Football Features

Why Barcelona can’t rely on Messi the Miracle Goalscorer right now

By Muhammad Butt

Lionel Messi: Why Barcelona can't rely on their Miracle Goalscorer right now

Published: 20:15, 11 December 2020

As if things weren’t already bad enough for Barcelona this season, Lionel Messi’s finishing has been poor by his high standards.

The Blaugrana have relied heavily on Messi’s glorious goalscoring for the vast majority of the last 10 years. There have been a few seasons (2010/11, 2014/15 and 2015/16) where things were more evenly spread among the other forwards, but by and large Messi has been the man carrying the goalscoring load.

Lionel Messi

  • Age: 33
  • Club: Barcelona
  • Position: Forward
  • Football Index value: £4.96 (Sell)  £5.17 (Buy)
  • 2020/21 La Liga stats: | Touches: 868 (second-highest at the club) | Chances created: 22 (highest) | Dribbles completed: 43 (highest) | Shots: 49 (highest) | Goals: 4 (joint-highest) | Non-penalty Goals: 2 (joint-third-highest)

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It’s just as well, then, that he has been absolutely ridiculous in front of goal. All told, Messi has scored 641 goals in 745 games, a truly absurd amount for a short playmaker who has no aerial threat and is only just above-average at taking penalties. He’s not scored below 30 goals in a single campaign since 2008, and had a 10-year-stretch where he scored more than 40 every season across all competitions.

Only one other player can compete with those numbers and he is a player who dedicates himself to goalscoring. Messi, meanwhile, is doing at least three other things too. But the thing is, this season at least, it’s only his goalscoring which is letting him down.

In Barcelona’s recent loss to Juventus in the Champions League, Messi was the best player on the park. He attempted 10 dribbles (a game-high), completing five (also a game-high). He created three chances (a joint game-high) and had 11 shots and seven on target (both game-highs).

Despite that brilliance, 42-year-old Gianluigi Buffon kept a clean sheet at the Nou Camp and Juventus beat the Blaugrana in their own backyard, the first time they’ve lost a Champions League home game for seven years.

Why? Because Lionel Messi had 11 shots, 7 on target and zero goals. And it’s not the first-time. In La Liga this season Messi has taken 10+ shots in four different games and he didn’t score in a single one of them.

In fact, the great man has scored four times in La Liga and three times in the Champions League. Seven goals isn’t a bad return, but five of those goals have been penalties. He’s scored just twice from open play. That is preposterous for a man of his other-worldly quality.

As shocking as this downturn in front of goal has been, the signs have been there for a while. Back in 2018/19, Messi took 5.68 shots per 90 minutes in La Liga and the Champions League. From an xG of 0.77 per 90 he scored 1.22 goals per 90 as Barcelona won La Liga and were one baffling performance on Merseyside away from a likely Champions League win too.

Then from the start of 2019/20 until lockdown, Messi took 4.97 shots per 90, scoring 0.8 goals from 0.71 expected goals (xG). A downturn for sure, but it’s damn-near impossible to sustain the kind of miracle finishing the Argentinian displayed in 2018/19, plus the team as a whole was clearly struggling, first under Ernesto Valverde and then Quique Setién. That his xG only dropped off slightly (vs his actual goal output) was positive, as it meant he was still getting good looks at goal.

But when Messi returned from lockdown at the head of La Liga, things weren’t the same. In the final sprint of La Liga and the remastered Champions League he only took 2.48 shots per 90 minutes, producing an xG of just 0.54. His scoring dropped further, though not by much, to 0.74 per 90. This stretch feels like the last gasps of Miracle Messi the goalscorer, where Barcelona’s overall play was obviously hideous but Messi was doing everything in his power to keep the team relevant (and clearly failing).

Lionel Messi’s Football Index value over the last three months

But he had definitely lost something – the drastic reduction in his shots alone points to this. Was he becoming a more restrained type of playmaker? Well, no. So far this season Messi has taken a massive 5.7 shots per 90 minutes.

The Argentinian has been letting fly more than he has at any point in the last two years, and yet he’s not impacting the stat sheet. Per 90 he’s managed 0.52 goals from 0.69 xG, which sounds good – right? But we know those figures are heavily influenced by penalties.

In fact in 2020/21, across both La Liga and Champions League, Messi’s non-penalty expected goals (NPxG) from a whopping 5.7 shots per 90 is just 0.4 per 90. To make matters even worse his expected goals from open play (i.e. ruling out penalties and free-kicks) is 0.3!

That is an absolutely shocking collapse of goalscoring power, but does illuminate the problem: Messi isn’t taking good quality shots.

Lionel Messi’s La Liga 2020/21 shot map

That’s it, that’s what is wrong with his finishing. He’s taking bad shots, taking risks from range and trying to shoot between bodies or when under pressure and, as a result, his shots don’t have the same thrust. There are many factors behind this: Messi is playing with very little width either side of him. The midfield behind him is constantly rotating and no one really looks comfortable in Ronald Koeman’s double pivot.

The attackers ahead of Messi are simply not up to par; Martin Braithwaite is a relentless worker but lacks the class to trouble the top sides and Antoine Griezmann is devoid of confidence and just does not fit into the system as a compliment to Messi. It isn’t working.

So Messi is having to force things, because others are reluctant to take the responsibility and would rather defer to the Argentinian, except he’s just spent so much energy driving the ball up the field he simply does not have anything left in the tank to finish things off as well.

In truth it’s a miracle he ever did, but then that’s just it, isn’t it? The miracle of Lionel Messi simultaneously being the world’s best playmaker, dribbler and (joint-best) goalscorer. That shouldn’t be possible, it isn’t possible, and now even Messi is starting to realise that.

The question is, will Barcelona? Will they furnish Messi with the team-mates and system that will allow him, as he ages, to focus on either his goalscoring or more likely, his creativity and dribbling? Or will they continue to ask their captain to do the impossible, knowing full well that he is incapable of performing miracles in the way that he once was?

The answer to that question will decide how the rest of this season progresses for Barcelona.