Lionel Messi’s evolution as a player: From Ronaldinho’s Barcelona understudy to GOAT candidate

9:45 AM ET

  • Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC

For more than 15 years, Lionel Messi has been Barcelona‘s main man, scoring and assisting hundreds of goals and winning countless trophies. But how has his game changed over time as he has aged and his supporting cast has changed? Gab Marcotti digs into the data.

Note: Statistics and data measured per 90 minutes via Opta and StatsBomb and based upon games played by Messi prior to the coronavirus-enforced shutdown of European football in March.

Jump to: Barcelona breakthrough | Replacing Ronaldinho | Hub of the wheel | Birth of the ‘MSN’ | Post-Neymar

Breaking through at Barcelona (2003-08)

Lionel Messi stood out among his peers from a young age. While youth coaches love to talk about developing and nurturing talent, the reality is Messi had such an evident and well-defined skill set — far above teammates and opponents — that ensuring he had the ball as much as possible was his quickest path to success.

He could dribble, he was fast, he had great timing when running from deep and he could score goals. And because he could do all of that in tight spaces, the easiest thing was to put him in the middle of the action. He played at the top of the diamond in the 3-4-3 formation that most of Barcelona’s youth teams used, with freedom and licence to turn into a second striker.

At 17, he began playing regularly for Barcelona B — sometimes in attacking midfield, sometimes wide on the left — while accumulating a few minutes for the first team. The following season, 2005-06, he had turned 18 and became a regular in coach Frank Rijkaard’s senior setup.

The Dutchman used a 4-3-3 system, so Messi’s “in the hole” role did not exist. Too slight and inexperienced to play up front on his own, the only possible destination for him was out wide. And because there was, understandably, a hierarchy — Barcelona had won the Spanish title the previous season — he split time on the right wing with Ludovic Giuly.

It is pretty standard, even for the most talented ones, that young players are eased into a first team playing a role that builds confidence. Many No. 10s and center-forwards start out wide as traditional wingers, with the idea to give them space, minimise responsibility and make it as straightforward as possible. If they are right-footed, for example, they play on the right flank and are tasked with running at full-backs, beating them and putting in crosses.

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For the left-footed Messi, the natural thing was to play on the left, except occupying that position for Barcelona was a guy named Ronaldinho, who happened to be the Ballon d’Or holder and arguably the best player in the world. He had licence to roam and often ended up inside, where he would join up with Deco, a gifted passer, who was part of Rijkaard’s midfield three and tended to break forward in attack.

Messi’s early numbers reflect this. He dribbled a lot (9.77 attempts in 2005-06, followed by 9.79 and 11.77 in 2006-07 and 2007-08, respectively) and did so successfully (7.40, 7.08 and a whopping 8.64), which is not surprising, as he often received the ball wide on the right in one-on-one situations, with opponents keying in on the Ronaldinho threat on the opposite flank.

We did not see much of Messi in the penalty area as compared to later years (he averaged 6.26, 5.39 and 5.54 touches in the box), and he did not shoot much either (3.60, 2.72, 2.79). When he did have an effort from distance, he was not particularly effective, scoring just once in 62 attempts from more than 21 yards over the 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.

He was diligent in doing defensive work off the ball over the same period; indeed, his possession-adjusted tackles+interceptions were above 3.0 for the only time in his career.

In addition, his development was likely hampered by two things. A string of muscular injuries limited him to 23 league starts in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, just as the club was giving him more responsibility. Moreover, he had yet to turn 21, and as Guillem Balague points out in his biography of the Argentine, Messi continued to largely subsist on the diet of a teenager: soft drinks, pizza and plenty of red meat. But that would change …

Taking over from Ronaldinho (2008-10)

The summer of 2008 saw a symbolic passing of the torch at Barcelona. Pep Guardiola replaced Rijkaard as first-team coach, while Deco and Ronaldinho were sold, as it became clear to the new manager that not only was Messi the club’s future, but the future was now.

Messi was given the No. 10 shirt and made the team’s highest-paid player, but it was critical that he stayed fit after eight muscular injuries over the previous two seasons. His diet had to change, so he was assigned a nutritionist and, probably not by coincidence, grew in strength and durability.

Guardiola shaped the team in a way that undeniably suited Messi, who began to enjoy some of the creative freedoms moving inside that would become his hallmark. Thierry Henry, who had arrived a year earlier, flourished in a wide position with similar licence, but he was different in that he looked to run behind defences.

More generally, Guardiola’s early style — heavy on possession and short passing — suited Messi. He was comfortable in congested areas and surrounded by pure footballers, from Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield to the newly arrived Dani Alves at right-back.

Messi had a phenomenal season in 2008-09, as Barcelona won the La Liga-Copa del Rey-Champions League Treble. He created plenty (his expected goals — xG — assists from open play were up to 0.35), while he also dribbled effectively (9.27 attempted, 6.27 completed) and took more shots (3.65).

Tellingly — and this would be a staple for him during the Guardiola era — Messi was taking mostly good shots with an xG/shot mark of 0.15. His fitness was improved and decision-making was better, while Guardiola’s style, which favoured taking an extra pass if it meant getting a better shot, also helped.

