For some, Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer ever. In one respect, and just one, he is second to Jimmy Jones.
The last time Pep Guardiola managed Messi, he scored 73 goals in a season. Only Jones, with 74 for Glenavon in 1956-57, has ever got more in a campaign.
But as Messi may be reunited with Guardiola at Manchester City, that 2011-12 season, an extraordinary outlier even by his standards, serves as a reminder of how good they were together. Messi had scored 42 goals for Barcelona before Guardiola took over in 2008. He got 211 in 219 games for him, improving every year: 38, 47, 53, 73.
Perhaps he will leave Barcelona on a downward curve from that peak he scaled under his mentor. His 31 goals last season made it his least productive season of the last 12. But 26 assists meant he was still directly involved in 57 goals – more than Everton or Sheffield United managed in all competitions – and his tally of 21 in La Liga constituted a record for the Spanish top flight.
Meanwhile, City mustered 102 Premier League goals, taking their tally in three seasons to 303. A lack of firepower was not why they failed to retain the title, but the prospective marriage of Messi and City does prompt the question of how potent they could be.
Even in his least prolific year in a dozen, Messi was still La Liga’s top scorer. Jamie Vardy won the Premier League’s Golden Boot but Sergio Aguero, with 0.99 goals per 90 minutes, had the best goal ratio, while Raheem Sterling was tied for third and Gabriel Jesus in eighth. Messi, with 0.78, was the La Liga leader.
Messi’s average of 4.8 shots per game was half as many again as any City player and, in Europe’s top five leagues, behind only his old rival, the shotaholic Cristiano Ronaldo. In particular, Messi’s average of 2.5 efforts per game from outside the box is an outlier; only Kevin de Bruyne (1.7) was above 1.0 long-range attempt per match for Guardiola’s side.
Pairing Messi and De Bruyne, the two most creative players in Europe, brings the promise of more than a goal a game from their supply line alone. The Argentinian averaged 0.62 assists per 90 minutes last season, the Belgian 0.64. Messi’s 2.7 key passes per match were the most in La Liga, De Bruyne’s 3.9 far superior to anyone else in the Premier League. The midfielder created more from set-pieces, suggesting the free kicks further from goal will remain his, though Messi scored five times from free kicks within shooting range. The corners could be split: Messi largely took inswinging corners for Barcelona, De Bruyne both types for City.
In a world without Messi, City made so many chances that the profligate Jesus and the prolific Aguero finished first and second for expected goals per 90 minutes. De Bruyne was far from their only creator: Riyad Mahrez actually ranked second in the division for expected assists per 90 minutes, and the departed David Silva fifth, but the Algerian’s game time could be reduced by Messi’s potential arrival, especially if he were deployed to cut in from the right.
It is reductive to call Messi a winger, but he is multiple players in one and a mesmeric dribbler embarks on more solo runs than most: his average of 5.5 dribbles per match was more than double everyone except Nabil Fekir in La Liga and more than Adama Traore, Allan Saint-Maximin and Wilfried Zaha, the Premier League running machines. Dribbling formed far less of City’s gameplan – Sterling, in 26th, was their first representative on the list – so Messi could add another dimension.
It is part of his irrepressible streak. One of his seemingly less exceptional statistics is his average of 59.8 passes per match. And yet it is remarkable for a forward and only just below the holding midfielder Casemiro’s 61.8. By way of comparison, De Bruyne averaged 54.5. The Premier League forward with the most was Willian, at 39.9. If Messi’s talent is worrying enough for defenders, his relentlessness gives him a ubiquity that makes him a constant threat.
And it raises the range of possibilities. Both he and City have a habit of routing opponents, of turning dominance into thrashings. City scored at least three goals 17 times last season and at least five on seven occasions. Add Messi to the mix and those numbers could go up.
City’s 2017-18 haul of 106 league goals was the most since Tottenham scored 115 in 1960-61. That could be surpassed – Barcelona got at least 110 five times in six seasons in Messi’s prime years – even if Aston Villa’s Division 1 record of 128 in 1930-31 should still be safe.
And if the trend of last season is that Messi is mutating from more of a scorer to a supplier then De Bruyne’s new share of Thierry Henry’s Premier League record of 20 assists in a campaign could be endangered. Messi’s menace could make him a threat to opponents and team-mates alike.
Source: Richard Jolly| Columnist