Lionel Messi is underrated. Yes, you read that correctly
A new documentary and some interesting stats make the case for Messi being the best
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is one of the main subjects of a new documentary called Take The Ball, Pass The Ball. Photo: Josep Lago/Getty Images
In his new book, Nothing is Real, a collection of essays that stretch and soar across a career spanning five decades, the acclaimed music journalist David Hepworth starts with an essay that tickles and provokes. The Beatles, he suggests, were underrated. Yes, you read that right. Underrated.
You may have raised an eyebrow, given that barely a month goes by without the Fab Four topping some poll or other. But Hepworth maintains that “the richness of their golden period has never been equalled”, with “listeners ricocheting from one hook to another like a metal ball in one of Bally’s machines”. And he insists that for all the “garlands that posterity has placed upon their brow” their genius is underappreciated.
It’s time to acknowledge that applies to Leo Messi, too. Despite all the strikes and superlatives, the countless displays of brilliance and the five Ballons d’Or since he made his debut as a runty teen in a friendly against Porto 15 years ago this week, Messi is underrated.
In Take The Ball, Pass The Ball, a fascinating new documentary about how Barcelona became the best team in the world, Xavi makes a good fist of explaining why Messi is ahead of his peers. “He’s better than you with his right foot, left foot and his head,” he says. “He’s better at defending and attacking. He’s faster. Better at dribbling, better at passing.”
There’s a shrug and a silence as Xavi is temporarily lost for words. “What about goalkeeper,” the questioner asks. “We haven’t put him in goal yet,” comes the reply. “But watch out if he tries that too.”
In the documentary Samuel Eto’o explains that he warned Patrick Vieira before the Gamper pre-season tournament in 2005 that he was facing a kid who would change history. “I told him one day it would seem like every player who came before Messi was playing a different sport,” adds Eto’o, who surely joins the great prophets.
Yet who would deny Eto’o was right? Once upon a time the mark of a top striker was a goal every two games. Yet Omar Chaudhuri, the head of football intelligence for the leading consultancy 21st Club, points out that Messi has averaged 1.44 goals and assists for every 90 minutes he has played in La Liga since 2009-10 (excluding penalties) – a contribution of nearly three goals every two games.
For those counting, Cristiano Ronaldo is next best (1.21), based on his performances in Spain and Italy, with Luis Suárez (1.12), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (0.98) and Neymar (0.97) making up the top five.
Incredibly Messi has also either created or scored 46 per cent of Barcelona’s goals in La Liga in the past decade (excluding penalties). That speaks both for Messi’s unbelievable goal production and for his longevity and ability to stay fit. In the big five leagues during the same time only Antonio Di Natale comes close (45 per cent, all for Udinese) before a drop-off to Suárez and Ronaldo (39 per cent).
Note the gap between Messi and Ronaldo. For more than a decade we have been fortunate to watch the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of modern football at the height of their powers. Yet this data suggests that while Ronaldo is a worldy, Messi veers towards the extraterrestrial.
Messi’s passing is underrated, too. Since Opta started collecting such data in 2008, no attacking player in the big five leagues who attempts as many forward passes as Messi has a better pass completion rate. In other words, as Chaudhuri explains, “not only does he attempt a high number of difficult passes, he pulls them off better than anyone else in his position”.
And it doesn’t matter where you play him. One of the best scenes in Take The Ball, Pass The Ball is when Xavi uses red and white plastic cups and tortilla chips to explain how Messi was employed as a false nine to devastating effect against Real Madrid in 2009. As Xavi points out, it was the first time Messi had played in the position. Naturally he was brilliant in a 6-2 mauling.
“Messi’s unstoppable,” Xavi says. “It’s a natural talent that’s only given to the chosen ones. Maybe in 20 or 30 years there will be another one. But right now it’s Messi.”
The knock against him, of course, is that he has never led Argentina to a World Cup. But in 2010 he was managed by Diego Maradona, whose leadership philosophy would have raised eyebrows in a banana republic, while in 2014 and 2018 Argentina lost against the eventual winners. Football remains a team game, no matter how great the individual.
In his essay Hepworth reminds us that the Beatles were smart enough to know when to stop, which meant their recording legacy was not disfigured by the inevitable years of decline. “You never regret leaving a party early but you often regret staying too late,” he says. Given Messi has barely put a step wrong, why would he err now?
He may not be as quick as he once was back in the days when he could create his own personal homage to Maradona with a mazy dribble from halfway against Getafe. But he still sees the game at a different speed to anyone else. And for as long as he continues to score so many goals – there were another two against Real Betis on Sunday – and create so many divine oratorios, the answer to who is the world’s best player will remain the same as it has been for a decade: Messi. – Guardian service