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).

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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.

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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?

Rafinha.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

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Some days ago, Ecos del Balón, a Spanish football website I really like and enjoy, posted a video on YouTube where they discuss whether Cristiano Ronaldo is the best goalscorer of all-time. They unanimously agreed that ‘Yes, he is the best goalscorer of all-time.’ This is not a new opinion or statement, as we have witnessed many other analysts, journalists and football fans express the exact same opinion.

I don’t agree with this conclusion at all. While it’s impossible for me to define or have a say whether Cristiano Ronaldo is the best goalscorer of all-time, I can argue that he is not the best goalscorer of our time (recent years). You can have a guess on who might be better than him…yes, a certain Lionel Messi. My approach is that Cristiano Ronaldo is truly an unbelievable goalscorer, but Lionel Messi is a better one.

It is quite evident that football-related numbers are often used out of context and many times they fail to give any insight. It is also clear that, if there is an aspect of the game where numbers can be used without much hesitation, it is when analyzing goalscoring. Thus, I prepared some fast and very simple goalscoring comparisons between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Let’s initially consider their career goals for club and country (Fig 1). Both players have scored an incredible high amount of goals but one of them has scored more frequently than the other. Messi’s goals/game ratio is 0.789, 15.5% higher than Cristiano’s 0.683.

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Fig 1 – Career goals / game ratio for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for club and country.

How does their goals/game ratio vary through their career? The graph in Fig 2 rank their seasons in terms of goals/game ratio starting from the highest to the lowest. Here both players show very similar patterns. Messi’s goalscoring peak is higher, while Cristiano seems to perform in a more consistent manner. Both have the same number of seasons (eight) in elite goalscoring level, although Messi started his club career two years later.

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Fig 2 – Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s club seasons ranked according to their goals / game ratio (from highest to lowest).

Maybe Messi’s most advantageous aspect of goalscoring, when compared to Cristiano, is the fact that he is much more efficient, i.e. needs less shots to score. This is an aspect that many people, probably unconsciously, tend to neglect. To illustrate this, I have prepared three simple comparisons of their shot conversion (ratio between goals scored and shots taken) from three points of view: total goals, goals from out of the penalty box, and goals with their ‘weak’ foot.

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Fig 3 – Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot conversion (goals scored / shots taken) for all their goals.

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Fig 4 – Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals and shot conversion (goals scored / shots taken) from out of the penalty box.

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Fig 5 – Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals and shot conversion (goals scored / shots taken) considering their ‘weak’ foot (right foot for Messi; left foot for Cristiano).

There is a significant difference, no? These numbers also may provide arguments against some ‘myths’ or ‘consolidated opinions’ often used when both players are compared. Opinions like ‘Cristiano has a better shot from the distance’ or ‘Cristiano uses both feet’, etc.

Again, Cristiano Ronaldo is incredible as a goalscorer. There is nothing to argue about it, he is really amazing. Lionel Messi is a better one. Messi needs less playing time and shots to score the same amount of goals as Cristiano. I also don’t think that this is the key aspect when comparing them to each other, since Messi could be easily regarded the best player in the world even if he had lower goalscoring numbers. It just happens that besides being an incredible playmaker, dribbler, passer, etc, Lionel Messi is also an extremely good goalscorer, arguably better than Cristiano Ronaldo.

Luis Suárez scored 40 goals in the 2015/16 Liga in 35 games. Absolutely amazing! Inevitably, comparisons with Messi and Cristiano, the best goalscorers of the last years, have emerged. In order to understand how their goalscoring numbers compare I made a small chart including not just these 3 forwards but all the best goalscorers of Europe’s Top 5 Leagues.

I have considered individual seasons of those players who have managed to score 10 or more league goals in a single season in the Top 5 Leagues during the last 7 seasons. This condition is fulfilled in 723 occasions. Obviously, some players feature multiple times in this list, since they have managed to score 10+ goals in multiple seasons. For these players I calculated the ‘goals/90min’ ratio and then ranked them according to this parameter, from the 1st (Messi; Liga 2012/13; 1.566 goals/90min) to the 723rd (Hugo Rodallega; Premier League 2009/10; 0.271 goals/90min). In the below chart I have plotted Suárez’s, Messi’s, Cristiano’s and Higuaín’s seasons, starting from their personal best to their worst. Why Higuaín is here? Because I noticed that he is the closest to Messi and Cristiano.