The 2009-10 campaign proved to be a bit of an outlier due to the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Guardiola was the talk of football, with a team of seven homegrown La Masia academy alumni and an approach predicated on movement and possession, but center-forward Samuel Eto’o, who had worked tirelessly for the more glamorous players behind him (first Ronaldinho and now Messi), was involved in a contractual dispute.

There also was a sense that, despite their success, this Barcelona team was small, lightweight and one-dimensional. If you could add a player blessed not only with strength and size and power, but also a delicate touch on the ball, then surely the team would be even greater than the sum of its parts. And so Ibrahimovic moved to the Camp Nou from Inter in a cash-plus-player deal that saw Eto’o shipped to Italy.

Ibrahimovic did not fit Barcelona’s style, though, and clashed with Guardiola. And while there was no personal issue between the two players, the impact on Messi’s game was evident: His touches in the box fell from 8.79 to 7.92, and his shots from distance went way up, from 36 to 63. That total was the highest of his career until 2016-17, when he was almost 30 and again playing with a genuine center-forward (Luis Suarez).

Simply put, while Eto’o worked to make space for others, Ibrahimovic was less mobile and, perhaps, more determined to be the offensive terminus. Ibrahimovic clogged the middle, and that meant Messi had to operate farther away from goal.

Barcelona won La Liga with a record points total of 99 but fell short in the Champions League. Messi’s season was productive, with 33 league goals from open play, but it was the sort of performance that quickly convinced Guardiola he could be even more productive without Ibrahimovic, who was sent to Milan. Henry, whose minutes and production had declined, as well, was dispatched to Major League Soccer.

In came David Villa, also a center-forward but more mobile and versatile. Meanwhile, Pedro, who had come up from the B team and begun to replace Henry the season before, was anointed a starter. Finally, Messi had a front three that was made-to-measure for his skills.

The hub of the wheel (2010-14)

With Pedro and Villa as natural foils and Guardiola’s short-passing game in full swing, Messi enjoyed some of his best individual seasons. At once a creator and finisher, he was still nominally starting on the right wing, but in such a fluid front three, Messi appeared all over the front line, which meant he spent plenty of time in the middle.

Barcelona won La Liga and the Champions League in 2010-11. And while his non-penalty league goals were down to 27, Messi was still untouchable when it came to dribbling (10.75 attempted, 7.47 successful) and delivered a stellar 0.34 xG assisted from open play.

The following year would be Guardiola’s last at Barcelona and saw him experiment with more exotic formations, including playing three at the back and tinkering with midfield. Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona born and bred, returned to the club after a long spell at Arsenal to freshen up the Xavi-Iniesta partnership but made little impact. Alexis Sanchez, who also arrived in the summer, failed to live up to the hype, as well, and Villa missed six months of 2011-12 through injury.

The turbulence meant Barcelona would end the season empty-handed in terms of trophies, but that did not stop Messi from taking on more responsibility. He finished with 73 goals in all competitions — an absurd number by any measure — but it was his 40 non-penalty goals in the league that really stood out, plus the fact that they came with an xG/shot of 0.17, ludicrously high for someone taking a whopping 187 shots.

Guardiola’s longtime assistant Tito Vilanova took over but was diagnosed with cancer in December 2012 and spent much of the rest of the campaign undergoing treatment. Villa returned, but he was still beset by injury and not the same, while Sanchez continued to struggle.

By this stage, Messi was pretty much Barca’s entire offense, and he was red-hot. He won his third straight Ballon d’Or and notched 42 non-penalty league goals, seven of which came off 58 shots from beyond 21 yards. His touches in the box did dip slightly, to 8.8, which was perhaps a sign he had become primarily a finisher. His average position left little doubt: Messi was effectively playing center-forward.

It was evident that Barcelona revolved around Messi at this stage and he was carrying the attacking burden on his own. In the summer of 2013, the club got him help in the form of Neymar, while Gerardo “Tata” Martino replaced Vilanova, who sadly died in April 2014. Martino came from Messi’s hometown of Rosario and was seen as the right man to connect with Messi on a personal level, as well as a sporting level.

Despite all that, the heavy dependence on Messi continued. Neymar, just 21, took time to adapt and was limited to 19 league starts. Off the pitch, team president Sandro Rosell was forced to resign following allegations of impropriety relating to Neymar’s transfer, and Barcelona were found guilty of breaching rules relating to the signing of foreign youngsters, which led to a transfer ban.

Messi carried them as far as he could in 2013-14 and took more shots than ever (5.34), but he was simply less effective, ending up with 22 non-penalty league goals. Muscular injuries, which he had banished for several seasons, reared their head as Barcelona ended the season trophyless and Martino was let go.

Birth of the ‘MSN’ (2014-17)

In the summer of 2014, with Atletico Madrid champions of Spain and Real Madrid holders of the European Cup, it was obvious that the notion of the false nine or interchangeable front three was no longer working for Barcelona and just gave Messi a greater burden.

