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Barça mid-season statistical review

"We're halfway there! Focus!"

“We’re halfway there! Focus!”

Hi, this is lea_terzi, a BFB reader and occasional commenter who hopped on the Barcelona bandwagon to watch Ronaldinho and was never able to leave, mesmerized by a million things that make Barça more than a club.

Something else I’m passionate about is statistics, which I occasionally use to make bets, play Football Manager (and win Graham Hunter’s book in a BFB contest last year). One day, I put together this review of the 2013-14 stats so far. It’s rather long, number-heavy and humor-thin but if you get through it, you might find answers to some fascinating questions (Which direction is Tata taking the team? Is he changing “our style”? Why does the team look more dangerous and less vulnerable than last season? Do we need an elite defender? Or a striker? Or maybe a midfielder? What to look out for? And, of course, why the repeat of Bayern fiasco is very, very, very unlikely?) Or you might come up with more questions, which I’d love to see in the comments.

Half-season stats review – how Tata’s Barcelona is different from Tito’s team.

levtata

Let’s not forget that, before illness, injury and Bayern struck last season, Barca was on a tear after a record start, which it converted into a record finish in La Liga. So, it wasn’t a bad year by any means – just a very, very unlucky one. This one is showing all signs of being better.

The end of Messidependencia and new attacking weapons

levsanchez

In fact, Tito’s Barcelona scored more in La Liga – 3 goals to this season’s 2.7. That, however, was mostly due to Messi’s brilliance – La Pulga accounted for 39% of our 155 goals in all competitions, and bagged a staggering total of 60. Only four others got into double digit scoring that season (Cesc, Alexis, Pedro and Villa contributed 33% of team’s goals), while the rest of midfield and defense pitched in 28%.

This season, things couldn’t be more different. With Lionel playing only half the available minutes this season, he “only” scored 21% of our impressive team total of 87 goals in 34 games. Pedro, Alexis, Cesc and Neymar are all in double digits already, shouldering 57% of the scoring load. The rest of the team accounts for 22% of goals. There is visibly less scoring (and assisting) from Xavi, Iniesta and the fullbacks, but then, it isn’t as vital with the forwards flourishing.

More proof of our front line’s success are the fantastic goal+assist/90minutes numbers. Last season, Leo stood head and shoulders above everyone at 1.72, with only Villa (1.0), Cesc (0.81), Alexis (0.82, but we all remember his long slump and scoring for fun after La Liga was officially over) and Iniesta (0.74) contributing steadily. This season, Messi’s influence on games is more subtle, and he contributed “only” 1.47 goals+assists per 90 minutes. But the world hasn’t fallen apart, because Cesc added 1.14, Neymar 1.13, Pedro 1.11, Alexis 0.90. Iniesta was asked to play a more withdrawn role and seemed in a funk to start the season, but we were seeing some great football from him before his knock against Atletico.

Whoscored rates players based on their actions each game, and while the rating has significant weaknesses, this season it is reflecting what we are seeing on the pitch – improved marks for Cesc and Pedro, Alexis and Neymar catapulting into the footballing elite, and an unfortunate decline in both minutes and performance for Tello, who suddenly finds himself an odd man out.

So, what changed? We replaced Villa (my favourite player ever) with Neymar, a much more dynamic, versatile and creative attacker, and it paid off instantly.

Messi and Neymar missing time, and Tata’s seemingly magical effect on players’ confidence, brought the A game from our other strikers.

A trend towards “verticalidad” – slight decline in possession numbers, willingness to attack in transition (we scored 7 transition goals, more than Real and Atletico, in La Liga this season), take on defenders (Messi and Alexis doubled their successful dribbles per game from last year, Neymar and Iniesta have been predictably great), mix it up with diagonal balls and quick ball movement from flank to flank also helped bring out the best in players like Pedro and Alexis, who thrive in space.

The result is more shots, more shots on target, more fouls won around the box. The challenge remains to develop the Messi-Neymar pairing, which we have rarely seen this season, share minutes and keep confidence high when all our attackers are healthy. Who do you leave on the bench? Another challenge is finding a central forward for Martino to experiment with, while Messi takes a more creative role for another tactical wrinkle.

Midfield malaise

midfield

The signs in midfield are, at first sight, not so encouraging. Busquets has been an absolute beast (Whoscored agrees, rating him higher than last season), but Song, while immensely talented, is still hit and miss on the pitch. Xavi and Iniesta have been less influential than we are used to seeing them, their scoring, assisting and passing are down, they are no longer team leaders in player rating, and sometimes look overrun in games.

Part of it is Tata’s effort to fix last season’s issues, as misfiring forwards led to midfielders shouldering a heavier load and getting further upfield in attack, while pressing and transition defense suffered. This season, forwards are doing a smashing job, and midfielders are asked to focus on their primary responsibilities, control midfield, clean up when the forwards lose the ball, then feed it back into the mixer and change the direction of attack with an array of short, long, through and diagonal balls. Due to the addition of Neymar, development of Alexis and Pedro who all require defensive attention, spaces are opening up in attack, so Xavi, Iniesta and even Messi don’t need to be close to goal in order to influence a match.

The other side of this has been referred to as “Martino having a plan but not the players for it”. Our direct competitors and elite teams we could face at later stages of the CL, like Real, Atletico, ManCity, Chelsea, Juventus and Bayern, rely on midfielders who are both physically dominant and technically excellent. They can at times run right through our more slight midfielders on attack, while kicking them out of games on defense. While Xavi and Iniesta, who many thought couldn’t play together, proved naysayers wrong in spectacular fashion, there is a lot of mileage in those legs, and using them for the bulk of minutes in all competitions could unnecessarily speed up the decline.

