot. At least six pairs of opposition eyes immediately refocus, just in case.

  2. I definitely do not agree; there are metrics in football that can measure greatness, but they do not appear in the usual boxscore. See here, and tell me that it doesn’t measure Messi’s greatness
    It’s just that there are very few people in football that understand analytics. In basketball we have a very broad range of numbers and analysis that help understand the game, but it took years for it to go mainstream. Football is a very conservative world and I think it’s gonna take some more time, but we will get there.

    1. How would you measure the quality of a dribble, and weather it was done in a telephone booth of space or in a plunge pool space. How would you measure the quality of a pass, which no one in the field thought existed, but the player who made the pass saw it and executed it as sharp as possible?
      How would you measure the quality of a player, who neither did score nor assist, but created all the plays or the second assist, after some impossible magic, which lead to the assist and the goal therein.
      I could raise many more like this, but I dont think many things that we see in football can be quantified into numbers. The article you link to, which is now so famous, only measures what we are able to give numbers for.

    2. I think that almost everything in the game can be turned into numbers – the number of players who mark someone, the space someone uses for his assists and goals, the unexpectedness of a pass etc. And some genius could maybe even come up with a somewhat “accurate” formula of combining all these numbers into a few numbers to judge the “worth” of a player with.

      It’s just that it seems like a very huge effort to make just to get some approximations to what everyone who has eyes and an understanding of football sees without any formula every game 😉

    3. And of course, that doesn’t even take into account the interconnectedness of the players. If a playmaker routinely makes great passes that his less-than-stellar forwards routinely fail to convert into goals, what does it say about him that he assists less than others? If a defender is caught out more than others because he has to cover too much ground when his partners are too high up the pitch, what does it say about him? Again, some advanced network analysis could relate the stats of players to each other, but then the effort will be even larger.

      So all this text is pretty much meant to say, I agree with fotobirajesh.

  3. I don’t want to kickstart another Messi vs Ronaldo debate, but I just had a thought that relates to this article.

    You know how people say that Ronaldo is unlucky that Messi exists in this generation? I think it’s the other way round. Messi is unlucky that he exists in a world where the media has hyped a player with zero aesthetic skill, just because he has a good appearance and because his goalscoring stats on paper look good, to the level that he is being compared with a player who is above him in every department (apart from height).

    Even the most researched articles, such as the one below, fail to capture the essence that Messi is.

    It’s only words that can help describe the genius he is….

    Ray Hudson and Hernan Casciari come close.

  4. speaking of metrics, AS reports that the “free kick specialist” Ronaldo has missed his last 51 free kicks in a row. now those are some numbers! 🙂

    1. From Ancelotti’s presser:

      “Cristiano Ronaldo takes the free kicks on the left and on the right. Bale takes them on the other side.”


    2. After such a long time Peter. I was missing your preaence. Great to see you back.

    3. It’s good to be back, after some personal developments that will probably limit my time here. Still, will do my best to keep up with the high standard set by Kxevin.

      BTW, fivethirtyeight comes much closer than the rest in actually evaluating Messi with numbers. The conclusion, as deftly put by Nate Silver and TheObsidian, is that Messi is impossible.

      I arrived at a conclusion that I wasn’t really expecting or prepared for: Lionel Messi is impossible.

      It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.

      But Messi does all of this and more.

  5. Here’s another article that actually tries to argue the reverse: that Ozil has been good for Arsenal (Arsenal fans opinions not withstanding) because and this can be shown by his stats. Both articles, it could be argued, show the problem with stats in football. Adherents of a player could point to certain stats and argue that it shows the player is good. If no stat exists, then they can argue that the player is good but football stats are misleading because don’t give us the full picture. Both arguments may be valid, but in the case of Ozil, both are specious attempts to hide the truth that almost all Arsenal fans and neutral observers know: Ozil was the worst purchase in their club’s career, probably should not be playing in the EPL, and will probably “phone home” and be at Bayern next year.

  6. So we are live in a crazy world,where the fans of a team with 33wins in 40games and 118goals scored,are not happy.We are watching goals after 3 passes and people are mad because we dont have the endless passing game of the Pep years.Well i enjoy our games and i am happy.Maybe we will win the treble,maybe nothing but thats football…..

  7. And i have a question:Lets say that after the elections Laporta is here and Pep the coach and we will buy Pogba Reus Laporte Vietto e.t.c.Are u sure that we will win everything??Football is a funny game.A bad game and u are out of a final or a trophie.

