Messi is not 100% perfect but…he is very close to it, at least in terms of being a complete attacking player. As it will hopefully become more evident later on the article, it’s extremely hard to pull off complete-performance seasons one after another like Messi has done, even by the best attacking players in the world. Various top players can have a very competitive and complete performance in one or two seasons but no one has done it as consistently as Messi has done.
The first step in tackling the issue of complete attacking player is to set up the sample we are going to analyze. We have considered all those players who have managed to score 15 or more league goals in one season in the top 5 leagues in Europe in the last 7 seasons (from 2009/10 to 2015/16). Since we are taking into account individual seasons, some players feature multiple times in this set of data, since they may have scored 15+ goals in more than one season. In overall, the above condition is encountered 261 times. Let’s call it ‘261 players’, for the purpose of ease. This will be our set of data (which undoubtedly includes the best possible attacking performances in the last years in Europe) and every player’s performance will be evaluated within it.
In order to evaluate or give a judgment on how complete an attacking player is we have considered four parameters (which we think are the most relevant in the attacking play): goals scored; successful dribbles; chances created; and chances created by through ball (all data normalized per 90 minutes of play). By complete attacking player we consider those players who give a relatively high contribution in ALL the four above-mentioned aspects or elements of the attacking play.
Initially we have ranked these 261 players for each parameter from the one with the lowest value to the highest. Fig 1 is a not-in-scale representation of the range of values we have for all the four parameter, by pointing out the respectively lowest and highest performers.
It’s very easy to evaluate relative performance when considering just one parameter only but it gets a bit trickier when simultaneously combining many parameters. The main difficulty here relays on the fact that each parameter has a different metric and of course different range of values (Fig 1).
This difficulty can be easily overcome by using the percentile rank. In case you are not familiar with the percentile rank, it is defined as: ‘The percentile rank of a score is the percentage of scores in its frequency distribution that are equal to or lower than it. For example, a test score that is greater than or equal to 75% of the scores of people taking the test is said to be at the 75th percentile rank.’ The percentile rank is an option that somehow allows comparing values of different types, since it basically unifies them into a single system and range. By using the percentile rank we can divide the above ranges in 100 pieces (Fig 2).
Now, if we want to see how a certain player has performed in a specific season compared to the 261 players we initially considered, we have to find the percentile rank for each of category. Higher his percentile rank the better. For example, Fig 3 shows Messi’s performance in the 2011/12 season.
This is the most complete attacking performance by any player in the last seven seasons in all Europe. These numbers are completely absurd, in case you fail to recognize it. Fig 3 shows that 2011/12’s Messi is better than 99% of the 261 players in goals scored, better than 98% of these 261 players in successful dribbles, better than 93% of these players in chances created, and better than anyone in chances created by through ball. If this is not mind blowing than I don’t know what is.
On the other hand, a high level and complete performance for one or two seasons is something that other top players have achieved too, although no one similar to Messi’s 2011/12 level, of course. Fig 4 shows some of the best individual seasons of Europe’s top attacking players (Sergio Agüero 2013/14; Luis Suárez 2013/14; Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2011/12; Cristiano Ronaldo 2010/11; Arjen Robben 2014/15). These are all world class complete attacking performances but, that is just one season. Messi’s biggest merit here is that all his last seven seasons are more or less at the same quality (Fig 5).
Messi’s seasonal performances are so good and so complete that his average performance is at the same level or even better than the best seasonal performance of top players like Sergio Agüero, Luis Suárez, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Neymar, Gareth Bale. In the below images (Fig 6 to 12) we have visualized for all the above mentioned players their best, last and seasons’ average, in terms of percentile rank in the four considered categories.
To cut it short, Messi has been too good, too consistent, too complete for too long. This makes him unique and untouchable.