Just like last season, Xavi has played 68% and Iniesta 65% of available minutes. Thiago left a hole that hasn’t been filled – Sergi Roberto is no replacement yet, and Tata is unfairly criticized whenever Song plays alongside Busquets. Besides, Xavi and Iniesta’s greatest strength lies in controlling midfield through possession and short passing, while Tata asks for more directness in attack (thus, fewer passes are exchanged in midfield, and completion rate is down) – and consecutively, more pressing and defending is required from midfielders. Xavi and Iniesta are living legends who can excel in virtually any system centered on possession and attacking football, but when midfield turns into a field of (physical) battle, they might need help from someone like Keita who could slot in alongside Busquets and shut it down. Song could be that player, or we could try bringing in reinforcements from the B team or from the outside, but that option, a sort of a double pivot to begin or close some games, needs to be on the roster.

Defensive improvement

defense

It has been visible to the naked eye. While set pieces are still a menace, and will continue to be, we are no longer as vulnerable to counters, with our wingers and mids pressing in concert and taking pressure off defenders. As everyone is more willing to tackle and dish out tactical fouls to stop dangerous breaks, the defenders are more comfortable. ALL EIGHT of our defensive players have better Whoscored rating this season, Pique, Adriano and Bartra looking downright spectacular at times, Alba showing improvement after return from injury, Alves and Mascherano returning to their vintage selves. All that considered, we still concede the exact same number of shots per game in La Liga as last season – 9. However, we only allow Liga teams to score 0.6 goals per game, in contrast to 1.1 last season.

Part of it could be lower quality of shots we give up (46% of shots against us are from outside the box), but Valdes has played a huge role, saving everything at the beginning of the season, when the team was still adjusting to Tata’s requirements. Valdes has been, hands down, THE best keeper in the world by all metrics (although it’s devilishly hard to evaluate keepers independently of the defense in front of them, he leads the way in %of shots saved and Whoscored ranking by a country mile) and to the naked eye. If anyone thinks he can be comfortably replaced, I have a bridge to sell you.

However, replace him we must, and a new center back, while no longer vitally important, is still, well, very important. I love Mascherano to pieces but you cannot teach height, and for some matches we simply need that in our toolkit. Also, wishing Bartra a long career with Barca, but he needs another year or two of comfortable development before he can be an undisputed starter. The question is, do we bring someone in to form a partnership with Pique (in which case Masche would probably leave), or another backup to compete with Bartra?

The glass, at the moment, is more than half full. Before the season began, I said Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern, PSG and Dortmund can boast arguably better individual defenders than us, and only Chelsea and Bayern have better depth. Well, if you trust Whoscored, Pique has been the best defender on these teams, Bartra – the second best (both ranking a few decimals above, you guessed it, Thiago Silva), Mascherano and Puyol are up there with the best, while Barca has the fewest goals conceded in La Liga and is competing with Bayern for the least shots on goal conceded in Europe. How’s that for exceeding expectations?

Tata-ctical changes

betmartino

To sum up, this season we have seen a marked improvement in individual play of our attackers, defenders and goalkeeper, a more even distribution of attacking and defensive workload, integration of young(er) players and (more) recent signings, and this group of players coming together as a team.

The attack is more direct, with a faster route to goal, fewer passes being exchanged, a slightly lower completion rate and possession stat, but more dribbles, long, diagonal, through and chip balls that confound defenses, better movement into the opening space, more shots and better finishing from attackers who are not called Messi. Due to Messi limited or not playing for large part of the season, scoring is more unpredictable and evenly distributed among the strikers, more chances are created but overall finishing rate is lower. Because, well, no one can finish chances like Messi. To get something, you need to give something up.

Transition defense is also not the impending heart-attack it used to be, due to more players staying back to clean up, willingness to press, tackle and foul, better awareness and communication on defense, and having the best goalkeeper in the world. Generally, Barcelona looked competent in both transition and positional defense, but set pieces remain a problem. Not a huge problem, if you look at Atletico match in particular and our stellar defensive numbers in general.

There was also talk of rotation, and, with everyone healthy, it was happening. But due to injuries and a thin squad, Pique, Masche, Alves, Busi, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc are playing a lot of minutes, just like last season. Messi’s injury gave Alexis and Pedro a chance to shine, but the minutes will be tight when Neymar returns. Bartra, Montoya and Sergi Roberto are getting more time, mostly due to injuries, as the latter two have not been entirely convincing. Tello’s minutes and production nearly disappeared altogether.

The challenges remain as to managing minutes, getting the best out of Messi-Neymar and Xavi-Iniesta pairings, as well as finding a center forward, physical+technical midfielder and tall defender (oh, Javi Martinez) for Martino to experiment with without upsetting this great thing we have going.

(All data used is from transfermarkt.co.uk, whoscored.com and Opta, retrieved on December 28.)

Posted in Analysis, Statistics, Thoughts64 Comments

Part 2: Our Top Scorers – A Comparison

This article continues from the previous post in which I shared some comparative scoring analysis between the Top 2 teams from each of Spain’s La Liga, England’s EPL, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.

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Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Statistics, Tactics77 Comments

Part 1: Our Top Scorers – A Comparison

The official Barça website recently published an article reporting on the number of goals scored by the First Team. It explained that Messi and Villa had scored 54.7% of the 126 goals scored this season.

