I analyzed Messi’s shots with Barcelona, trying to see what (if anything) is different from one season to the other, mainly focusing in the last three seasons. A map of his shots (penalties excluded) for each of the 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons is shown in the following image:
After an initial and general observation, these maps look very similar to each other (as they probably should… we are talking about the same player) and the preferred shooting zones are basically the same. If we have a closer look at the distribution of these shots within these zones we might start to notice differences between one season and another. Maybe the main difference is the intensity of frontal shots and shots made within the penalty area, which seems to be higher in the 2014/15 season compared to 2015/16 and 2016/17. To see what these differences are I built histograms of how Messi’s shots are distributed according to the distance from the goal (Figure 2).
These histograms may be helpful in comparing shots from one season to the other. We can notice, for example, that the percentage of shots taken within the distance of 10m (or 15m) is considerably higher in 2014/15 than in 2016/17. The reverse is true for long-range shots.
The data presented above can serve as indicators about the quality of shots taken and about the possibility for Messi to penetrate through defenses (by means of dribbling and combinations with team mates) and to make short-range shots, which of course have a much higher probability to be converted into goals. For instance, Messi converts into goals 42.5% of the shots within a distance of 10m, 29.2% of the shots within a distance of 15m and only 9.5% of the shots beyond 15m.
Now, talking about comparing shooting ranges, I built some shooting-range distribution curves (If you think of a better name…please suggest :D) which I think are clearer than histograms, especially when you want to compare three or more series of data (i.e. three or more players, various seasons of a certain player or other combinations).
These curves are a visual representation of how a player’s shots are distributed according to the distance from the goal. The horizontal axis show the distance from the goal while the quantity of the shots taken within a specific distance is shown by the cumulative percentage in the vertical axis. Curves in the upper-left part of the graph area (Figure 3) indicate players that take relatively more short-range shots (e.g. Benzema, Suárez) and curves in the lower-right part of the graph area indicate players that take relatively more long-range shots (e.g. Cristiano). Messi’s curve lies somewhere between Suárez and Cristiano, indicating that he takes less long-range shots than Cristiano but also less short-range shots than Suárez.
Messi’s shooting-range distribution curves for the last three seasons and for his career are shown in the following image:
As we can see, in the 2014/15 season Messi took more short-range shots, not only compared to 2015/16 and 2016/17 but also compared to his entire career average curve. The differences between various seasons become more perceptible if we consider separately a part of the above graph. For example, Figures 5 and 6 show Messi’s shooting-range distribution curves for distances up to respectively 10m and 15m.
The above highlighted difference between the considered seasons is probably one of the various factors that prevented Barcelona from repeating the outcomes of 2014/15. It is clear that creating the possibility to take a lot of short-range shots doesn’t solely depend on the player who is shooting (his ability to dribble) but also on the help he gets from his team mates and the opponent’s approach, his positioning, etc. Hence, although they provide some good information, shooting-range distribution curves should be cautiously interpreted in order to avoid reaching premature conclusions.