Is Lionel Messi slowing down?
This is a sacrilegious thing to suggest. Messi is a god. Crucially though, unlike the whatever higher power you choose to worship, Lionel Messi is also aging. He’s 31 years old. That’s a good three years past when most players, even the best ones, begin to lose their fastball. There’d been precious little evidence of that with Messi though. He’d evolved his game, morphed from the greatest creative goal scorer on the planet to the greatest creator on the plant….who also happened to be a thirty goal scorer. What Messi was doing on the pitch changed, but his production was as otherworldly as ever.
Before we take this dive, the first thing to make clear is that Messi is still unreal. Compared to people not named Lionel Messi he’s still just better than them. The question is not, how does Lionel Messi compare against the other mere mortals he deigns to take the pitch beside? Rather, the question is, how does Messi compare against past versions of himself. And, there’s reason to believe that from last season to this there’s been a slight decline.
The first, and most obvious place to look is the scoring numbers. Last year he was a major goal scoring force. He scored 34 goals, 32 of them from open play. That was way beyond his 21.97 open play expected goals. But even his expected goals were impressive. His 0.63 expected goals per 90 were the third highest in the league, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and teammate Luis Suarez, an especially impressive total since they were accompanied by 0.38 expected assists per 90 minutes by far the most of any player with over 1000 minutes played.
This season, so far, his goal scoring has taken a noticeable hit. His 0.48 xG per 90 is still very good but it’s a decidedly new occurrence to refer to Messi’s output as merely very good. He’s the sixth best scorer by xG per 90 in Spain and taking a step back and looking across Europe’s big five leagues. He’s not in the top 10, or even the top 20. He’s 30th in Europe by xG per90 (among players with over 500 minutes played). That’s…well, it’s certainly different for Messi. And it’s easy to see from his shot chart that he’s simply not getting great shots this season. Most of his shooting is coming from outside the box, and even those shots which are from closer to pointblank range still aren’t the kind of clean red hot looks Messi typically ends up getting on the end of.
None of this would be at all concerning if Messi’s slowly declining scoring rate was being offset by a rise in his creative numbers. That’s what’s happened over the last couple of seasons. Messi has become the best attacking creator in the world. Except that hasn’t really happened.
Messi’s expected assists numbers have nudged up slightly from 0.38 to 0.40. That’s an astounding number and the most in La Liga by a comfortable margin. But it doesn’t offset the drop in scoring. And it’s compounded by the fact that Messi is doing less buildup work than he used to. His xGBuildup (a measure of how much he is contributing in moves that lead to the eventual xG accumulated by shots) has dropped from 1.03 last season to 0.88 this season.
This all paints the picture of a player who is beginning to focus in on the things that he’s best at while the other parts of his game start, ever so slightly, to decline. It’s always hard to define Messi’s position. But, however you look at him, either as a striker or as a midfielder/winger, the picture is the same, a player whose game hasn’t changed over the past two years, but whose production is eroding just a bit.
There are also sorts of potential reasons for that decline of course. Even the great Messi doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Grace Robertson has written about how Ernesto Valverde made stylistic changes to the squad in his second season. It’s certainly possible that it’s those changes that are slightly hampering Messi. The rest of Barcelona are also aging, and quickly. Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and Luis Suarez are all the wrong side of 30. New young blood like Ousmane Dembele still hasn't fully settled in the side, and Philippe Coutinho has those huge theoretical, though actually probably fairly small actual, Andres Iniesta shoes to fill. It’s possible that the physical limitations holding Messi back aren’t his, but are, in fact, everybody else’s.
Even if that’s the case though, that would be a new development. One of the things that has defined Messi’s prime years, and contributed to his greatness, is his ability to but up god like numbers no matter what’s going on around him. Play him on the wing or in the center. Play him as part of a front three or a front two. Play highly possession oriented football or a swashbuckling counterattack. Prioritize defensive stability or attacking flexibility. Historically none of it matters to Messi, he’s going to do what he’s going to do and what he’s going to do is put up gigantic numbers and lead his team to titles. This year, he’s probably going to do that again, but the numbers, at least so far, are slightly less gigantic.
It’s also important to emphasize that he hasn’t even played 1000 league minutes yet this season. The blip could be just that. Maybe Messi goes off for a month, lights the league on fire, and this is just a little bit of noise that he once again successfully puts behind him. But, once players turn 30 these small downturns become more alarming than they’d otherwise be. The chance that small declines are permanent increases. Slight nagging injuries start to linger for longer. Legs that used to be fresh end up just a little bit heavier. Dips in from that a decade ago might have naturally ended quickly now stubbornly hang around. It’s too early to say that’s definitely what Messi is going through, but it’s not too early to worry that he might be.
Barcelona are still the best team in Spain. Compared to anybody else Lionel Messi is still the best player on the planet. But, compared only to himself, there’s just enough decline to start to wonder. Is this the beginning of the tail end of Messi’s career? Has he finally reached the point where instead of doing everything well, he’ll have to make choices and sacrifice some parts of his game in the service of others? Even if that’s not, in fact, what’s happening, it’s bound to happen before too long. Messi is the best, but not even the best outrun father time.