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Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Statistics56 Comments

Of Messi and Distance: Limited Statistical Analysis of How Far Players Run and What It Means

Virtually every comment on this blog over the last couple of days has been dedicated to an ongoing discussion/argument/flamewar/typofest on whether or not particular players are net positives or negatives for the club. Everyone has been involved, but it’s mostly centered around Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez. One comment went as such (typos and orthography cleaned up for readability):

People may not realize this but Messi’s non existent work rate has already reduced Neymar’s chance of success at Barca considerably. It has already helped push forward Villa’s transfer this summer because Villa can’t make up the ground to cover for Messi’s lazy bones. Just think about that for a second: we are soon to be without the services of the greatest striker in Spanish history because, at 32 yrs of age, he is required to cover twice as much ground as a guy 7 years younger.

I thought it important to ground any discussions of this nature in reality before we either blew it out of proportion as a troll comment, a Villa Fan Club drive-by shooting, or even as a legitimate critique of Lionel Messi’s contributions to the team.
There are a number of ways to begin dissecting what has been said and the various viewpoints they represent, but the thing that caught my eye was the last bit: “he is required to cover twice as much ground as a guy 7 years younger.” Is this true? Is it remotely true? What affect does distance covered have on the team? What is distance covered?

To begin, let’s dispense with the absurd: comparing an outfield player’s distance covered to that of a goalkeeper is not useful.* So we’re only going to talk about outfield players. I pulled UEFA statistics from their official matchcenter, so if you have trouble believing what is written here, look through those tables. If they’re wrong, I’m wrong by default. Statistics are also often skewed by small sample sizes. Take Tony Watt, for instance. He appeared for a total of 45 minutes in the Champions League group stage (and 1st leg of the Round of 16) and totaled 5,884 meters of running and a goal (against Barcelona). We can tell how much he runs per minute, but his goals to running ratio is going to be skewed. Thus I have left off everyone who played fewer than 90 minutes over the course of the group stage and 1st leg of the Round of 16, just the lessen the likelihood of sample size bias. It also made it simpler for me to look at everything.

The Statistics

Of all the players that I looked at, Lionel Messi ran the least. He ran 44,027 meters in 482 minutes of play, scoring 5 goals and getting 3 assists. Compare this to Xavi: 56,552 meters in 441 minutes. The raw numbers there are obvious: Messi is truly out-worked by Xavi. When compared to all the Barcelona players whose stats are available, Messi runs fewer meters. He played the most minutes, but ended up “working” less than anyone else.

In terms of meters per minute, Messi ran 91.34 meters per minute, compared with Cesc Fabregas’ team best 136.88 meters per minute. Jordi Alba was next with 131.31m/m. Then Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Pedro, Adriano, Alexis, and Cristian Tello. The last name on that list, Tello, was closest to Messi’s work rate at 111.05m/m, still a solid 20 meters per minute higher than Messi.

Before we jump to conclusions about Messi’s laziness, how about we look at another team to see if the differences there are similar: Celtic.

Picked at random**, Celtic has 8 players with more than 90 minutes. Charlie Mulgrew the most meters covered with 70,751 in 562 minutes. He also led the meters per minute category for Celtic with 125.89m/m. That is quite a bit lower than Cesc’s FCB-best. On the low end was Giorgos Samaras with 103.97m/m. That is still 12 meters per minute more than Messi and is also only just under 22 meters per minute from Mulgrew’s team-best.

A comparison with a “lazy” player: Cristiano Ronaldo logged 70,696 meters in 630 minutes for an average of 112.22m/m. He also scored 7 goals and now leads the CL in that category and got 1 assist.

On what is probably the opposite end of the work spectrum from everyone on earth, Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Shakhtar Donetsk ran a competition-best 86,671meters in 630 minutes. This amounts to 137.57m/m, substantially better than Messi, but actually only slightly better than Cesc Fabregas. He also scored 2 goals and got no assists.

What Does It All Mean?

Is Messi actually “working” less, is he being asked to work less, or does any of this matter at all? Is Messi “working” a positive for Barcelona? Looking at the stats, it appears, at least on the surface, that if only Messi ran more, he’d score more goals. He scores one goal every 8,805 meters he runs. Besides Tony Watt, that is the best conversion-to-running ratio I have found. Imagine if he ran twice as much! He’d have twice as many goals.

Except, of course that’s not how it works. Given that this is a team sport, the offense is clearly built around getting the ball to Messi in particular positions. Average positioning shows Messi midway between the box and midfield. Given that he’s often in the box to, you know, score goals, it stands to reason that he’s just as often dropping towards midfield (that’s how averages work, after all). Given this, it makes more sense that he’s covering less ground than a box-to-box midfielder like Cesc, whose job is not to score boatloads of goals, but rather to create opportunities for others, defend, and generally harry their opposition into making mistakes. Xavi’s mantra of “pass, offer, receive, repeat” is part of that.

Without the numbers for defenders, it’s slightly harder to understand exactly how the offense functions, but given that the attackers generally have much lower average distance covered numbers than the midfielders and wingbacks (with a nod towards Pedro beating Adriano in this), it makes sense that Messi, the focal point through which everything is designed to go, has to move the least to accomplish this. Further, it’s possible that Messi is being protected physically from running so that he can put on his bursts whenever he needs to without worrying about the injuries that (literally) hamstrung him early in his career.

David Villa vs. Lionel Messi

The comment that originally sparked this is one about Messi making Villa work more. We don’t have Villa’s numbers from the CL, so it’s impossible to make a direct comparison, but it stands to reason that Villa’s numbers should be somewhere between Tello and Pedro’s. The hyperbole driving the original suggests twice as much, but we know that’s very, very unlikely to be true. Twice as much work would best even Mkhitaryan’s numbers to the tune of 43m/m, a difference nearly greater than the difference between Mkhitaryan and Messi in the first place.