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It goes without saying that lower in this chart the better. What we see here is that Suárez’s 2015/16 season (his best) is among the best that we have witnessed. He had 1.143 goals/90min, a ratio that has been achieved only 10 times in the last seven seasons (considering all players in the Top 5 Leagues). But…that is just one season. After this seasons he becomes ‘normal’. To simply put it, Suárez is nowhere near Messi and Cristiano. In order to be comparable with them, he needs at least 2-3 other seasons like this. This is not to under valuate Suárez but just to emphasize that what Messi and Cristiano have done in terms of goalscoring season after season is something so difficult to be repeated.

Higuaín deserves a special mention here. Look at his line…absolutely amazing. He has 3 seasons in ‘Messi and Cristiano level’ and his other ‘worse’ seasons are pretty consistent too. He is probably one of the most consistent and of course underrated goalscorers of the last years.

The most frequent or flagrant ‘mistake’ when trying to evaluate Messi using stats and numbers is using one single dimension (or criteria) to evaluate a player that has many dimensions (even when considering just his attacking play). In this way, many people have difficulties to understand how different and what an outlier Messi is.

Messi is probably the best goal scorer of the last years, but there are other players who are close and comparable to him in goal scoring terms (the obvious example of Cristiano Ronaldo). In a similar way, Messi is undoubtedly one of the best playmakers and dribblers of the last years, but there are other players also who have similar playmaking (Xavi Hernández; Mesut Özil) and dribbling (Neymar; Franck Ribéry) abilities to Messi. Because of this, when statistically comparing just one aspect of Messi’s play to other players, we understand that he is the best but maybe we fail to recognize how good he really is. What makes Messi so unique is that he has the best possible combination of goal scoring, playmaking and dribbling abilities in one player.

In order to get an idea where Messi position himself compared to the other players, I made three charts. These charts combine numbers of goals scored, successful dribbles and chances created by through ball for those players that managed to score 10 or more league goals in a single season in the Top 5 Leagues since the start of the 2009/10 season. In overall we have 723 data points (please note that one player may feature multiple times in the chart in case he has scored 10+ goals in multiple seasons). All the data are provided by whoscored.com.

Below you have the charts and they are self-explanatory.

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Chart 1 – Goals per 90 min and successful dribbles per 90 min in the Top 5 Leagues during the last 7 seasons.

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Chart 2 – Goals per 90 min and through ball chances created per 90 min in the Top 5 Leagues during the last 7 seasons.

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Chart 3 – Successful dribbles per 90 min and through ball chances created per 90 min in the Top 5 Leagues during the last 7 seasons.

Who are the most complete attacking players of the Spanish football? The term complete can have various meanings in football, depending on the point of view and on the aspects of the game that one considers. Here, by complete attacking player we consider those players that give significant contribution in many aspects or elements of the attacking play. The elements we have considered are: goals scored, successful dribbles, dribble success rate, passes attempted, chances created, and chances created by through ball. A complete attacking player would have relatively high performance in all of the above mentioned elements.

We have considered those players who have scored 10+ goals in a season in the Liga, during the last seven 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 10+ goals in more than one season. In overall, 155 sets of data make the cut. We compared the relative performance of these players to each other and ranked these performances for each category or element of the play. In order to see how players perform in each category, we have used the percentile rank. In case you are not familiar with the percentile rank, it is defined as (Wikipedia): ‘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.’ To put it simple, higher the percentile rank for a specific category, the better. For example, a 95th percentile rank in goals scored for a player means that this player is better at scoring than 95% of all the other players (he is in the top 5%).

Using the above-described methodology, we can create an idea on who are the most complete attacking players in the Liga. Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi is the player that dominates this ranking (Graph 1). His 2011/12 season is the most complete attacking performance of any player in the Liga during the last seven seasons.

