One of my enduring interests is quantifiable athletic dominance over contemporaries.
“Dominance” (and to a worse extent, “greatness”), as is normally used, carries such a mixed bag of connotations. Near-arbitrary, specific moments are valued over demonstrated statistical regularities, and the availability heuristic (think clutch shots) skews recollections, not to mention other biases like the belief in the hot hand and how it’s “intrinsic” in some people. “Intangibles that don’t show up in the box score” is even more cringe-inducing: if it literally doesn’t demonstrably help in any way, it might as well not exist; it’s meaningless. (I kind of see the appeal of naive objectivism in considering statements like that.) Forget comparisons of dominance via highlight reels. At the very least, I can’t make sense of the notion of “dominance” used in these contexts: I can’t see how you’d make a reasonable well-ordering on the dominance of athletes in a particular athletic endeavor, and I haven’t found any that’s remotely convincing.
Statistical box-score dominance using large-enough datasets is more my thing. Do something really well, and that’d be impressive. Do it again, and again, and again, tens and hundreds and even thousands of times, and that’d be mind-blowing. As a “measure of impressiveness”, it’s Bayesian. I appreciate genius in all the ways it can manifest, but sensibly well-ordering them requires more than the eye test; it requires an analytic breakdown.
In this regard, Messi scores in spades.
Here’s FiveThirtyEight on Messi:
I’ve studied nearly every aspect of Messi’s game, down to a touch-by-touch level: his shooting and scoring production; where he shoots from;how often he sets up his own shots; what kind of kicks he uses to make those shots; his ability to take on defenders; how accurate his passes are;the kind of passes he makes; how often he creates scoring chances; how often those chances lead to goals; even how his defensive playmaking compares to other high-volume shooters.
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.
Here’s Messi on scoring. The graph is unreal.
I think it’s fair to say that goals mean more in soccer than points do in most sports. And Messi scores a lot of them. Since the end of the 2010 World Cup, Messi has been responsible for 291 goals and assists in the 201 of his games in club and national team play tracked by the sports analytics company Opta. How does that compare with other soccer stars across top leagues around the world? (The Opta data set includes 16,574 players and 24,904 games in both league and international play since the end of the 2010 World Cup.)
Coming in just behind Messi with 289 goals and assists since the 2010 World Cup is Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s rival from Real Madrid. When it comes to scoring, these two aren’t just on top of the pile, they’re hang-gliding somewhere way above it. Messi and Ronaldo have been compared to each other so often by sports media and fans alike that it almost feels trite to compare them again, but it can’t be helped. If we want to compare Messi to all players with a remotely similar volume of production, we’re left with Ronaldo.
Here’s Messi on scoring efficiency. The more you shoot, the more bad chances you take, so your efficiency should drop accordingly; this is the case in basketball but not so much in football – but Messi still beats the trend:
Now let’s leave assists aside for a second (much more on them later), and concentrate on Messi’s shooting. Like Ronaldo, he has an enormous number of goals, but also takes an enormous number of shots. If this were basketball, we might expect a negative (or at least decelerating) relationship between shot volume and shot efficiency — the more shots a player takes the less efficient he is.3 But it turns out this isn’t really the case in soccer: More efficient shooters tend to take more shots. Despite this, Messi is still a trend-breaker:4
Of the 866 players who qualified for that plot — by playing in 50-plus games and averaging at least one shot attempt per game — Messi is the ninth-most efficient shooter overall (Ronaldo is 173rd), and he’s by far the most efficient of anyone with a similar shot volume. The highest-volume shooter who is more efficient is Mario Gomez, the former Bayern Munich striker, who takes about two-thirds as many shots as Messi.
There’s a way to estimate the quality of a shot, based on location and shot type; this results in a measure called “expected goals” and it’s a good thing to try and maximize. There’s also a way to quantify “making the most of your shot chances”: define it to be the difference between your expected goals and your actual ones, called “goals above average”. In both cases, Messi’s numbers reign supreme:
Because Messi takes shots that are more likely to go in, his average attempt has an expectation of .182 goals, while the average Ronaldo shot has an expectation of .124 goals — so we would expect Messi’s shooting to be more efficient based on that alone. However, Messi has also exceeded that expectation by a greater amount than Ronaldo has. Messi scored .220 goals per shot attempt for .038 GAA per goal. Ronaldo scored .139 goals per attempt, so he had .015 GAA per goal.
Here’s a comparison of the top 20 shot-takers overall (regular shots in all games since the 2010 World Cup):
In this group, Messi both takes the best shots and does the most with those attempts.
If we break this down using shot-location data, it’s clear that Messi is highly efficient across a wide range of distances.
The percentage of shots Messi makes from outside the penalty area is absolutely stunning. He scores almost as often per shot from outside the penalty area (12.1 percent) as most players do inside it (13.1 percent).
Of 8,335 players in our dataset who have taken at least one shot from outside the box, only 1,835 have scored from that distance at any point. There are 47 players with 50 or more attempts from outside the box without a single goal, and about 500 with at least 20 attempts and no goals. Messi leads the world with 21 goals from outside the penalty area, on just 173 shot attempts.