Further, the idea that David Villa shouldn’t run more than Messi because Messi is younger doesn’t actually make any sense. Villa doesn’t play CF/false 9 in a 4-3-3 system. He plays wing, where running is expected, demanded, and required for team success. Messi’s movement is not independent of his teammates, but if the system is built around him, all other players become de facto support players. Xavi runs far more than Tello; does that diminish Tello’s contributions because they have a 12 year age gap? There is certainly an argument to be made that Xavi is a greater contributor to the team’s success than Tello, but that argument does not mean Xavi should run less and Tello more. This is the same thing that should be applied to Messi-Villa: Messi is by far the greater contributor to the team’s success. This is not to belittle David Villa in anyway, but rather to point out that Villa perhaps should be “working harder” than Messi.

A personal anecdote: when I was in high school, my team had an all-state striker. His job was to score goals, which he did: 27 in 10 games, if I remember correctly. My job was to get him the ball in a position to score. This meant that he did a lot of diagonal runs while I did a lot of full-field sprints. I probably ran twice as much as he did any time we were both on the field. He played 80 minutes (2 40-minute halves in high school) while I played 10-40 minutes, depending on the quality of the opponent. I probably ran more than he did total, but the sum of his contributions were extremely tangible whereas mine (pressing, sweating) were less so. Our coach made a decision: even seniors were instructed to do the heavy lifting and just get him the ball. No doubt there were players who balked at that idea, but it worked.

These ideas are not particularly different from what is going on at Barça, it’s just at a much, much higher level. The idea that Messi doesn’t work hard enough suggests that him working harder would actually give the team a leg up. It might in particular situations and I tend to agree that his lack of defensive pressing has been disappointing over the last several weeks, but it’s hard to pillory him for simply being so good that his inclusion on the teamsheet week-in-and-week-out is a net positive, even if he’s tired.

Conclusion

Like the player on my high school team, there was no one who would play better in that position. We could have adjusted the tactics, but beyond confusing the likes of me, we would still not have been as good while he rested on the bench. Against (excruciatingly, absurdly, preposterously) weak opponents, it would have worked out, but we wouldn’t have gotten the reps necessary to beat better opposition at a later date.

So it’s not about “working hard” except in particular situations. I do think Messi should get more days off simply because of the sheer talent on hand and the fact that I don’t believe the Copa del Rey is a competition best served by using our best 11. Even against Real Madrid. Were this a single-leg knockout competition, I could see it being worth the while (and 50 times as exciting as the CDR), but 2 legs is a lot of legs and because I value it less than both la liga and the Champions League, I don’t care to expend Messi’s energy on a competition that I don’t rate nearly as much as the others.

The very notion of “passion” and “leave it all on the field” is fairly anathema to what Barcelona has been attempting to do over the last few years. It is a fairly British/English construct that grit and power will surely overcome technical prowess, at least on the football field. David Goldblatt speaks eloquently to this in his football history The Ball is Round: it’s a holdover British imperial era public school doctrine and, by extension, the entire makeup of the British Empire. Obviously there is a need for physical ability and stamina in the modern game, regardless of technical level, but the players at Barcelona’s disposal have proven repeatedly to be both. There is little need to increase “work rate” for the sake of adding meters to statistics.

Lionel Messi scores immense numbers of goals and helps the team hold onto the ball. He occasionally makes mistakes, including several in last year’s Champions League semifinal that led to Barça’s elimination at the hands of Chelsea. These things happen, of course, but it should be noted that Messi’s mistake that led to Drogba’s goal in the first leg of that encounter was after he repeatedly worked to get the ball deep in midfield. He was putting in the work that everyone wants and yet it led, eventually, to elimination.

—–

*I mean…right? it turns out that Fraser Forster, the only goalie listed that I could find, has run an incredible 32,671 meters in his 630 minutes on the field. That’s nearly 50 meters a minute as a goalkeeper. Methinks he must dance a lot in his box.

**Picked because I noticed Fraser Forster had a very, very high distance covered and then thought, “Why not use Celtic?”

[image source]

Posted in Statistics, Tactics, Thoughts112 Comments

Why I Don’t Care About Messi’s 91 Goals

My brother was in the bathroom when Mark McGwire stepped up to the plate and sent the first pitch into the stands with a line-drive home run. I was watching, along with my father, and we both yelled, happy to have seen this moment of sporting history. My brother was furious at McGwire because he was almost back in the room. Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a year had stood for 37 years, but, as the saying goes, records are meant to be broken.

Lionel Messi recently broke Müller’s calendar year scoring record of 85, which the German set in 1972. That record, if you are too lazy to do the math, has lasted 40 years before Messi sauntered onto the scene with a brilliant 365 days. The thing is, when it comes down to it, I don’t care. In the greater scheme of things, Lionel Messi vs Gerd Müller is one of those statistical wankfests that a lot of people love to get into. The New York Times got in on the act, comparing Messi-Müller to Ruth-Maris because of the difference in how many games they played during their respective record-setting and record-breaking years (and all that before Messi had even broken the record).

It would be fairly absurd of me to say that I statistics don’t matter because most of you know that I don’t think that. We even have a category for it, after all. But there is a difference, I think, in comparing meaningful statistics and meaningless ones. Baseball is an incredibly easy example given the glut of statistics that comes out of it, so I’ll use this example: Runs Batted In (RBI). For those of you who don’t know or just need a refresher, an RBI is a statistic used in baseball and softball to credit a batter when the outcome of his at-bat results in a run being scored. There are more nuances, but that should suffice. Roughly speaking, a lot of baseball fans get excited whenever someone gets 120 RBIs or more in a season. The record is apparently 191 by Hack Wilson in 1930. What’s important about the RBI is that it obviously requires teammates to get on base before one is able to hit them in. In 2004, Ichiro Suzuki broke the single season hit record, yet only had 60 RBIs. His team went a fairly abysmal 63-99 and finished bottom of the American League West.

