FOOTBALL’S MOST fruitful partnership has ended in tears. On August 8th a weeping Lionel Messi said he was leaving Barcelona, the club he joined when he was just 13. The Argentine forward has scored a record 474 goals in La Liga, Spain’s top league. His teams have won ten La Liga titles and four Europe-wide Champions League trophies.
Mr Messi offered to slash his salary in order to stay. But Barcelona is deep in debt, and pays 95% of its revenue in wages. La Liga has set a ceiling of 70%, forcing the club to let him go. On August 10th he joined Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), a rich French team.
Now 34, Mr Messi may not even be PSG’s top scorer next season. But the only question about his peak in 2009-19 is whether it was the greatest ever. Although historical comparisons are tricky in football, the best available data suggest that it was.
Mr Messi’s standing relative to his contemporaries can be analysed reliably. Today, the location and result of every shot, dribble, pass and tackle are tracked. KU Leuven, a university, and SciSports, an analytics firm, have built a system to measure how each action affects a team’s odds of scoring, by comparing where the ball was before and after a player touched it.
In 2012-20, their model reckons that Mr Messi would have boosted an average team’s scoring margin by 1.77 goals per match. Cristiano Ronaldo, his old rival at Real Madrid, came a distant second at 1.43.
Comparing Mr Messi with past greats is harder. The only data available for all European leagues before 2000 are goals scored and match results. And not all goals are created equal: scoring rates fell sharply from 1950 to 1970, and goals are easier to come by in weaker leagues.
To level the playing field, we devised an exchange rate called the Modern-Equivalent Soccer Scoring Index (MESSI). For each season in each league, it uses the average number of goals per match and team strength—as measured by the Elo system, which rates clubs based on their results and the quality of their opponents—to estimate how many goals players would have scored under different conditions. For example, in the 1960s Eusébio played in a weak, high-scoring Portuguese league. His goals are worth 37% less than those in La Liga in 2004-21. By contrast, Diego Maradona faced stout Italian defences, making his goals worth 5% more than the modern baseline. (We excluded penalties, which pad some strikers’ stats more than others’.)
After these tweaks, the diminutive Mr Messi stands head and shoulders above the competition. At his best, he averaged one goal per 90 minutes. Mr Ronaldo reached 0.9; greats from earlier eras were below 0.8.
These rankings are far from perfect. They underrate players like Maradona and Johan Cruyff, who were as much creators as finishers. And they cannot capture the value of defenders like Franz Beckenbauer.
Even among strikers, important data are missing. Ferenc Puskas’s latter years roughly match Mr Messi’s recent seasons. Unfortunately, Elo ratings do not exist for the post-war Hungarian leagues that the young Puskas dominated. Nor are they available for Brazil or America, where Pelé, widely seen as the greatest player of the 20th century, played club football.
What is certain, based on modern analytics, is that only half of Mr Messi’s value comes from shots at goal. He is also an extraordinary dribbler and passer. This suggests that even the prolific Puskas and Pelé may not have been his equal.■
Sources: PlaymakerStats.com; ClubElo.com; KU Leuven; SciSports; The Economist
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Simply the best”