With football at a standstill, we’re going to take advantage of the pause to analyse the evolution of one of the best players in the history of our sport: Lionel Messi. And who better to assist us in that task than Álex Delmás, ex-footballer, analyst for Barça TV and La Vanguardia newspaper, and author of the book Messi Táctico. Thanks to our Messi Data Biography we have data for all league matches involving Messi since his debut in 2004. For this series, Álex has picked three significant matches in Messi’s evolution as a footballer. We start with a Clásico: the 3–3 between Barcelona and Real Madrid in March 2007. Nick Dorrington (ND) (editor of StatsBomb’s Spanish-language site): Hi Álex. For those who don’t already know you, it’s worth mentioning that you haven’t just followed Messi’s career from afar. I understand that you once shared a pitch with him? Álex Delmás (AD): That’s right. I’m an ex-footballer. I played in Segunda B with Sabadell and Premiá, and ended my career as the captain of CE Europa, the third club in Barcelona. I developed at Granollers, a Barça affiliate, and I spent a short time in the juvenil age group at Barça. I came up against Messi there, and then in 2004, I received an award alongside him. I was voted the best player in the Tercera División, and he was voted the most promising young player. From then on, I took a close interest in his career. ND: Okay, we’re going to start with this Clásico, a 3–3 draw at the Camp Nou. This is Messi’s second full season in the first team, one in which he more than doubled his number of minutes from the previous campaign. Why have you chosen this match? AD: There have been various iterations of Messi. In this match, he was clearly in his first iteration, and that is why I chose it. It’s his first great performance, his first hat-trick and a match that in a sense marked the beginning of his shift from being just one more player to Barça’s most decisive performer. In this first iteration, he was more of a moments player than one who was consistently involved. He was thrilling every time he got on the ball, but he was a bit more timid and held his position more than the Messi we would see later on. ND: Before focusing specifically on Messi, let’s talk a bit about the match itself and Barcelona’s approach. Madrid utilised a pretty narrow 4-2-3-1 formation. How did Barça line up? AD: Barça surprised with a very aggressive 3-4-3 that included a defence made up of two central defenders and a full-back: Oleguer, Lilian Thuram and Carles Puyol. ND: It really was a surprise. At least in the matches that Messi took part in, Barça had only used that formation once before, in a 1–0 loss away to Real Zaragoza, and they never used it again, as we can see from this animation of their pass maps for the season. AD
: Barça were able to create a number of overloads in the centre of the pitch because the central midfielders, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Deco, played very centrally while the wingers tied down two defenders out wide. There were a lot of 4vs3 and 4vs2 situations. Xavi was pretty much always the one who initiated controlled possession. Rafael Márquez stepped to the side to allow him to come out with the ball and ensure clean transitions forward. But Barça did have problems when Madrid were able to move forward into the space in behind Thuram. ND
: It seemed like quite a chaotic match to me. According to our database, it features the biggest expected goals (xG) tally of any Clásico. Only two saw more shots. AD
: It’s true. It was a very open match . . . a lot of back and forth, in part because neither of the teams pressed well. Barcelona had more players high up the pitch, but Madrid were able to find routes forward down the flanks in the midfield zone, just behind Barça’s wingers. Madrid also tried to get Ruud van Nistelrooy in behind a lot. Mainly off the back of Thuram. It’s also worth noting that Barça were left with 10 men after the dismissal of Oleguer. Their search for an equaliser opened things up even more in the second half. ND
: We can clearly see that difference in how high the two teams pressed in their pressure maps from this match.