What’s that got to do with Messi? Simple: glorious statistics do not translate to important feats. Watching Messi score 91 goals in a calendar year has been phenomenal, but not because Messi scored 91 goals in a calendar year. Rather, watching Messi play is a reminder that there is still art and beauty in this game we love so much. If he scores 3 in a match, it’s a wonderful prize, but it’s not particularly important to connect it to the game before it or the game after it. In some ways, it detracts from the grandness of what he’s accomplishing: he is revolutionizing the way millions of people think of the sport. To put a drab number on it (91 in 365!) is to make it seem less interesting, less significant, and even less challenging. Think of it this way: “Did you hear Fernando Torres has scored 2.75 goals per Chelsea manager?”

That’s a funny statistic, of course, but overall it’s meaningless: Torres won the Champions League and a domestic cup last year. Messi, who had only 19 goals fewer than all of Chelsea in last season’s domestic league, won a domestic cup and was knocked out of the Champions League by one of those rare Torres goals. When Messi scored 31 goals in 2010-11, coming in 2nd in his own domestic competition, the team won both the Champions League and La Liga. When Barça won the Triplete in 2008-09, it was Diego Forlan who scored the most league goals (though only by 1). In 2009-10, Messi won the Pichichi and the La Liga title. The team went out in the round of 16 in the Copa del Rey and in the semis in the Champions League.

The question for me, quite a few years later, is if I actually care that McGwire broke that home run record (artificially aided or not) or whether I care about other individual achievements in team sports. Ask a Yankees fan if they care if no one on their World Series-winning and record-setting team (125 wins, 50 losses including post season) had more than 23 home runs that year.

Messi is incredible. He is beyond incredible, in fact. His numbers do attest to that, sure, but they do not make him a great player. What makes him great is that he makes others better. Let’s focus on that.

[Image source]

Posted in Statistics, Thoughts50 Comments

Messi’s Magical Season for 2011/2012

La Pulga ~ The Messi-ah ~ D10S ~ Magisterial ~ Sempre Messi.

Last season, he was “PlayStation Messi”.  This past season, the media ran out of earth-bound superlatives for Barça’s #10, so then came descriptive phrases such as “from another planet” and “out of this world”, for there is nowhere else to go except to infinity and beyond.

When references to other worlds appear, you know that the person being talked about is in an elite echelon – towering above his peers – mere words unable to describe what he does, or how he makes us feel whenever he pulls off another Messi-esque move.

“Gaaaaaargh!!!!!!!!!! Nothing less than the equivalent of a foot-balling bird of paradise is this man, that defies the description, ‘man’. Genius of geniuses! He’s like Doctor Spock! He’s out of his Vulcan mind! Absolutely out of this world! Lionel! Look at the tuck away, look at the pace, he folds(?) this field up in warp speed, Doctor Spock, in warp speed. Maaagesterial Argentina! Magesteerial Leoo! Running like he’s got a food mixer down his shorts, and it set the beat.” ~ Ray Hudson, GolTV, Málaga vs. Barça, 22nd January, 2012.

If you haven’t yet heard Ray-Ray say that, do yourself a favour and listen here!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzNhDgi1jZ0

We watch the replays, shake our heads and still think that our eyes have fooled us, because there’s no way a human should be that co-ordinated to move body and mind together, to perform such outrageous manoeuvres as quickly as Messi can.

Therein lies his super-power strength – that ability to disengage his mind, go into the zone, and let his feet do the thinking. Only once the ball is in the net does the rest of him catch up. I’ve seen times when he almost shakes himself back to the present, as if not really knowing what he just did; so proud and pleased, as if he’s saying, “Did you see what just happened? Wow – we’re good!  Let’s celebrate with a team hug.”

“Although he may not be human, it’s good that Messi still thinks he is. Messi plays another sport.” ~ Javier Mascherano, Barça TV interview, 5th May 2012, after the 5-0 Espanyol (farewell to Pep) match at Camp Nou.

That zen-like zone, in which athletes revel and seemingly perform above human capability, can’t be trained or taught. There isn’t a lesson plan for it. You either have it or you don’t. It either switches on or it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t engage, super-human athletes become almost ordinary. A bad day at the office. They over-think; cannot instinctively find the right movements; find themselves out of position; out of synchronicity and everything seems to go wrong. We’ve seen glimpses of that in Messi this season during games, with his ambling around the pitch, the missed hook-ups with other team-mates, as well as his runs forward which turn to nothing as a defender deprives him of the ball, and he looks up in wide-eyed disbelief that it’s just not working right now.

He can’t be brilliant all the time. This is a team sport, after all.

Messi’s presence on the pitch is enough to keep 2 or 3 defenders occupied for almost the entire 90+ minutes, keeping him covered in case he does get the ball and goes into warp speed. That’s the immense advantage of having him in the match, even when it’s not gelling for him. Tactically, for a coach and team, having 2-3 defenders covering 1 player means that it gives space on the pitch in which the other strikers, (and attacking midfielders), can find their way to the net.

Other strikers.

This season, there were no “other strikers” for whatever reasons. Alexis’ and Villa’s injury report cards have been filled out on both sides. Pedro was also injured and didn’t recover form until the last few weeks of the season.

