Football Features

The future of Lionel Messi: why his goalscoring problem doesn’t matter to Barcelona

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:06, 12 February 2020

Leo Messi hasn’t scored in his last 27 shots in La Liga.

The streak began at the end of the game against Granada, a match in which Messi scored the only goal of the game. Since then, however, it has seen his goalless streak extend through three games. Away to Valencia, home against Levante and away to Real Betis.

The last time Messi started three straight games without scoring in any of them was back in November 2017. So it’s not a common occurrence (he hasn’t started four or more games without scoring since his eight-game scoreless run back in 2014) but what is significant about this recent scoreless run is that he has had so many looks at goal.

Messi has been desperate to score but hasn’t been able to. Through a combination of some sloppy finishes and some incredible saves, it just hasn’t happened. One could reasonably assume this has hurt the Blaugrana in this time, and whilst they haven’t scored as often as they should have done because of Messi’s profligacy, they have still scored five times.

And Messi has assisted every single one of them.

He was blanked at the Mestalla, but once Quique Setién returned to a 4-3-3 formation with Messi as a false nine, the Argentine has refound his form as the focal point of the Blaugrana’s attack in terms of both shots and creating chances.

Since the end of the Granada game, Messi has had more shots (27) and shots on target (11) than any other player, whilst no one has seen more shots blocked than him (4) either. But his dominance hasn’t just been focused on shooting. He’s completed more dribbles (21) than anyone, created more chances than anyone (14) and had the joint-most big chances created too (3).

Most elite forwards, when unable to score, would become a problem for their side. But such is Messi’s genius that he is able to dominate games as a creative force, rather than a goalscoring one. That is so rare for a player to be able to do, and it could make the future of Messi’s career looked remarkably different to the last decade as a goalscoring phenomenon.

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Messi has won the last three editions of the European Golden Shoe. He has won it six times in total which is more than anyone else ever. He holds the record for most goals in a single season (50) and consequently the highest-ever points total (100).

So much of Messi’s genius has been defined by goals because that is the easiest way to dissect and explain his brilliance. Goalscoring. It also allows for comparisons to his contemporaries when otherwise there would be none. The focus on goals is such that people genuinely believe Messi didn’t play well if he didn’t score (look at opinions about his performance at Anfield as Barcelona lost 4-0 for a great example of that). But again, Messi doesn’t need to score to dominate.

That’s not to say Messi will suddenly stop scoring altogether, but there will come a time when he cannot continue to be Barcelona’s ‘Mr. Everything’ as he is now. When the three-game scoreless streaks become more frequent. And when that time comes (could it be now?) given he is, by nature, an associative player who drops deep to get play started, it’s more likely that rather than pare down his game to retain his goalscoring edge, he will simply become a true no. 10, like a short left-footed Juan Román Riquelme.

Since the end of the Granada game, Messi has played 39 passes into the final third. That number is beaten only by right-back Damian Suárez (booming crosses and long-balls from deep) and goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic. Messi doesn’t have to restrict his creative influence to those deadly last passes, he controls every facet of Barcelona’s creative process. Watch the Blaugrana regularly and you’ll see Messi constantly driving the ball forward into the final third. He can do this with a pass or by dribbling by opponents and then passing.

But assuming the club secures Lautaro Martinez in the summer, and Ansu Fati continues to develop, and Antoine Griezmann finds his form or Ousmane Dembélé his fitness… these are all spectacular forwards capable of carrying the goalscoring burden that Messi (and Luis Suárez) have been shouldering for so many years.

This then allows Messi to drift a little deeper, to play between the lines as a true creative force. To use his supreme dribbling and passing skills to tear opponents to pieces and put the ball on a plate for his team-mates. We’ve already seen a glimpse of that during this brief scoreless run, where Messi has remained the most dominant player in the league without notching a single goal.

That is a phenomenal achievement, but then Leo Messi is a phenomenal player.