It seems like it’s really gonna happen, Lionel Messi informed Barcelona that he was terminating his contract immediately. There is, of course, still the question of whether or not he can actually terminate his contract a sort of metaphysical legal argument over when things end, begin, and if ends and beginnings no longer even exist anymore but, well, Does it necessarily mean that he is leaving for sure? No, not really, although it's hard to imagine any other outcome. There's no way back, in the sense that nothing can ever be the same again.”
The most bullish Barcelona fan perspective on the situation is that there’s a 50/50 chance Messi stays at the club, provided the right leaders get sacrificed, the right replacements get brought in, maybe the new manager apologizes to him and yeah, you start to see the point. The most powerful soccer player in the world wants to leave his club; the most powerful soccer player in the world is probably going to leave his club.
Manchester City always seemed the most logical destination during the he won’t really do it will he conversations of summers past, and now that it's real, they still seem like they’re in pole position. According to reports, City have crunched the numbers on how they could make this move happen were a transfer fee to be required, and according to further reports, Messi has already spoken to his former manager and current City boss, Pep Guardiola, about joining the club. It's like some heist film, Lowe wrote. Pep Guardiola and Messi, the old gang, the best in the business, back together for one last job.
Three seasons ago, Manchester City broke the points record in arguably the most competitive soccer league on the planet. A year after that, they pumped in the second-highest points total in league history. And although they dropped a spot down the table this past season, their expected goal differential was actually better than in either of the previous two seasons. Despite the disappointing finish, Pep’s team knocked in 102 goals. How much better can they possibly get?
You’ve heard me say it enough times by now, but that’s not gonna stop me from doing it again. Lionel Messi is the best player of his era because he’s the best goal-scorer, the best finisher, the best creator, the best dribbler, the best final third passer, and the best facilitator all at the same time. Plug him into your system properly, and you’ll be an elite attacking team just by virtue of having Lionel Messi on the field. That’s not true and frankly, has never been true for any other player.
Yet, Lionel Messi, Not young! He turned 33 in June, and while you’re 33 until you’re 34, if Manchester City were to add Messi for, say, three seasons, they’d be adding him for his 33, 34 and 35 year old seasons. Let’s zoom out and look at how his career has progressed, by non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes.
As I wrote about last week, since 2008 there are only four players in Europe’s Big Five leagues who have averaged at least 1.00 NPG+A/90, and Messi’s at the top with 1.34. That should put some context on what we’re looking at here; these are fluctuations up above the clouds, so far ahead of anyone else that the year to year bounces are almost irrelevant. However, there is a bit of a trend: from age 28 until now, his production has declined when compared to the previous five-year stretch, 22 to 27. In his prime, he was Babe Ruth completely untouchable by his peers. Now, he’s more like Mike Trout still the best and most consistent, but every year someone else can have a career year and challenge his production for a single campaign. He can’t keep that up forever, and the possession value model goals added thinks he’s declined a good bit since last season, but even with a more sudden age related drop off with a new team he’d still be one of the handful of best players on the planet.
Beyond the raw trends of production, Messi’s game has changed over the years. He’s still the best finisher there ever was, but perhaps because of his aging legs, he’s settling for worse and worse shots with each passing season:
When he was younger, he was getting a ton of great shots and finishing them at a higher clip than any normal human being ever would. That’s how he scored 50 and 46 goals in consecutive La Liga seasons. Now, he’s edging closer to the shot-type of your average player, just with more shots and a much higher conversion rate. But given that, how have those goal contribution numbers remained so steady?
It basically looks like this Messi turned 30, realized he couldn’t score like he used to, and so he turned into John Stockton in order to make up for the decline in goals. It makes sense, too: the athletic movement required to score a number of goals only identifiable with a government funded telescope doesn’t last forever, but when you’re setting your teammates up, you can let the ball do most of the work.