  8. And i remember some games of Pep years when we played worst than this season:The semifinal away in 2009 where the team was crap.The semifinal away in 2011 when we played an endless passing game in the middle of the field until the red card??The semifinal away in 2010??People forget that Pep made mistakes and he will do the same mistakes.Last season he did crimes against Madrid.We must move on from the past.

  9. On the other day, Kevin wrote about what he thinks about Lucas Resende’s opinion. Last night he & @barcastat having a chat in twitter. Lucas continuously tweeting what he does for years. On a phase, Lucas wrote, Rijkaard’s barca based on one single player. When the player is off-formed, barca struggled. By this and some other tweets, he meant Rijkaard didn’t exactly follow “barca system”.

    So I replied him (obviously a bit with satire), “Pep built him team around Xavi. When he aged in 2012, he stoppd winning League & UCL”.

    It baffles me, what “exactly” the system is. And where it was during 1996 to 2008 period. Did barca abandon the “system” this period? I guess, in this period, the barca presidents were in “favor” of Cruyff. If Rijkaard didn’t exactly follow “barca system”, then who exactly follow the “system”, only Cruyff & Guardiola?

    1. Another question, If Rijkaard followed “barca system”, how it can be dependent on a “single” player?

    2. A “system” should be attendant to combating varied football styles at different points in time. You don’t play possession football against a high-pressing team, it’s basically self-defeating. You loop, slash, then burn. You don’t tiki-taka about a ferociously parked bus. You make long thrusts; moving the ball faster to faster forwards, bypassing lanes on transitions – when the other team comes out a little during counters. Et c, et c.

      So I don’t fundamentally understand talks of a nettled down “system”. That’s totally bullshit, to me. Whatever system a coach adopts to effectively tackle a present footballing opposition is sufficient. When none such system is recognisable, then there is the problem.

      Luis Enrique, now, wants the ball moved faster to faster forwards, and sometimes bypassing midfield lanes, to effectively maim certain oppositions. That’s okay, and that’s really what football is all about. A constant state of flux.

      Comment edited

    3. Not sure exactly what you mean by Tika Taka unless it’s just a general pejorative term for useless passing but to my mind, that’s exactly what you have to do against a parked bus. No argument that it’s good if you can catch the other team light at the back and if you can you use that, although not at the expense of the ball coming straight bavk at you.

      However, If the defence is back in front of you ( and they will be, in numbers, about 80% of the time) what else can you do except move the ball side to side quickly looking for a slipped through ball like Iniesta a couple of games ago or a pass into a small space like Xavi last game or Messi just about every game? It’s not new. It has always been one of the principles of attack in football. It’s just that we do it better than anyone.

      I’m not sure why keeping the ball against a high press is so wrong if you can do it and we have the players to ( and maybe that’s the growing discussion point). High presses are very difficult to keep going without the ball. It needs everyone signed up to the cause and in that sense we’re unlucky because we are so good with the ball that they know it’s their only chance but it wears you out big time. Our problems come when we slow the ball movement down which has happened all the way through the Pep era. Then you start getting some of the lesser players caught with the ball and you don’t tire out the opposition. However, imo, that happened, at least partly, because we didn’t have enough of the players up front until this season to create the danger on their own or make good enough movements to hurt anyone. Teams let us play to the wings because we couldn’t hurt them there. Now we’re playing it to Messi and an improved Neymar. Big difference for me.

    4. i am with you man. over the years people always criticise our inability to break down teams with our passing around a box filled with eleven opposition players. it left me wondering if there was sure fire way to play against a Chelsea team we played at the Nou Camp in 2012 or Inter Milan at the Nou Camp in 2010 other than the way we tried to break these teams down. the only defect we had during the Pep years bar 2009 was that we didnt possess a forward line that can create something out of nothing like the one we have right now. The three forwards we have right now are three of the best 4 forward dribblers in the world and i think dribbling is very essential against a packed defense as players like Cuenca Pedro Tello Villa wont beat an opposing defender like Messi Suarez and Neymar can. If we can ensure our attackers get the ball as early as possible with passing options and off the ball movements to create space with quality crosses then we have the best foward line in world football by a good distance which is not easy to claim considering how good Madrid s BBC can be too, teams like Atletico cany force our plays towards the wings again as an on form Messi and Neymar will kill them repeatedly and Suarez is the kind of striker we should have replaced Eto o with.

