It’s a sign of just how high Lionel Messi has set the standards throughout his career that the talk ahead of the World Cup is not of his 28 league goals—one more than Diego Costa and second behind only Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga—but of the Argentine heading into the World Cup off the back of a relatively poor season.
Barcelona clearly don’t harbour the doubts over their most prized asset, with the Catalan club handing the striker a new deal that will make him the highest-paid player in the world.
But is it fair to talk of a downturn in form for a player who has still averaged better than a goal every 90 minutes?
Having scored 46 league goals last year, Messi’s tally of 28 does represent a relative slump. Cristiano Ronaldo has firmly edged ahead in the bid to be talked about as the planet’s best player in a season that has been far from vintage Barcelona but in which the Spanish side are still in contention for the title heading into their final fixture with Atletico Madrid.
It was perhaps inevitable that Messi would one year fail to maintain the exact level of standard that he has put in over the rest of his career. The 26-year-old averaged 1.56 goals per 90 minutes last season, but that has dipped to 1.05 this season, with assists also less forthcoming.
For mere mortals this may be OK, but it is a drop in the standards that Messi has previously set. So what is the cause?
Some of the change, of course, can be put down to a change in form. Messi’s shot-conversion rate last season stood at 35.4 percent; a frankly ridiculous figure that was always going to be hard to repeat.
This season, however, 25.2 percent of his chances have found their way to the back of the net, a figure that incidentally is far higher than archrival Ronaldo’s 18 percent. A fall, but hardly a disaster.
However, there are deeper causes to Messi’s lower goalscoring rate this season. Under Gerardo Martino, Barca are less reliant upon their talisman than they have been in previous seasons. Last year, Messi’s 46 goals and 12 assists were just over half of Barcelona’s total, whereas this season the total scored or assisted has dropped to 38 percent.
Alexis Sanchez has netted 18 league goals this season, Pedro 15 and Neymar nine to take some of the burden off of Messi, whereas last season the second-highest scorer was Cesc Fabregas on 11.
As well as being less reliant on Messi for goals, Barcelona are also less reliant upon the striker from open play. Last season he made more passes per 90 minutes than he has this season, where he has often been shunted out to the wing in order to make way for Neymar.
The signing of the Brazilian posed a direct threat to Messi, despite the public assurances to the contrary.
Barcelona have always been built around Messi—with challengers such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic falling by the wayside in previous years—but under Martino, he has had to accommodate a second superstar in the side and has had to adapt to a more direct and quicker system.
Several matches have seen Messi line up on the right-hand side of midfield, with Cesc Fabregas as a false nine, in order to accommodate Neymar in his preferred position on the left. These include both the first El Clasico of the season and the second leg of Barca’s Champions League quarter-final with Atletico Madrid, matches in which Messi moving from the centre would previously have been unthinkable.
The continued emergence of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, in tandem with the signing of Neymar, has seen goals come from wide areas and has seen Barca at times bypass Messi and create more from wide.
Martino needs to find a way to play to the strengths of both Messi and Neymar, who have both thrived without the other in the side.
Of Messi’s 10 highest Squawka Performance Scores, just three have come in games in which both he and Neymar have started. The graph above maps his Performance Score by game over the season and shows a number of peaks and troughs.
Of his 10 best games (i.e. the peaks of the graph), three have come with Neymar starting, three with Neymar from the bench and four in games in which Neymar has not featured. Neymar, incidentally, scored a performance score of minus-10 from the right wing and was hauled off after 68 minutes in Messi’s best game of the season, the 4-3 win over Real Madrid.
Messi’s new contract means that he is firmly at the club to stay, but the disparities between this season and last suggest that some tactical tweaks may be required to fit both the Argentinian and his new Brazilian teammate into the same team.
Central striker appears to be Messi’s best position, with more goals, assists and passes coming last season when he was lining up there all the time.
However, where Messi used to have licence to roam across the pitch, he is now more restricted, and if Barca are to restore him to his past form, then they must find a way to accommodate both this, the form of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez and Neymar’s desire to feature coming inside from the left.
Reverting to a team built around Messi may be the answer as to how to get the Argentine back to his best, but with Neymar’s signing and a change in style, Messi may have to get used to no longer being the only big fish in the Barcelona pond.
All graphics and statistics courtesy of Squawka.