Why is Messi So Terrible?

For Argentina.

Why is Messi so terrible for Argentina?

Sorry, was that headline misleading?

Lionel Messi has one goal through the group stages of this year’s Copa America in Chile, a 35th minute penalty against Paraguay. That’s only three games, so small sample size and all, but Messi’s lack of fecundity for the Albiceleste is not confined to the group stages of one international tournament.

Going back to 2010, through 32 matches of two World Cups, one World Cup qualifying cycle and one-and-a-half Copa Americas he has 11 non-penalty goals. That’s a strike rate of .344, which is sorta pitiful compared to his .882 rate for FC Barcelona over the last two seasons (60 goals in 68 league matches)1.

Messi’s problem—okay, outside of some tax concerns, Messi probably doesn’t have ‘problems’ per se—is that he is always going to be compared to the best player of this (or possibly any) generation: some dude named “Lionel Messi”… Oh, wait.

If the curse of being the best player in the game is that there is never a reprieve from the weight of expectations, the blaugrana of Barcelona has provided him a cape. The colors of his home country? Eh, not so much. So why isn’t Messi nearly as prolific for Argentina as he is for FC Barcelona?

If you look at shot probabilities—and this is based solely on the location from which a shot was taken; there’s no other info2—all of Messi’s shots combined over his last two La Liga seasons had an average probability of .119 (or they go in at a rate of just under 12%).

In the internationals for which we have numbers (and it’s just the 2014 World Cup and this Copa America), Messi’s shot probability is .075. That’s not very good. It’s a difference of 440 basis points from his Barca number, and that’s not trivial.

Europe-wide the average is between .095 and .096. So just under one in every 10 shots goes in. For internationals, the average probability is slightly lower than that: about .090. That makes sense as often a loss at an international tournament means going home, so many teams set up to where they are defensive first. If your opponent can’t score, the worst you can do is end up in a penalty shootout. You might even get lucky and end up in one against England.

Still, that Messi is even lower than that .090 for Argentina is pretty shocking. Again it’s a much smaller sample size—only 41 total shots3—but in those same tournaments, Sergio Aguero’s average shot probability is .102.

Even more puzzling about Messi for Argentina is that strikers tend to be better than average. Those averages include everyone. So the three times a season when Gael Clichy cuts in to the top left of the 18 and decides ‘Fuck it, I’ll shoot’? Those are in that overall rate. Plus, forwards, their job is to score. They should be good at it, or at least better than the Clichys of the game4.

Messi doesn’t depend on shot selection for his prolificacy (see the Postscript below), but there might be a point where even being the greatest player in the game can’t overcome poor shot selection.

That point is seemingly around .075.

Postscript: So this is sort of the unexpected discovery of how ridiculously good Messi is. Again, his average shot probability in Spain is .119, which is above the Euro-wide .095-ish average. Is that good for a striker? I didn’t really know. To get a sense of that I pulled five other not-entirely-random5 La Liga strikers to get their numbers from last season for comparison.

Messi is actually worse than all of them save the 21-year-old Vietto. Think about that: Lionel Messi who, over the last two league seasons, scored at an astounding rate of .882 goals per game (penalties excluded), is actually taking bad shots. Or at least they aren’t particularly good compared to an admittedly small sample of other La Liga forwards.

Now, he does take a lot of shots (almost 2x that of Bueno, the next highest on the list) but he is scoring a lot more goals. His goals/shot ratio is a rounding error behind Suarez and hundredths behind Benzema, but Messi is doing it on worse shots.

Trying to accurately depict Messi’s greatness exhausts hyperbole. Even Ray Hudson has to play with the limits of language to describe him. And almost any time you start futzing with numbers, you find another measure by which he is exceptional. Messi is easily the best player alive.

Except maybe when he puts on the Argentine national team colors.

1 For most players one goal every three games is not terrible. It’s almost unfair that we have to talk about Messi differently than other players but, in a perverse way, that only confirms how good he is.

2 It is admittedly a crude metric but it does capture the relatively quality of shots a player takes.

3 That’s another component of Messi’s struggles for Argentina: he’s also getting off fewer shots. In La Liga, he averaging just under five per game. In internationals, it’s just over four. In Argentina’s World Cup semi-final against the Netherlands, Messi had only one shot. Total. In 38 games in La Liga last season only once was he held to one shot. That was a free kick from about 30 yards against Malaga at the Camp Nou (incidentally Barca lost 0-1). If Messi’s response to getting fewer shots for his country is to take bad shots just to get more shots, he might want to rethink that.

4 And no, the data isn’t loaded with long-range dead balls that are bringing Messi’s average down. There is only one of those in the entire 41-shot sample.

5 Mandzukic because he just got sold off. Vietto because he’s apparently going to be Mandzukic’s replacement and Atletico have a pretty good recent track record of finding strikers they can later sell on for sizable transfer fees. Suarez because he’s Messi’s teammate. Bueno because I like Rayo. And Benzema because he plays for the other half of La Liga’s duopoly. And just a couple of notes about the bar plot itself: Mandzukic is probably benefitting from being a big target man, so accordingly a number of his shots are going to be closer to goal (and carry higher probabilities). The opposite is probably happening in Messi’s case. He’s being ‘punished’ because he’s not a huge threat to score a header (save maybe against United in a Champions Leauge final). As for the reddish-orange values—Messi and Aguero for Argentina—many if not most players’ average probabilities in international duty are going to be lower, save maybe for Miroslav Klose (His number is going to be ridiculous). I only have two data points here so I don’t have enough info to say anything definitive, but surprising that Messi is below average in any event.

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