I prepared an analysis or evaluation on the most well-rounded (i.e. complete) attacking players in the European top 5 leagues for the 2016/17 season. The used approach is the same as the one I have used in this piece about Messi. Please refer to that text, as I am going to explain just the main points here.

I have considered all those players with 10+ league goals in the 2016/17 season, 115 players in total. These players are compared to each other in terms of four aspects of the attacking play: goals scored, successful dribbles, chances created, and chances created by through balls. The main idea behind this is “well-rounded attackers are considered those players who perform relatively good in all the considered aspects”.

The range of values that these 115 players have is as below:


Fig 1 – Range of values in goals, dribbles, chances created and chances created by through balls for the 115 players with 10+ league goals in 2016/17 (top 5 leagues).

As in the above cited article, I used the percentile rank in order to “bring these four metrics at the same scale”. The higher the percentile rank, the better (and vice-versa). Below I am posting graphs of various players, so we may get an idea how they compare against each other and against all the 115 considered players.


Fig 2 – Messi is (obviously) the most complete attacker for 2016/17 (look at his numbers!).


Fig 3 – Alexis Sánchez, Dries Mertens and Keita Baldé are the closest players to Messi.


Fig 4 – Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo compared to Messi. It looks like if you add Cristiano’s goal-scoring numbers to Neymar’s dribbling and play-making numbers, you get someone close to Messi.


Fig 5 – Messi, Suárez and Neymar for 2016/17.


Fig 6 – Neymar, Dybala and Coutinho seem to have some very similar numbers.


Fig 7 – Morata, Lewandowski, Kane and Werner.


Fig 8 – Agüero, Lukaku and Diego Costa.


Fig 9 – Lacazette, Mbappé and Boudebouz.





I built four graphs to see how the main stats for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have changed since the 2009/10 season (when the Portuguese joined La Liga). Have a look:


Fig a –  Respective ‘goals + assists / 90 mins’ for the 2009/10 and 2016/17 seasons for Messi and Cristiano.


Fig b – Respective ‘successful dribbles / 90 mins’ for the 2009/10 and 2016/17 seasons for Messi and Cristiano.


Fig c – Respective ‘chances created / 90 mins’ for the 2009/10 and 2016/17 seasons for Messi and Cristiano.


Fig d – Respective ‘chances created by through ball / 90 mins’ for the 2009/10 and 2016/17 seasons for Messi and Cristiano.

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.


Fig. 1

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).


Fig. 2

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. 3

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.


Fig. 4

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.

Statistical comparison for Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo since the start of the 2015/16 season (last 16 months), considering their performances for both club and country (World Cup and Copa America).


By @barcanumbers and @OohLalaFootball

Barcelona have a deadly attacking trio, that’s no secret. They have the most goals hauled in all of Europe last season – 173 in all, and the third highest, at 51, in the current season: 224 goals so far for both periods. Seventy-three point two (73.2) percent of those have been scored by MSN, a whopping 164 goals. Thank you, our friend @barca19stats for these numbers.

How about the rest of the goals? We have analyzed the rest of the team’s converted shots for the 2015/16 and the current season, and we are happy to say that the MSN lets others score, too. Let’s appreciate the indirect and crucial attacking contribution of other players, especially Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

We looked at the origin of these goals and how the ball moved from one player to the other in the final sequence of action. And these are the things we found out.

Goals from interceptions

Barcelona have scored 40 goals as a direct result of intercepting their opponents’ play. It means that roughly, 1 out of five Barça goals in this period arrived from a fast and clinical finishing as a result of interceptions. Three factors that have probably led to this: Barça are – still – good at getting the ball back. Once they do, their extraordinary attacking quality would most probably put the ball at the back of the net: MSN has scored 29 of these 40 interception goals. And finally, the opposing team is not well-positioned to defend in those situations since they were expecting to start their own counterattack after they have just recovered the ball.


As the figure above shows, Busquets is responsible for nine interceptions that have led to a goal. These goals are usually scored within a few seconds after the interception is made. This is one of the most amazing features of Busquets’ play, where he simultaneously prevents the opposition from building a counterattack and activates Barça’s forwards.

If you want to know more about how Busquets plays and behaves “without’ the ball, we highly recommend this video by our good friend @busi1325:

Tactics made easy – Sergio Busquets without the ball

Who else has done this, next to Busi?


He deserves special mention not only because five of his interceptions have led to goals but those five have occurred in just three games this season. It is all the more extraordinary because Rafinha has played considerably less minutes than the rest of the starting players.

In the images below, we have illustrated the path of the ball leading to those goals.


Goal sequence

What are the most frequent combinations leading to a goal for Barcelona? We’ve answered that too, in the figure below. They’re almost all MSN — surprise! — pre-assisting, assisting, and scoring between and among themselves, save for that Iniesta “intrusion” in the last row.


If we rank Barça’s players according to pre-assists and pre-assists over 90 minutes, we’ll have the figures below, which give us two different pictures.



Messi tops both categories – again, surprise! – but if you look at the pre-assists-over-90-minutes data, Iniesta is up there, where immortals dwell, far from Neymar, Arda Turan, Busquets, Dani Alves and Luis Suárez who also have notable contributions.

Considering the different ways the ball trajectory developed after the pre-assist and the involvement or lack of it of the pre-assister, we can identify the following pre-assister types:

  •      The Passive Pre-assister – once he enables the pre-assist, he doesn’t usually get involved further and lets others finish. Iniesta and Neymar belong to this category.
  •      The Active Pre-assister – usually finishes the chances he himself started with a pre-assist, probably after a fast 1-2 combination with another player, usually Messi or Neymar. Luis Suárez is an active pre-assister.
  •      The Mixed Pre-assister – does both, he is both a passive and active pre-assister. He is also omnipotent, and yes, his name is Messi.


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.


Fig 1

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).


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.


Fig 3

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.


Fig 4

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).


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.



Fig 6 to 12

The ‘gap’ between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has been varying considerably through seasons. In the charts below, some comparisons that focus on attacking play metrics, are shown. As you might infer from the charts, the difference between the two players has probably never been larger than in the 2015/16 season.

1 goals-+-assists2 goals-trailing-and-level3 dribbles4 chances5 chances-through-ball6 assists-through-ball

You get the same impression also when comparing Messi’s and Cristiano’s numbers in the context of other European attacking players:

7 g-vs-dr8 dri-vs-ch9 ch-ch-thr-b

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