While looking at the stats of the best attackers in Europe slowly a pattern emerged. It reminded me one of my all-time favorite articles, wrote by Michael Cox “Lionel Messi is three world class players in one”. Here the author argues that Messi is at the same time a world class finisher, dribbler and passer. The above statement is probably true to most football fans. But, at what extent Messi is simultaneously a world class finisher, dribbler and passer? I tried to quantitatively investigate it.
The following analysis includes the best European attacking players during the last eight seasons which are all those players who have managed to score 10 or more league goals in one season in the top 5 leagues in Europe (from 2009/10 to the ongoing 2016/17 season). The above condition is encountered 745 times and obviously many players fulfill it more than once (e.g. Messi has 10+ goals in all of his last eight seasons), but let us call it 745 “players”. We have the best that Europe can offer here and we want to see where Messi fits in.
I have considered three metrics:
– goals scored, for finishing;
– dribbles, for dribbling;
– through balls, for passing.
Through balls is a parameter I really like since it combines various skills in one player, like vision, passing, timing, decision making, etc. More importantly, chances created by through balls are probably the best chances a player can create for a team mate, since it offers to the shooter a very high probability (Fig. 1) to convert his shot into a goal.
To see where Messi stands I built three histograms (Fig. 2, 3 and 4), one for each of the above mentioned parameters, including all the players except Messi (each histogram contains 737 players). Messi’s numbers are shown separately, in order to highlight his position. Histograms are pretty simple but just in case you are not familiar, a histogram is a graphical representation of the distribution of numerical data.
Fig.2 shows the histogram of goals scored / 90 mins. In the horizontal axis we have goals scored / 90 mins divided into small ranges of values, from the lowest to the highest values. The point of the histogram is to show how many of these 737 players fit in each of these small ranges and that is what the vertical axis shows. In this way we get the distribution of this parameter among all the players we have considered. If we know where a certain player is positioned in this histogram, we can see how he compares to all the other players and what portion of these players are doing better or worse than him. Best players are positioned on the right of the histogram and the worst are positioned on the left. Further on the right the better. The median is the line that divides the data in two halves (50% of the players have lower numbers than the median and 50% have higher values).
As you can see, Messi’s best season (2012/13, with 1.566 goals scored / 90 mins) is better than everyone else’s, but we already knew that. What this histogram reveals to us is something that maybe we were not aware of or that maybe we tend to forget and that is where the “average” Messi stands. Messi’s average goal scoring numbers are better than the numbers of 98% of the best attacking players of the Europe. In other words, only in 10 occasions (out of 737) someone managed a higher goals scored / 90 mins than what Messi in average does.
Fig. 3 shows the histogram for successful dribbles / 90 mins and what we see is similar to the previous histogram. The average Messi dribbler is better than 98% of the 737 attackers we have considered. Only in 13 occasions someone managed better than Messi’s average. By the way, look at Franck Ribéry in the 2013/14 season.
Fig. 4 shows the histogram for chances created by through balls / 90 mins. Messi’s average is better than 98% and only in 9 occasions someone managed better than that. Messi’s best season in through balls though (0.936 through balls / 90 mins, in 2011/12) is something that doesn’t belong to this reality.
If we summarize, the above three histograms suggest that the “average” Lionel Messi is a better finisher, dribbler and passer than 98% of Europe’s best attackers, at least during the last eight seasons. Again, we are not talking about the best Messi, we are talking about the average Messi’s numbers compared to the best numbers of the best attacking players in Europe. Now, this is magic.
There has been a lot of talk about using statistics for player comparisons in Barça twitter, with a lot of people claiming that “it’s a shame we live in an era where everyone wants to compare players based on stats” or similar. This happens mostly due to the fact that another player won the Ballon d’Or for 2016 and somehow there are people out there who think that this has happened because stats back it. Actually, in the vast majority of the cases stats show what is visible to the eye and maybe give further arguments about it. This is true for Messi also. Most of the people consider Messi as the best player and the most complete attacker in the world in the last years and that is what the stats will tell you too. That is what I have found out in my small works on Messi and what many other people have done elsewhere. Messi and stats are good friends.
Now, if you, deliberately or not, misuse stats or if your stats are the number of trophies a player has won then your “conclusions” will be different.