Lack of form, and injuries, also affected supporting mid-field players Cesc, Iniesta and Xavi. Afellay didn’t get to prove his worth because of a hamstring injury followed almost immediately by a more serious ACL injury. Thiago blew hot and cold. Keita and Busquets were solid, but hardly game-makers in the genre of Xavi and Iniesta.

Guardiola resorted to bringing in B-teamers Cuenca and Tello. Cuenca has perhaps adapted the best in supporting Messi and Alexis, while Tello has yet to find that element of his game. He’s so used to being the end-guy, scoring the goals, that he’ll shoot even though the better opportunity lies with an inside and better-positioned team-mate. He’s not a quick thinker in that regard.

The mid-field, so used to supporting their forwards, found themselves doing double duty in attack and in defence (lots more than usual) when the Barça back-line was often riddled with injury. The 3-man back-line formation also caused issues in some games when under pressure from their opponents, and forced Busquets to go back in support, leaving the midfield without a pivot. This often meant that the midfielders played deeper behind half-way, and the midfield link-up with the forwards wasn’t further up the pitch for the quick plays and combinations closer to the goal.

The back-line was not without its own issues. Abidal began to show signs of poor form and we were all devastated to find out why. Fontàs went out with an long-term ACL injury; Piqué frequently drew blood or was benched; Alves drew cards; Puyol’s body defied his mind; Adriano pulled muscles at whim and Maxwell left for Paris Saint-Germain.  Mascherano, (a mid-fielder until he arrived at the club), was still feeling his way into the CB role and committed some horrendous boo-boos (professional technical term) during his apprenticeship.

Despite all these set-backs, think about how close this team came to pulling off yet another hugely successful season.

4 trophies won, out of the 6 for which they have competed.

Granted they lost the big ones, but the crunch time for both of these trophies came at the end of a long season when the team simply ran out of gas. Before the end of the Liga season, Barça had played 5 more games than Real Madrid (UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup x2, CdR Semifinals x2), plus endured all the stresses that travel puts on the body and mind – especially the trip to Japan.

“We’re running out of adjectives to describe him. I don’t know what to say anymore about Messi. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to play with him. We have the best player in the world playing alongside us. He bests himself in every game. He is a magnificent person and player.” ~ Pedro on Barça TV’s El Marcador programme, 7th March 2012, after the 7-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen at Camp Nou.

The past season was filled with a multitude of mishaps and misadventures, and bang in center-stage was Messi – the only constant presence this season in the Barça attack, while his team-mates ebbed and flowed around him. It wasn’t really the ideal environment in which to create a formidable attack partnership, nor even field a whole team of players who instinctively understood what to do, and when. With the lack of options, Messi was relied upon to do it all up front. He became the go-to guy for the attacks on goal, because there wasn’t really anyone else to do it.

Messidependencia? You bet.

However, because he is Messi, it wasn’t an ordinary event. He just didn’t score goals. This season, he has set new records after breaking virtually every existing scoring record within his reach at Club, European and World levels. He has scored in singles, braces, hat-tricks, pokers and even a five goal personal manita. He has won several individual trophies to go with those won with his team-mates.

With his 73 goals and 28 assists, he has directly contributed to 101 of the 190 official  goals scored by the team during the 2011/12 temporada.

Let’s take a look at the list of Messi’s records and honours that he’s achieved and received over the past season.

Ready?  Take a deep breath, because you’re going to need it.

Individual Records

Club (FC Barcelona)

~ The first player to score and assist in every trophy competition (6 in total) in one season.
~ The 2nd club player (after Pedro) to score in 6 official competitions in one season.
~ Leading Barça scorer in Spanish Supacopa with 8 goals.
~ Scored 35 La Liga home goals to set new club and Liga records.
~ With 14 La Liga hat-tricks, sets a new record surpassing César’s 13.
~ 2nd Barcelona player to win Pichichi twice. (Shares record with Quini).
~ Converted 10 penalties in La Liga to equal record set by Ronald Koeman (1989-1990).
~ Scored in 10 consecutive Liga games (in which he played) to equal Martin (1942/43) and Ronaldo (1996/97).
~ Equalled record set by Eto’o (2007-08) to score in 7 consecutive La Liga Away games.
~ At age 24, becomes La Liga’s youngest player to score 150 goals to set club and Liga records.
~ With 214 games, beats Cocu’s record (205 games) to become foreign player with most La Liga games for the club.
~ First player to score 8 hat-tricks in a single La Liga season.
~ 15th October 2011:  Surpasses Kubala’s 2nd place club record of 194 goals.  (With a brace vs. Racing Santander at Camp Nou.)
~ 29th October 2011:  Scores the club’s fastest La Liga hat-trick in 17 minutes. (vs. Mallorca at Camp Nou.)
~  19th February 2012:  Becomes the club’s youngest player to play 200 La Liga games.  (With 4 goals vs. Valencia at Camp Nou.)
~ 20th March 2012:  Becomes the club’s top competition scorer when he surpasses César Rodríguez Álvarez (232).  (vs. Granada at Camp Nou.)
~ 25th May 2012:  Holds the club’s goal scoring record (in competitions only) of 253 goals.
~ 25th May 2012:  Holds the club record for most goals scored in a single season – 73.

Spanish La Liga and Copa del Rey

~ Leading scorer in Spanish Supacopa competition with 8 goals. (Previously held by Raúl with 7 goals.)
~ 10th April 2012:  Breaks Isidro Lángara Galarraga’s 78 year old record (60 goals during 1933–34), to become Spain’s top scorer in one season. (vs. Getafe at Camp Nou.)
~ Marca’s Pichichi Winner with 50 Liga goals.
~ Top La Liga Goal Scorer (50) in 2011/2012 season.
~ First player to score 50 La Liga goals in a single season, breaking Ronaldo’s 2010/2011 record of 40 goals.
~ Set a new record for La Liga goals scored in home games – 35 in the season.
~ Second player (after Hugo Sánchez) to score 35+ goals in all competitions for 4 consecutive seasons.
~ At age 24, becomes La Liga’s youngest player to score 150 goals.
~ First player to score 8 hat-tricks in a single season.
~ 25th May 2012:  Finishes season with 53 goals scored in La Liga (50) and Copa del Rey (3).