Ronaldo takes more than twice as many shots from this distance, but still has fewer goals overall. Messi, meanwhile, scores at a remarkable rate. Adjusting for shot quality with the GAA model, Messi is running 12.6 goals above expectation (based on shot-by-shot expectation, not the trend line in the chart). Ronaldo, with more than twice as many shots, ran just 5.5 goals above expectation, and no one but Messi is higher than 7.5 goals.
Still not impressed? There’s more.
Here’s Messi on unassisted shooting; despite playing in Barcelona’s pass-happy tiki-taka system he actually does far better unassisted than he does assisted. I mean, look at that graph:
About 44 percent of Messi’s “open” (non-set piece) shots are “individual plays,” taken without an assist.5 This is lower than the 46 percent of unassisted shots for players overall, but Messi scores on these shots more than 23 percent of the time, compared to all players’ 5 percent. Additionally, he gains .089 goals above average on each unassisted shot. Ronaldo gains .023, and the average player is slightly negative at -.004 GAA.
Let’s look at how Messi’s assisted shooting compares to other players with 100 or more shots both assisted and unassisted6:
Somehow, Messi has done even better when taking it on his own than when somebody sets him up. Moreover, on unassisted shots he shoots nearly 10 percent and .044 GAA better than the next best player (Sergio Aguero for Manchester City) does, despite taking the fourth-most such shots of the 28 players in the group.
Here’s Messi’s success rate in taking on defenders. This statistical outlier tendency is getting ridiculous:
To make all those unassisted shots possible, Messi has to take on a lot of defenders one on one. There’s a stat for that, and in my view it’s one of the most revealing, reflecting both Messi’s skill and style, and the relationship between the two. Of all forwards in our data set who’ve played 100-plus games, he “takes on” defenders the most, and he’s the most successful at it.
The only forward who takes on defenders nearly as aggressively as Messi is Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan striker for Liverpool who is perhaps too aggressive for his own good (ahem). Suarez is successful less than 35 percent of the time.
I highly encourage you to read more on the blog itself, but here’s a couple more tidbits just because:
From the above, you might think Messi is a selfish player. Or you might assume that if Messi is so good at shooting, he’d focus on it to the exclusion of other skills. But, in true Wayne Gretzky-eque fashion, Messi is also one of the top assisters in our data set. Once again, that makes him a crazy outlier: No one else (aside from, yes, Ronaldo) even comes close to his combination of goals scored versus goals dished.
Not only is Messi the top game-by-game goal-scorer of the last four years, he’s the third-most productive distributor of assists, despite being the primary scorer on his own team! Only Mesut Ozil and Franck Ribery8 earned more assists than Messi, and Ozil did it on Real Madrid9 — setting up Cristiano Ronaldo.
The biggest obstacle to evaluating Messi’s passing ability is accounting for the fact that he plays for the most pass-happy team in the world. Watching Barcelona can be a bit like watching a playground game of keep away. Barcelona’s players are infamous for their “tiki-taka” style of play, which relies on an enormous amount of short, high percentage passing. Above all else, they try to maintain possession of the ball until a chance opens up. This sounds like a great strategy, but there’s a reason it isn’t employed universally: To make it work, a team has to be stocked with amazing passers, and it has to have strikers capable of creating chances against set defenses.10
Messi is both of those things. And what’s more, his passing profile is nothing like the other Barcelona forwards, who typically send 72 percent of their passes back or square. Messi is far more likely to try to advance the ball toward the goal, and far more likely to succeed:
Messi makes more passes than the other forwards, with a higher percentage of those passes trying to advance the ball toward the goal, and a higher percentage of those passes finding their targets (typical Messi!). His 3,800-plus completed forward passes are nearly twice as many as any forward in our data set (Francesco Totti for FC Roma has 2,200, followed by Wayne Rooney, the English striker, with 1,800 and Ronaldo with 1,500).
Messi excels at the through-ball, the delicate and gorgeous play that requires perfect circumstances and perfect timing to be successful. Messi attempts almost twice as many of these passes as any other forward, and still manages to beat the trend.
And then there’s the bread and butter of aggressive passing: moving it toward the goal on the opponent’s side of the field. In attacking territory, no one attacks as often as Messi does, and no one has more success doing so.
These passes are where most assists come from, and indeed, Messi has the most assists per game from these kinds of passes of any forward, by a large margin. And again, despite making twice as many attempts as most people, he beats expectations.
Even though Barcelona is one of the best teams in the world, there’s a huge difference between when Messi is involved in creating shots and chances and when he isn’t. Here are the equivalent differences for all players since 2010 with more than 100 games played and four or more shots or assist chances per game:
Of course, these are raw shooting percentages and don’t account for the types of shots each player is taking or assisting, or the number of attempts. It’s generally harder to stay valuable over a larger number of shots, and we haven’t yet factored in that difficulty.
For that, we turn back to the goals above average model, which compares each shot or chance outcome with its expectation. From this, we can tell whether a player has exceeded expectations for all of his shot attempts and chances created. Then we can do the same for all shots taken by his team without the player’s involvement, and compare the two. For example, if the player scored .02 goals above expectation per shot attempt, and the rest of his team scored -.01 goals less than expectation, that player’s value-added would be +.03 goals per shot (the value above replacement for that player on that team). Now let’s plot that added value against each player’s13 total offensive participation (the percentage of team shots he’s involved with):
Finally, after however many charts, we see a diminishing return. At least for everyone not named Lionel Messi. He once again tops the field, impervious to the burden.
Messi is staggering.