    5. While I agree that tiki taka with the right players definitely can break down a bus, I think that quality high crosses into the box and multiple forwards who can win aerial duels are one of the best options for that, and that’s a reason why Barca sometimes seems to be less effective against buses than other teams. I’ll always remember the game against Celtic in the Champions League group stage where Iniesta + Xavi had to produce some absurd magic just to get through the wall of bodies in the middle and score an equalizer. Having dangerous forwards helps a lot, but we’ve also seen Neymar run into problems when faced with packed defenses.

      For example, Real M*drid, who have tall forwards who win aerial duels and also have already made long balls and high crosses an essential part of their system, at the moment seem to be more effective at doing that – which is not to say that they’re a better team overall at the moment.

    6. I certainly wouldn’t agree that RM are better than us at breaking buses. We face buses or at least packed defences most weeks and win week after week. That’s what we’re doing at the moment. We don’t have a tall striker and are dispatching buses right, left and centre, although I agree we have some double deckers coming up in the next month or so.

      They’re actually pretty poor at it. The point being that most teams have two decent sized CBs who deal with most of the high crosses as indeed they did along with their keeper today. Crosses are actually pretty easy to deal with. Most of them are slow through the air and give you time yo adjust, unlike a pass slipped through a backline or Messi’s curlers.

    7. I think that Athelti’s victories have become the blueprint that other sides are now using to neutralize RM. Absorb pressure and then hit them on the counter. BBC look very ordinary when you don’t give them much space. Right now their best chances to score seem to come from chances created by Marcelo, free kicks/corners, and penalties.

  10. Against a team like Real Madrid playing like they did against Bayern Munich in last year s semi final first leg. two banks of four very deep. how can barca approach such a match as spaces would be limited and we re likely to face such an opponent if we are to be successful in this years UCL or the upcoming years. (teams like Chelsea Madrid Atletico will likely adopt this approach and we obviously have a solution for Atleti ) i d love to know the kind of tactical approach that will be perfect for this kind of match up.

  11. Speaking about reveling in the beauty of the game, it’s always nice to see RM struggle against a team willing to put up a fight. And at home Athletic is always a challenge to the big two.

  12. wooo! happy day. this season is quite fun.

    now, let’s remember…the season is long. no team can be at the “top” level all season. we are seeing that with madrid, they are crumbling, and dont look like they did at the beginning of the season. injuuries and lack of rotation on the part of ancelloti has something to do with that.

    but i wouldnt be surprised if the league lead changes hands more than once before now and the end of the season. so again…if we lose, and we lose ground to Madrid, we dont need to start tarring our coach and players or creating crises. losing once in a while is part of the game.

    it is quite nice to know that our coach LE knows a thing or two about physical conditioning, seeing that he eats triathalons for breakfast. i have a feeling he has a plan to make sure we are in tip top shape at the necessary moments.

  13. Trouble ahead for Ancelloti and RM. The forwards, one in particular, looked extremely hacked off at points throughout the match and that’ll be bad news in the dressing room.

    At the moment they are a great advert for needing a good midfield. Fast ball forward keeps coming back at you and the forwards get upset. Too many easy cross balls. Isco was trying his best but Kroos disappointing going forward ( he didn’t ! ) and they had no build up near the AB box. Acc to Sky Illaramendi on his way to Bilbao at the end of the season ? Tell me Modric won’t be back till after the Clasico as he’ll make a difference.

    You know, I’d be tempted to make tomorrow the day Messi rides the pine at the start. I know it’s brave of me but as long as he’s the ONLY ONE ( caps for LE’s benefit) it’d be a chance to keep something in the legs, aggravate him and get him keen for the rest of the month. No CR7 goal so nothing to match up to.

    1. Damn. Neymar’s out, isn’t he? I forgot about that. Oh well, no rest for the wee man yet.

    2. Only Suarez in front is just not enough, even against Rayo. It maybe enough to get a win, but it’s not enough to be certain in it from the beginning.

      After all, Messi has been the main creative force of the team.

    3. You know, it would be great to rest Messi, at least at the start of the match. The way Rayo plays makes our game easy and maybe starting Rafinha along with Suarez and Neymar up front would give us enough ball possession to cope without Messi.
      If we need him we could bring him off the bench.

      It’s a lose lose situation for Lucho though, if we rest Messi and drop points it would be a catastrophe but if we don’t rest Messi we will burn him out

    4. Madrid fans I talked to said Modric will be back for the Schalke game. For me, even if he plays in the classico, he will not be in top form.

