Lionel Messi’s form has been questioned at times this season, but the idea he hasn’t been effective is a red herring.
In many ways, patience isn’t a virtue we can truthfully say is embraced in modern football, whether that’s with respect to managers or players.
When someone’s level dips, people – or specifically social media trolls – are quick to brandish them “frauds” or “finished” like rabid animals sated by black-or-white so-called “hot takes”.
If there’s one player on the planet who deserves that patience, it’s surely Lionel Messi. But so accustomed has the world become to his usually incomparable excellence that any opportunity to humanise him with blinkered criticism was going to be gobbled up by those who are – bizarrely – so eager for him to fail.
While that’s not to say Messi is above criticism, and there have certainly been times this season when questions were fairly asked of his performances, we have to keep in mind a host of extenuating circumstances.
For one, a 34-year-old not being quite as good as he was at 30 is perfectly normal. Then you have to consider he had no pre-season, had major upheaval in his life with the move from Barcelona and then struggled with fitness in the early weeks of the season.
But ahead of a Champions League last-16 second-leg trip to his old nemeses, Real Madrid, Messi appears in fine shape and will no doubt be eager to end his 695-minute goalless run against Los Blancos.
So, if he has been effective lately, what does the criticism of him relate to? And is Messi truly on a downward spiral?
The Elephant in the Room
Let’s get this out of the way nice and early. Yes, it’s unequivocal that Messi’s output in front of goal is not what we’re used to seeing from him.
He has scored just twice in Ligue 1 this season, which admittedly is absurd when you consider he’s not failed to reach double figures for league goals since 2005-06 when he netted six times in 17 games.
But let’s not forget, for the majority of his Barcelona career, their teams were built around him and, perhaps most importantly, many of those sides were exceptional. Are PSG?
Messi is unquestionably proving wasteful in front of goal, with this the first season since Opta began collecting expected goals (xG) data (2010-11) that he has underperformed in relation to that metric.
So far across all competitions in 2021-22, Messi averages 0.44 non-penalty (np) xG every 90 minutes, but his actual non-penalty goals output is 0.23.
There’s no argument here – Messi should be scoring more than he has based on the quality of the chances that have fallen his way, but by no means does that mean he’s been a liability.
Still Creator in Chief
While Messi may not be posting the kind of figures in front of goal that we are used to seeing from him, it’s worth highlighting how he remains a key contributor on the creative side for PSG.
In fact, if he maintains his rate of 2.7 chances created every 90 minutes (all competitions) for the remainder of the season, it will be his third-most productive campaign ever in that regard.
There is plenty of value in the chances he’s creating as well. On a per-90 basis, Messi’s expected assists (xA) is 0.38 this season, only a slight reduction on the past two seasons (0.43 and 0.42) when, let’s remember, he was playing in a Barca team built entirely around him.
As such, his haul of 10 assists in Ligue 1 has him level at the top of the chart with Kylian Mbappe despite playing 698 fewer minutes than his team-mate.
Further to that, he continues to play an influential role in PSG’s build-up play as well and has been particularly effective in recent weeks.
Since February 1, Messi (7.7) comes second to Mbappe (9.2) for the most shot-ending sequence involvements in Ligue 1 (minimum 180 minutes played). But when you only consider passages where they have not had the shot, Messi (6.4) is only behind Marco Verratti (7.0), demonstrating just how involved he is in their general build-up play.
Working in Mbappe’s Shadow
Mbappe has, of course, been at the fore of PSG’s Ligue 1 title surge and progress in the Champions League. With 38 goals involvements, at a rate of one every 75 minutes, it’s fair to say he has been the one consistently lethal weapon in their star-studded attacking arsenal.
Neymar has been in and out of the team this season due to injury, while Messi’s issues we have already gone over. Clearly, if PSG are successful at home – seemingly a certainty – and in Europe, Mbappe, the scorer of their excellent winner in the first leg against Madrid, will have been the catalyst.
But we shouldn’t gloss over what Messi has contributed.
His record of 0.82 expected goal involvements per 90 minutes (all comps) is only marginally lower than Mbappe’s (0.87). For the latter, this looks like to be his finest individual campaign to date – yet Messi, criticised by some for a perceived lack of output, is operating at a similar level of effectiveness.
Of course, the difference is that Mbappe is proving far more clinical in those goalscoring opportunities, but don’t forget it was only last season that Messi scored 38 times in a fading Barca side. That ability doesn’t vanish overnight.
It would be far fairer to judge him next season when he will presumably have a proper pre-season under his belt.
Patience. If anyone should be afforded the benefit of the doubt during a settling-in period, it’s Messi.
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