To address this, Luis Enrique replaced Martino as coach, and the Blaugrana acquired Luis Suarez from Liverpool for around $90 million. With Sanchez moving on, the road was paved for the so-called “MSN” — Messi-Suarez-Neymar — and Barcelona would go on to win another Treble.

Not that the change was immediate. Suarez arrived with a four-month ban after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. And Neymar was much improved but not yet on the level he would later reach. In fact, we did not get to see the MSN together on the pitch until January 2015. But perhaps most importantly, Messi stayed fully fit and appeared in every game in the Champions League, Copa del Rey and Liga, starting all but one.

His shots were down (from 5.34 to 4.62), as were his dribbles (both attempted, 9.67 to 8.52, and successful, 6.78 to 5.75), but his attacking output improved tremendously. He scored 38 non-penalty league goals — the third-highest total of his career — but also managed to serve up 0.33 expected goals against — xGA — from open play, which was a function of the talent around him.

Suarez’s presence was critical in allowing Messi to return to the right wing on a more permanent basis, though always with licence to come inside and create. Suarez was perhaps the perfect synthesis of Ibrahimovic and Eto’o; he had Ibrahimovic’s technical ability, but Eto’o’s work rate and intelligent movement.

In addition, Suarez quickly developed an understanding with Messi, clearing the path with well-timed runs that took defenders out of position and always making himself available for a pass. And Neymar’s presence on the left wing helped tremendously, as it meant opposing teams could not simply overload Messi’s flank.

The 2015-16 season saw things continue in much the same vein, though having Suarez around for the full campaign, rather than just five months, meant Messi could leave some of the attacking burden. Operating farther away from goal, we saw different aspects to his game. His shots from distance, for example, went up to a career-high 62, and he improved his scoring rate from distance, netting a career-best six goals.

He continued to dribble less (his attempts fell to 7.66) and, partly because he was farther away, both his xG (0.62, lowest since 2008-09) and xG/shot (0.13, lowest since 2007-08) declined from the highs of previous campaigns. At 28, his defensive output also continued to fall: His possession-adjust tackles plus interceptions were 1.02.

This was a Messi who was far more team-oriented and willing to make players around him better, though that is easier to do with the likes of Neymar and Suarez. Alves, the full-back with winger skills who allowed Messi to spend much of the previous seasons as a wide man in name only, moved on in the summer of 2016, and Messi spent increasing periods of time away from the penalty area.

In doing so, Messi became even more lethal from distance, converting eight of 66 shots from beyond 21 yards; his xGA from open play was a whopping 0.45. He ended the campaign with 31 non-penalty league goals and 51 across all competitions.

Post-Neymar (2017-present)

The summer of 2017 featured a pair of key departures from the Camp Nou. Enrique was replaced by Ernesto Valverde, while Neymar activated his release clause to join Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record fee of $250 million.

The move caught Barcelona unprepared, and the proceeds of the sale were spent on players with different skills. Ousmane Dembele, 20, was more of a direct, up-and-down runner and was beset by injuries, failing to make much impact. Meanwhile Philippe Coutinho, who arrived in January 2018, was more of a creator, and he too struggled in Valverde’s system. Suarez also began showing signs of wear and tear as he turned 31, developing into more of a traditional center-forward.

Messi necessarily adjusted. His touches in the box increased (10.99 in 2017-18 and 10.26 in 2018-19) as he found himself farther forward, closer to Suarez, but he also shot more from distance when the path into the box was blocked. Again, Messi did it very well, scoring 16 goals in 171 attempts from beyond 21 yards over the two seasons. Part of the success was due to free kicks, a quality of his game that seemed to improve with age: He netted 12 over two years, having previously had 21 in his entire career.

He still was, nominally, a right winger, still was a hugely effective dribbler and regularly ranked among the league leaders. But it was often more a case of using the dribble to set up a shot or a pass, rather than taking off on the sort of exhilarating runs we saw when he was younger. Meanwhile, his defensive output continued to decline, and he rarely tracked back, likely a function of age. In fact, it was not uncommon to see him and Suarez jogging back and leaving the midfielders tasked with regaining the ball.

Messi’s numbers for 2019-20 are what you would expect from a 32-year-old GOAT candidate who sometimes tried to carry the team like he once did. Prior to La Liga’s shutdown, his xG/shot was a career-low 0.11, but he still managed a healthy 16 non-penalty league goals. Typically, his long-range shooting was making the difference: Seven of his 16 non-penalty goals came from distance, by far the highest proportion of his career. Four of those were free kicks, further evidence that the ability to strike a ball is the last thing to go with age.

The old term “Messi dependency” came back in vogue as Valverde’s teams, despite winning two Liga titles, largely failed to impress and leaned heavily on their talisman. In some ways, outside the Guardiola years and MSN era, it has been the story of Messi’s career. The difference, perhaps, is that these days Messi will pop up occasionally — often with ballistic exploits from afar — rather than continuously picking apart opponents with the entire team at his service.

Still, as career twilights go, it is the sort about which most mortal players only dream.

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