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Graph 1 – The most complete attacking players in the Liga during the last seven seasons. Lionel Messi’s performance in the 2011/12 season is the most complete. Messi’s 2014/15 season is ranked second.

During the 2011/12 season, Messi ranked in the 99th percentile in goals, 99th percentile in successful dribbles, 92nd percentile in dribble success rate, 98th percentile in passes, 95th percentile in chances created and 100th percentile in chances by through balls. His minimal percentile rank was 92nd. Madness!

The second most complete attacking performance of the Liga in the last seven seasons is Messi of the 2014/15 season, with a minimal percentile rank of 90th (Graph 1). Actually, Messi holds the first five positions and seven out of the first 12 positions, in the ranking of the most complete attacking player in the Liga (Graph 5). All Messi’s seven seasons are shown in Graph 2.

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Graph 2 – Lionel Messi’s performance during the last seven seasons in the Liga. His upper five seasons (lines) are the best of all players.

The closest player who can challenge Messi is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. His 2010/11 season is ranked sixth during the last seven seasons, after Messi’s first five positions. This is Cristiano’s most complete season in the Liga, featuring a 84th minimal percentile rank. Actually, Cristiano’s 2010/11 season is the only record with a minimal percentile rank higher than 80th (despite Messi, who has achieved it in six seasons). This is how the two player’s last seven season’s performances compare (Graph 3):

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Graph 3 – Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s performances during the last seven seasons in the Liga.

Regarding the current 2015/16 Liga season, the most complete attacking player is still Messi, with a minimum percentile rank of 88th. After Messi we have (Graph 4): Gareth Bale, 75th minimum percentile rank; Neymar, 72nd minimum percentile rank; Karim Benzema, 43rd minimum percentile rank; Antoine Griezmann and Nolito, 36th minimum percentile rank.  Bale’s and Neymar’s current season’s performances are the only in the last seven seasons that have a minimal percentile higher than 70th (not counting Messi and Cristiano).

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Graph 4 – Top 4 most complete attacking players of the 2015/16 season in the Liga: Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale, Neymar, and Karim Benzema.

Th last image, Graph 5, shows the top 11 most complete attacking players of the last seven seasons. Here we can have an idea how they compare to each other and to the all 155 players that are considered.

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Graph 5 – Top 11 most complete attacking players of the last seven seasons in the Liga: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Neymar.

 

How do Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid perform in the Liga BBVA 2015/2016 if we consider the quality of the opponents they have faced up to now? We can look at the below graph:

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Graph 1 – Performance in the Liga 2015/16 according to opponent quality for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

The graph shows the cumulative points/game (starting from the TOP) won by each of the top 3 teams of the Liga taking into account to the quality of the opponent. Opponent quality here is represented by the average points/game won in the Liga 2015/16. All Liga teams are ranked in the horizontal axis according to the average points/game they have in the current Liga season, starting from the top (Barcelona, 2.53 points/game) to the bottom (Levante, 0.80 points/game).

The graph is self explanatory… Barcelona’s performance against the top teams is much better than their main title rivals, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, hence their relatively large points gap in the ranking.

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.

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Image 1 – Through ball example.

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.

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Chart 1 – Chances created in the Liga from 09/10 to 15/16 (total).

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Chart 2 – Chances created in the Champions League from 09/10 to 14/15 (total).

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.

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Chart 3 – Chances created and assists for Messi in the Liga (09/10 to 15/16) and in the Champions League (09/10 to 14/15).

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.

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Chart 4 – Chances created in the Liga from 09/10 to 15/16 (total).

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Chart 5 – Chances created (per 90 minutes) in the Liga from 09/10 to 15/16 (total).

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Chart 6 – Chances created (per 90 minutes) in the Liga from 09/10 to 15/16 (individual seasons).

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Chart 7 – Chanes created in the Champions League from 09/10 to 14/15 (total).

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Chart 8 – Chances created (per 90 minutes) in the Champions League from 09/10 to 14/15 (total).

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.

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