Quantifying the art of Lionel Messi

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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Words often fail when the subject is Lionel Messi, even from those who are wordier than most.

Famous for declaring the Argentine star “a magnetic spectrum of genius,” and “magisterial Leo!” among other ornate monikers, the American-based Geordie soccer commentator Ray Hudson is left squealing like a little boy more often than not.

Messi’s only 27, but his Barcelona exploits have long been the stuff of legend. Playing in his third World Cup, he’s finally shining on that stage for Argentina, which meets The Netherlands Wednesday in the semifinals.

Before the knockout stage got underway, Benjamin Morris of Five Thirty Eight unfurled a comprehensive analysis of Messi’s game that illustrates the ideal use of advanced statistics.┬áSometimes metrics can create a whole new narrative, but in “Messi is Impossible,” Morris uses numbers to show Messi’s effectiveness with astonishing depth.

Some may think a numerical approach isn’t necessary. Messi’s the greatest player on the planet; all you have to do is watch. Well, yes, but why, and more importantly, how?

There is the familiar, often-recounted tale of Messi leaving his home in Rosario, Argentina at age 13, to train and learn in Barcelona’s famous La Masia youth academy.

But the clickbait-style headline aside, Morris expands our understanding of Messi’s brilliance in ways that mere words, and the stirring tale of a precocious soccer upbringing, simply cannot.

Messi Graph (Morris)Morris pulled four years’ worth of statistics from Opta, a British sports data firm that specializes in soccer, and compared Messi to his few true peers — Portuguese and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. Across this wide spectrum of measurements — shooting and scoring production, passing accuracy, creation of scoring chances and how often they lead to goals — Messi rates at, or near, the top, in just about every one of them.

But Morris also looked at where on the field Messi shoots from, how effectively he takes on defenders, and even how he kicks the ball to help guide his assessment. The final product — and it’s a very, very long post with lots of graphics — is as inexhaustible as Messi’s game. Morris concludes he couldn’t get everything into his post that he wanted:

“It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.

“But Messi does all of this and more.”

Sifting through chart after chart, metric after metric — some I never knew existed, like “Number of Long Balls Played from Midfield” and “Value Added vs. Total Offensive Participation” — I felt my head was going to explode. I’m still grinding my way from being a math-phobic journalist, but it’s a very gradual process.

There’s no way to understand even a little of this in one sitting, yet I was ecstatic drowning in the wondrous ways that exist to analyze how Messi does what he does. Here’s another insight from Morris, based on detailed numbers-crunching, that really jumped out at me:

“The percentage of shots Messi makes from outside the penalty area is absolutely stunning. He scores almost as often per shot from outside the penalty area (12.1 percent) as most players do inside it (13.1 percent).”

When Messi did that, against Iran in the dying moments of a group match for a 1-0 Argentina win, it was something that has been seen many times before. It was the stuff of genius, of a small-sized man finding a sliver of space to destroy an opponent. Knowing those numbers above makes it so much easier to appreciate Messi’s talents. thenumbersgame

“The Numbers Game,” published last year, is the definitive book about metrics in soccer, which like other sports has some media naysayers, or at least skeptics.

Morris’ post is a valuable addition to a still-emerging field. Unlike baseball and basketball, soccer doesn’t lend itself to the easy cataloging of stats from a box score. And like American football, it’s easy to misinterpret the value of possession.

Few soccer teams possess the ball like Barcelona, and fewer individuals still can display a dazzling array of talent with the ball at their feet like Messi.

There just aren’t enough ways to savor Messi, in other words.

So I’ll give Hudson the final word about all this, uttered after a Messi goal against Real Sociedad in early 2013. When numbers aren’t enough, there is this Messi platitude:

“Like Oliver Twist . . . he wants more. He never just says, ‘Please, sir.’ He just takes it.”

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