Often statistics are not successful in giving insights about some particular footballing abilities. Sometimes they are pretty straightforward and sometimes they need a strong context, in order not to be misleading. One particular aspect not so easy to put in statistical terms is a player’s playmaking ability and vision, an ability in which Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is particularly ‘gifted’. Here I try to give some statistical insights on how good his vision is and how it compares to other players.
Based on all the stats currently provided in football, those who give information about playmaking ability use ‘chances created’ as the parameter. For a player’s vision, the parameter used is ‘through balls’. Through balls are defined as “an attempted/accurate pass between opposition players in their defensive line to find an onrushing teammate (running through on goal)” [example image 1]. Hence, a combination of chances created and through balls enables us to judge a players’ ‘vision’ and his ability to create chances for his teammates.
Note that the total number of chances created is not necessarily a measure of their playmaking or vision skills, since many chances can be created by a ‘simple’ pass exchanged between players and also by corners, free kick passes, etc.
Charts 1 and 2 give the total and through ball chances created in the Liga and in the Champions League since the 2009/2010 season. Messi tops both charts but yet this doesn’t give justice to his incredible vision, which we have been witnessing regularly for years now. A fairer impression is achieved when looking at the number of chances created by through balls, in which Messi is simply far beyond the rest.
Aside from being a measure of a player’s vision and ability to break defensive lines, through balls are also an indicator of creating more valuable chances for your teammates. This can be inferred also from looking at chart 3. Here we can see that Messi’s chances created by through balls have a conversion rate almost twice as high as any other type of chances, meaning they are easier to be converted into goals.
To give some further insights on how good Messi’s (and also other players’) vision is and take into account that various players have played different number of minutes in different competitions, I made 5 charts. These charts show the relationship between total chances created and chances created by through balls in the Liga (Charts 4, 5 and 6) and in the Champions League (Charts 7 and 8), both in absolute numbers and in numbers converted per 90 minutes of play.
There is really not much room for argument, Messi dominates in both absolute and relative charts. These charts also give credit to many other players, especially to Francesco Totti and Andrey Arshavin, although their relative through ball numbers are not representative, since they include a relatively small number of total chances created.
Many players who feature in these charts have a high tendency to play accurate through balls for their teammates. Here we can mention Xavi, Iniesta, Robben, Aimar, Cesc Fàbregas, Özil, Reyes, Nolito, etc. Ángel Di María seems to be the player positionally closer to Messi in this aspect of the game.
One particular that scales up Messi’s playmaking ability is the fact that, unlike all the other above-mentioned players, often he is also the receiver of these passes (and arguably the best goalscorer around). So, we can expect even higher numbers from Messi if he concentrates his game more in creating chances. Maybe this is how the ‘future’ Messi might be.