Ten years ago today, Lionel Messi helped himself to four goals against Espanyol, taking his league tally past 50. He would finish the domestic and European season with a combined 73. We relive the season he broke all records. We relive the season of Messi.
The first came in the first game of the season – the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Real Madrid – and it was the Lionel Messi we already knew rather well and would come to know even better: an unassisted left-footed finish tucked nicely under Iker Casillas. It was his first of three in the tie, and anyone remarking on him setting an unsustainable scoring pace had as little an idea of what was coming as the rest of us.
Seventy-three goals scored in 60 games.
The context of Messi’s 2011-12 season was that of a 24-year-old being talked about as an all-time great. He had won the Ballon d’Or for three years running and would win it once more before ceding the next two. Barcelona had the previous season won everything but the Copa del Rey, but some would argue the praise of Sir Alex Ferguson referring to that Barcelona team as the best team he’d ever faced is worth more than another trophy.
The team around Messi was special but not unbeatable. Special in the sense that it made up the most significant parts of the in-progress Spanish dynasty plus Lionel Messi, which sounds unbeatable. But the 2011-12 team wasn’t quite special enough to accomplish all that much in terms of trophies as it had been the previous season. Real Madrid won La Liga. Barca finished on 91 points, nine back from Madrid and 30 ahead of Valencia in third. A second-place team with a +85 goal difference. In the Champions League, Barça went out in the semi-finals to eventual champions Chelsea.
Rather, it was statistically the finest individual season of Messi’s career and the finest individual attacking season data is aware of.
Looking back strictly at the totals, reaching that 70-goal milestone appears to have come with something of a cushion. The reality is Messi entered Barcelona’s second-to-last La Liga match – their third-to-last match of the season – against city neighbours Espanyol on 68 goals. The doubt was gone when he completed his brace in the 64th minute, but it wasn’t completed at all because he added two more in the next 15 minutes. And those four league goals made him the first La Liga player to reach the 50-goal mark in a single season. In retrospect it’s good he did, because Cristiano Ronaldo scored 48 La Liga goals three seasons later.
Even that four-goal game was unremarkable for Messi that season. He scored once in 15 matches and had 22 multi-goal games. He scored twice in 12, scored three goals seven times, four twice and five once.
The five came at Camp Nou in a Champions League knockout match against Bayer Leverkusen, marking the first time a player had scored five goals in a single UEFA Champions League game, and it’s the only time Messi has scored this many in a single performance.
And unsurprisingly for a player who’s never been one for a goal before the fans are in their seats, the 2011-12 goals came later in both halves. The second half brought 39 after 34 in the first, and he more than tripled his scoring output of the first 15 minutes in the last 15 minutes.
His trademark No. 10 shirt was more apt than ever, given his scoring output was that of 10 outfielders combined: His 50 strikes in La Liga in 2011-12 were more than 61 of the 98 teams within the top five European leagues managed.
On a personal level, he played more games (60), more minutes (5,221) and took more shots (328) across all competitions than in any other season, but that frequency on the pitch was matched with some of his greatest outputs. He scored once every 4.5 shots, which is the third-best rate of his career behind 2012-13 (3.6) and 2010-11 (4.45). And he scored every 71.5 minutes, which he bettered only the following season with 60 goals in 50 games.
That proficiency, yet there was no Vardy-like streak. Messi’s longest scoring streak that season was eight games, in which he scored 18 goals from 14 February to 24 March. He scored 10 of those goals in a three-match span against Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. The most memorable of the bunch was perhaps the free kick vs. Atlético on 24 February, his 43rd of the season, a left-footed outswinger from the left that curled into the top-right corner. It’s hard to say Thibaut Courtois was frozen because his head turned to follow it in as he uncertainly stepped left without even attempting to save it. The bend was such that if it didn’t find the goal, the ball may have landed and wound up near the right corner flag.
What’s perhaps weirder than that goal (the farthest left below) is that only that strike and three others came from outside the box.
In fact, Messi scored just one goal from outside the box that wasn’t a direct free kick, which in some ways makes little mathematical sense but in some ways makes plenty of sense: He was (is) a player capable of finding his way into the box with the ball. And when he wasn’t finding his own way into the box, he played for a team with a midfield and wing backs that were capable of working the ball into the box with him. But then we tell you Santi Cazorla had twice as many goals from outside the box as Messi that season and it makes no sense at all.
It makes more sense that 16 goals came following carries, while 14 included a take-on. When it was up to someone else to deliver him the ball, it was most frequently his right wing back, Dani Alves. Twelve players accounted for 44 assists for a Messi goal that season, and four of them contributed at least five:
Perhaps it’s easy to overlook that Messi had 29 assists of his own. No, 29 is not 73, but it’s tied for the highest single-season assist total in all competitions among players in the top five European leagues in our existing assists data. Comprehensive assists data is limited across all competitions, but from what we have, only Juan Mata, who took 64 games to reach the mark in 2012-13 at Chelsea, has equalled that.
That adds up to 102 goal involvements, or a career-best 1.76 goal involvements per 90. His 0.5 assists per 90 that season are also a career best, while his 1.26 goals fall just shy of 2012-13 (1.33). That’s right – he scored 73 goals but wasn’t his most efficient self. Those 102 goal involvements bettered Ronaldo’s then-career best 75 of that season by 27.
We have complete assist data in the top five leagues dating to 2006-07, and Messi’s 50 La Liga goals and 16 assists in 2011-12 unsurprisingly combine for the single best goal involvement total.
The last goal came in the last game of the season – the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao – to complete the tally of 73 goals scored in 37 separate games of the 60 in which he played. Since then, no one has come closer than 12 goals to equaling it. Ronaldo scored 61 in 2014-15.
It of course didn’t end there. Messi went on to score a record 91 goals in the calendar year 2012. But that’s a story for later this year.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.