UEFA Champions League

~ All-time Top CL Scorer with 14 goals.  (He shares the highest score with AC Milan’s José Altafini who scored 14 in 1962/63).
~ Top CL scorer for the past 4 years, and has set a new record for consecutive seasons at the top.  (He previously shared the record of 3 consecutive years with Gerd Müller [1973, 74, 75] and Jean-Perre Papin [1990, 91, 92].)
~ 7th March 2012:  Becomes the first player in CL to score 5 goals in one match.  (vs. Bayer Leverkusen at Camp Nou.)
~ The youngest player to pass the 50 goal mark in CL history.
~ Top scorer in the CL knockout stage with 26 goals.  (Previous record of 18 goals was jointly held by Raúl and Shevchenko.)
~ Scores his 2nd and 3rd CL hat-tricks to share record (with Filippo Inzaghi and Michael Owen) for highest total of CL hat-tricks.
~ 4th player (follows Jari Litmanen, Hernán Crespo and Thierry Henry) to score in 7 Away games in a row.

Europe

Awarded during this season, for last season’s performance
~ 25th August 2011:  2011 UEFA Best Player in Europe.

This Season
~ 2nd May 2012:  Breaks Gerd Müller’s 39 year old record (67 goals set in 1972/73) to become Europe’s leading goal-scorer in one season. (A hat-trick vs. Málaga at Camp Nou.)
~ 5th May 2012: His 2nd match goal surpasses Dudu Georgescu’s 35 year record (47 league goals for Dinamo Bucharest in the 1976/77 Romanian champs), to become the European Top League scorer in one season, with a total of 50 goals. (4 goals scored vs. Espanyol at Camp Nou.)
~ 25th May 2012:  Scores his 73rd goal for a new European record in one season. (Copa del Rey Final vs. Athletic Bilbao.)
~ European Golden Shoe with 50 goals. (His 2nd Golden Shoe Trophy.)
~ First player to achieve 100 points in the European Golden Shoe. (50 goals x Factor 2 for top leagues weighting.)

FIFA Club World Cup

~ December 2011:  Man of the Match in Final. (vs. Santos FC.)
~ December 2011:  Golden Ball Trophy. (2 goals scored.)

World Stage

Awarded during this season, for last season’s performance
~ 9th January 2012:  2011 FIFA Ballon D’Or for World Player of the Year.

This Season
~ With his 3rd consecutive Ballon D’Or, he became one of only 2 players to have won it 3 times in a row.  (The other player is Michel Platini, and he won in the era when only European players were eligible for the award.)
~ 4th player to win 3 Ballons D’Or. (after Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco van Basten.)
~ 5th May 2012:  A new World record of 72 goals in a 1st division season by breaking Archie Stark’s (Bethlehem Steel Club) 85 year old tally of 70 goals which Stark set in the American Soccer League in the 1924/25 season.  (A poker bag vs. Espanyol at Camp Nou.)
~ 25th May 2012:  A new World Record of 73 goals in a first division season. (1 goal scored vs. Athletic Bilbao in Copa del Rey Final.)

Personal Bests and Distinctions (Other than those mentioned above)

~ 1st November 2011:  Scored his 200th  goal for FC Barcelona. (A hat-trick vs. Viktoria Plzeň in Champions League.)
~  26th December 2011:  French publication, L’Équipe, named Messi “2011 Champion of Champions”, beating tennis #1 Novak Djokovic and Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel.  Messi became only the 5th football player to win the award, and the first to win it out of a World Cup Year.
~ Appeared in Time Magazine’s 100 Top Influential People List.
~ Time Magazine also named Messi as one of the 32 candidates for this year’s “Person of the Year Award”.
~ Played more matches (60 in total) than in any of his previous seasons.
~ A new personal record of 28 assists in one season. (This would have been 38 if awarded according to the Wikipedia definition of an assist.)
~ Scored in 6 consecutive home games (twice over the season) to better his previous record of 5 games in a row.
~ 5th May 2012:  Scores his 250th goal for FC Barcelona.  (A poker bag vs. Espanyol at Camp Nou.)

Team Honours

~ 17th August 2011:  Spanish Supacopa Trophy. (vs. Real Madrid.)
~ 26th August 2011:  UEFA Super Cup Trophy. (vs. FC Porto.)
~ 18th December 2011:  FIFA Club World Cup Trophy. (vs. Santos FC.)
~ 25th May 2012:  Copa del Rey Trophy. (vs. Athletic Bilbao.)
~ Semi-final Stage of UEFA Champions League.
~ 2nd Place in Spanish La Liga.

I’ve prepared some PDF documents of Messi’s achievements. You can download them from these links:

Messi_2011_2012_Statistics_Summary - a breakdown of Minutes and Games played, Goals and Assists by Competition, as well as analysing Home and Away Goals and Assists and how he scored them (singles, braces, hat-tricks etc).

Messi_2011_2012_GameByGameAnalysis - a Game-by-Game breakdown of Messi’s Goals, Assists (and to whom), and Minutes Played per Game.

Messi_Achievements_2011_2012 - A List of Messi’s Achievements and Records for the 2011-2012 Season.