  14. Barca’s next two games, while must wins, can also be seen as preparation for the decisive games against Man City and RM in two weeks. So which players will Enrique count on?

    1) Who will play Defensive Midfield?: Mascherano. Is there really any other viable option? Samper is simply too inexperienced.

    2) The two CBs? Pique for sure. But will Enrique put any trust in Bartra? Bravo, Pique, Mathieu, and Masch in defense could lead to some problems getting the ball out of the back unless we want to huff the ball upfield.

    3) The midfield: Will Xavi have a role to play? At Camp Nou, Xavi may still have one or two great games left in him, but I don’t think Enrique likes putting Xavi and Iniesta together. If Xavi were to start one of the big two coming up I wonder whether it would be against RM or Man City? My guess would be Man City.

    1. All good questions. I’m pretty clear about what I want to see.

      Pique / Mathieu at the back but Mathieu to get all the time we can give him till then to get the partnership cemented. With Busi gone we’ll need his height. Ramos, Varane, Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema could all cause trouble at set pieces.

      Mascherano at DM despite some small misgivings about his ability to keep possession. He’d undoubtedly be targeted by RM .

      If you’re gonna play Masche there you need both Xavi and Iniesta, no question or else you cede the midfield. Masche will need easy outlets neither Rakitic not Rafinha offer that enough of the time. You can also hit a hospital pass at the twins and they’ll control it and keep possession. We play them to death in the middle. They don’t have many chasers to hurt us there and a whack of chasing will soon hack them off. Need to give Xavi some pitch time before though.

      You keep Alves at home for most ofthe match and let Alba roam but with Ini primed to keep an eye open for Bale.

      Up front our best weapon is Messi ensuring that Marcello doesn’t participate in too many attacks.

  15. So Last night Malaga lost to Granada. Barca won against Granada last week and lost to Malaga two week earlier. Definitely La Liga is becoming stronger and unpredictable day by day.

  16. Barcelona line-up (official): Bravo – Alves Pique Mathieu Alba – Xavi Mascherano Iniesta – Messi Suarez Pedro

    Xavi captain

  17. I live in a country where cricket is being worshipped like a holi cow.
    I wish they could atleast modify the rules so that a match last not morethan 120mins. Advertisements after every 3 balls is just insane.
    Eventually it makes me hate from the bottom of my heart when I couldn’t watch my favourite club playing because of some people who know nothing other than this cricket.

    1. With those comments you must be living in India or similar, and with the ICC cup on right now, I feel your pain.

    2. You are right. For a person like me, who never want to miss a single second, really hurt. Btw I gotta watch from some 30th minutes and really happy with the result. The sad part is Alves suspension though. Atleast we have to admit he is still our undisputed hero on the rb.

  18. Suarez is so hungry right now. The game is quite skitterish and all over the shop but man goals will come

  19. Wow, the commentator on my stream called it. Towards the end of the first half: “Messi is having a quiet game so far…a clear indication that he’s going to score a Hattrick today”.

    1. It seems like the penalty miss woke him up – if you noticed, even though the game was decided at that point, he actually started running a lot more actively after that.

  20. A great win without too much effort. Lost both of our wing-backs, though… Messi could’ve easily had 5, Suarez 3 or 4. The team was like a cat, allowing the mouse some room to dance around before tiring of playing and deciding to finally strike down hard, ending the dance… Xavi and Iniesta did rather well, but did not link up much, from what I could tell. Another sign the team is relying more heavily on the wings.

    1. Not sure about that. We had Pedro and Messi on the wings first half and nothing came of it. That’s by far the best our midfield has looked in ages ( although partly down to the opposition who came to play.) And we wonder why teams park the bus ?

  21. best think for me was the whole stadium chanting Messi’s name after he botched the first penalty attempt 😀

  22. I saw the game 2013between Barcelona – Real Betis, in which Messi came on in the 55 minutes, and it was an completely different game after that, you could see how everybody in Barcelona became 5% better, and started to believe that they would win, at the same time, Real Betis, who had played an very good game so far, more or less knew they were destined to loose. Messi makes an impact on the game, just by being on the field.

  23. Well, if you look at my post above you’ll know that Id be a happy camper today. Pique/ Mathieu at the back- very solid until the fifth went in and Mathieu looking more comfortable although I still worry about his distribution if pressure is put on him. Good to see him still with pace in the last ten minutes though.

    Midfield was sublime for me. I asked for the twins and got them. Someone will need to remind me why they can’t play together or hit through balls quickly when the occasion demands it.

    Suarez !!!

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