As you mentioned before, at this stage of his career Messi played very wide on the right, and in this match Barcelona’s attack was quite asymmetrical. There were a lot of players toward the left and only really Messi holding width on the right. It was surprising to see the amount of space that Messi had to receive in behind Madrid’s left-back Miguel Torres, both on the first goal and on other occasions during the first half. Do you think it was an approach designed to exploit a certain weakness in the Madrid defence or was it just the result of the natural game of Deco, Iniesta, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, all of whom preferred to receive towards the left? AD
: Ronaldinho started on the left, with Eto’o in the centre, but they quickly started to interchange positions. There were moments when Ronaldinho played as the #9 and Eto’o went wide on the left. The central midfielders did tend to drift towards the left. I don’t think it was an approach put in place specifically for this match but just a product of the magnetism of Ronaldinho. At that time Ronnie was the star of the team and the primary creator. It was the first stage of Messi’s career, when he was still much more of a winger than a second striker. One of the secrets of Messi’s goals in this match was that he understood the need to hold a wide position. In doing so, he created passing lanes for a number of dangerous attacks. ND
: That was how the first of Messi’s three goals arrived. He received a crisp pass from Eto’o and fired home his first goal in a Clásico. His second came from a rebound inside the area, again with him as the most far right of all attacking players. But then Oleguer’s dismissal, after a second yellow card for a needless foul on Fernando Gago, right at the end of the first half, provoked a change both in Barça’s shape and Messi’s position within it. AD
: Yes, the sending off completely changed things for the second half. Barça brought on Sylvinho for Eto’o and settled into a 3-4-2, with Messi and Ronaldinho together up front. Messi started to receive the ball much more often in central areas. ND
: We can see that by looking at the positions in which Messi received the ball in the first half compared to the second. AD
: He and Ronaldinho carried the team on their backs. It was an exchange between them that led to the decisive 3–3 goal. ND
: In the first half, they only exchanged six passes. In the second, they combined far more frequently, as seen below.
And as you said, they combined for the equalising goal just a minute from full time.
I’d like to ask you a couple of things related to that goal. The first is about Ronaldinho and his ability to play with his back to goal. On the goal, he received the ball like that, held off the pressuring defender and slipped a nice pass into Messi. For me, that’s one of his underrated attributes, something that allowed him to interchange with Eto’o and play in central zones with relative ease. AD
: Yes. Ronaldinho was a very complete attacking player. He could pass, shoot, dribble and as you say, he was strong and could protect the ball very well. At least when he was up for it . . . because a lot of it depended on his form. It is also fair to say that playing centrally neutered a number of his attributes. Eto’o also didn’t provide as much from wide. ND
: The second question is about Messi and that initial burst of acceleration that was frequently decisive. On the goal, he received the ball perfectly on the half-turn, zipped past Iván Helguera and fired past Iker Casillas. Did he always have that burst, even in the youth teams? AD
: He did. That burst of acceleration made him unstoppable at the youth level and for a great deal of his senior career. Once he got going, there was no way of stopping him. He’s still very quick today but he was electric back then. ND
: When Messi appeared on the scene, the first thing that stood out about him was his dribbling ability. Over the course of his first three full seasons (2005–06 to 2007–08) in the first team, he completed an average of between 7.08 and 8.64 per 90 minutes. In this season, 2006–07, he completed over twice as many dribbles as any of his teammates.
But he always provided production in front of goal as well. In 2005–06, his first full season, he averaged 3.60 shots and 0.52 xG per 90. This match marked the start of an impressive run during the final three months of the 2006–07 season in which he registered 11 of his 14 goals for the year. He started to get into the area more often and take more shots from better positions.
Did that sudden eruption of goals surprise you? AD
: He was progressing rapidly. That uptick in shots is somewhat linked to his growing status within the team and an increase in the amount of freedom he was given positionally. It was logical that his output would increase, but it was still a bit surprising. He had already made his goalscoring ability clear in the youth teams but one wouldn’t have imagined him becoming quite as a prolific scorer as he did. ND
: It was Messi’s dribbling and shooting that first stood out, but his creative output also increased steadily over the course of his first few seasons. [table id=75 /] In this match, he produced a lovely reverse pass to get Ronaldinho into the area during the first half. Would you say that is the normal course for a talented young forward? That gradual shift from impact player to a more well-rounded and influential performer? AD
: Yes, it is certainly linked to his maturation as a footballer. But such a startling degree of improvement in all areas can be explained by a few things. The first is that we are talking about a genius, the second is the normal development curve and the third his ambition to be the best. Messi embodies the fact that even the best can still improve. The clearest example is his free-kicks. Messi didn’t take free-kicks in the youth teams and neither did he in his first seasons as a professional. Now, he is the best free-kick taker in the world. ND
: We will see the end result of all that improvement in the next part of the series. I think the second half of this match provided us with a nice preview of what is to come. Header image courtesy of the Press Association