That sort of mutable omnipotence has a place on every team, but every club is different with specific strengths and weaknesses that can be addressed. For Manchester City, the attack is not the problem. Only two teams in Premier League history have scored more than their 102 goals: Chelsea’s 103 in 2009-10 and this same Manchester City team, who scored 106 goals two years ago. This year, City had seven players average at least 0.7. Messi, well, is a significantly better soccer player than Durant is a basketball player. This would be more like the Warriors adding LeBron. Plus, there’s still some room for City’s attack to go in order to reach their limit. Since 2008, the record for goals in a season in the Big Five leagues was, hilariously, set by supposed-defensive menace Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who netted 121 times in 2011-12. Their goal differential plus-89 was joint-best with 2014-15 Barcelona, who scored 110 goals. In fact, Barcelona scored at least 110 goals in five of six years from 2011 through 2017.
Messi, then, has played for a team that produced a better goal differential than 2019-20 City (plus-67) 10 times, and he’s played for a team that’s scored more goals six times. On top of that, I don’t think any of those high-scoring Barcelona sides would have scored 102 goals without Lionel Messi. They might have to move some players around to acquire him, but Manchester City would be adding Lionel Messi to the bones of a team that was already capable of scoring 102 goals last year and 106 just two years prior. In terms of what we’ve seen on a soccer field in the modern era of the sport, City still have 19 goals scored and 22 goals of differential to go before reaching exit velocity.
Another way to look at it: Gabriel Jesus scored 14 non-penalty goals on chances worth 17.8 goals this past season. Given Messi’s conversion rate over the past three seasons (84 NPG on 57.2 xG), you’d expect him to score 26 goals from the same chances Jesus got. They’re not the same position, sure, but that comparison also doesn’t take into account all of the other non-scoring things Messi would do for City.
Clustering of players with equal quality is a phenomenon that can often be observed in team sports. The underlying assumption is that players benefit from better teammates. Moreover, a player benefits the more from better teammates the better he is himself. That implies that the best midfielder is most efficiently allocated when combined with the best striker. Consequently, a better team can pay higher wages for good players than those teams with a lower quality. As a result, the competitive balance is distorted by such a clustering effect.
In other words, Messi would benefit more from playing with, I don’t know, Kevin De Bruyne than either Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez would and vice versa. Messi and De Bruyne do a lot of the same things they create scoring opportunities for their teams at an unrivaled scale but presumably having Messi on the field will create more space for De Bruyne. The threat of Messi in the final third will make life easier on Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling both by drawing defenders away from them and just adding a genius level passer who can get them the ball in space to score. And Messi himself will benefit from, playing in a system that doesn’t totally collapse if he gets shut down, having dangerous teammates who will draw defenders away from him, and having teammates who can create great chances for him. There are potentially all kinds of additive effects up, down, and across the team that Messi might bring beyond just how much better he is than the player he’s replacing.
But even if it’s just a two-point upgrade, City are only currently favored by around three points over Liverpool in the 2020-21 season betting markets. Those extra points make a huge difference, and they’re also way more valuable and difficult to attain than the two points that would bring a team from, say, 62 points to 64 points. If City become something closer to those Barcelona or Madrid-level attacks of years past, they’d be jumping by something more like 10 points based on the back-of the napkin calculation of one goal equals one point. Plus, City really, really want to win the Champions League, and nothing increases your odds of doing so more than going out and getting yourself the best player in the world.
If Messi does eventually join City, there are also reports that suggest there might be a clause in the contract that pushed him to join NYCFC in MLS once his time in the Premier League is done. What might that look like? For LAFC last season, MLS MVP Carlos Vela averaged 1.16 NPG+A/90 en route to setting the league record in goals scored. In his last full season in Europe for Real Sociedad, Vela posted a rate of 0.32 NPG+A/90. If Messi’s production was converted at the same rate, based on last season he would score and assist on 4.5 goals per game in MLS. Last year, LAFC set the league record for most goals in a season. They scored 2.5 per game as an entire team.
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