Will this be enough for Messi to have won his 4th Ballon D’Or?  If he doesn’t, then there’s something very wrong with the voting system, or the quality and education of the voters.

Detractors opine that his goals “were not worth anything”  ¿Por qué?  You cannot be serious.

Look at all those new records which now have the name “Lionel Messi” beside them. Digest how many long-standing records have been shattered by this 24 year old, in what has been deemed a less than successful year for an FC Barcelona team which did not succeed in winning La Liga for the 4th time in a row, or Champions League for the 2nd consecutive year.

How preposterous and ridiculous, is it, to expect that this team would keep winning and that they (Messi included) have failed because of a couple of lost trophies – in just one season? Now think of the Arsenal fans who have never given up on their team which last won a trophy 7 seasons ago. Haven’t we been blessed, by comparison?

When the world’s football managers and captains place their votes for the World’s Best Player, I trust that they will do their homework and look for a list of achievements that each player has attained over the season.

The Ballon D’Or is an individual award for the player who has played the best throughout the past season, and Messi’s record-breaking statistics have been out of this world.

With a healthy team around him, those efforts could perhaps be reflected in a couple more pieces of silverware which, for some reason, would make his accomplishments so much more significant and legitimate in the eyes of some people: people who cannot fathom how much this guy has achieved over the past 9 months, and how Messi responded to his club’s call when he was most needed.

Should Messi not capture his 4th Ballon D’Or, I’d suggest that he goes on to new challenges for the next season, for there are other records to break.

For starters, he hasn’t yet won the Zamora Trophy.

Posted in Barcelona, Messi, Player Profiles, Review, Statistics235 Comments

News of the Week: Pep renews + other less important things

I mourn the loss of your hair...

Well. It’s me again here to do something I should have done a long time ago: give you the news of the past week! Continue Reading

Posted in Barcelona, Statistics, Team News109 Comments

David Villa and a plea for cule patience

Lordy. Barely halfway into David Villa’s first season, and people are wanting to trade him in for a goat. Now, I will say for the record, that if you haven’t had goat’s milk ice cream …. boy, howdy! Now I’m not sure that’s worth a striker, though there are a lot of guys I’d happily trade for some of that goat’s milk goodness. Just sayin’. But David Villa ain’t one of them.

And for the record, I’m a journalist. I work with words. I chose to work with words because they promised me that no math would be involved. And yet, here we go, with numbers.

As I said in the Bilbao Copa match review comments section, we have gone through this with Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now David Villa. Let’s have a look at just what we’ve gone through, shall we, and where Villa will potentially sit.
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Posted in Statistics, Thoughts60 Comments

Just Another Way to Look at Things


This post is about statistics. You have been warned.

Now then: isn’t Bojan adorable? Doesn’t Busi look like a horse? Shouldn’t we burn Ibra at the stake if he ever comes back to visit? These questions can all be answered, to some degree or another, with numbers. Bojan, for instance, is way more adorable when you say that he scored as many goals per minute as Ibra last season or if you point out that his productions levels at 20 are way ahead of Pedro’s at the same age—don’t forget that Pedro is already 23, after all. And Busi totally looks more like a horse if you replay the gif of him against Inter about 30 times.

The Ibra thing I won’t even get into because of the whole Hulk Smash thing I do when you disrespect The Guardiola and, really, my lovely lady is getting tired of replacing the coffee table (and you wondered how Ikea made so much money–aha! Now I know it’s a dastardly Swedish plot to get at my moolah!).
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Posted in Statistics90 Comments

A Few Quick Thoughts

Kevin has written a review of the Athletic match which, if you haven’t read it, should be your first stop. Besides joy at watching Banjo Crickets get his two goals and our team continuing to look like a brilliant machine of goal-making beauty, there was the obvious “Oh shit” of hearing that both Ibra and Pique could be out for the clásico next Saturday. I’ll cover much more of that in tomorrow’s Arsenal second leg preview, but suffice to say that I’m arching eyebrows in concern.

I’m here, though, not to discuss negative outlooks on the coming matches, but rather to give some updates about various topics. Check ‘em out after the jump.

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Posted in Nonsense, Statistics53 Comments

The Greatest Team in History

This post was written by reader Luke, who wins eternal brownie points for this.

Being an American fan of FC Barcelona is sometimes trying. It is often times difficult to find team information—let’s be honest, Goal.com is useless about 94% of the time—as well as intelligent qualitative analysis of games and team decisions, as Soccernet almost exclusively covers the EPL. Finding games, even those in La Liga, can require an abacus, a farmer’s almanac, and a working knowledge of the timing of Haley’s Comet. But it is times like this when it is all worth it, when Barça completes the most historic and dominant season in the history of club football, and maybe even all professional sports. As Americans, we always attempt to compare teams, even across different eras when it may be impossible; what follows is my best effort to put this achievement into perspective.

Campeones
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Posted in Statistics, Thoughts13 Comments

Pandora’s Box: Statistics in Football

Nate Silver: Rock Star

Nate Silver: Rock Star

I like Nate Silver. I read his political blog virtually every day and followed it religiously during the 2008 presidential election cycle here in the US. He’s a man who knows his statistics and also his sports: he writes for Baseball Prospectus and uses more decimals than I do. A lot more. So yeah, I like Nate Silver and when I learned that he was involved in ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), I was pretty excited. After all, Nate has a bigger brain than I do and maybe I would be able to learn a few things about approaching football/soccer statistically.

Nate’s article is here. The actual SPI rankings are here and you can the full methodology here. You can read about how smart the guy is here. Continue Reading

Posted in Statistics, Thoughts48 Comments

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