Data | This World Cup, Messi was at his best and far ahead of the rest

France’s forward Kylian Mbappe reacts as Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi looks on during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match

France’s forward Kylian Mbappe reacts as Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi looks on during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match
| Photo Credit: AFP

On several key metrics, Argentinian star and world champion Lionel Messi performed much better than his peers in the FIFA 2022 football World Cup. A comparison of the 2018 and 2014 editions of the World Cup show that he was also the best version of himself in Qatar. More importantly, Messi exhibited his talents both as a playmaker and a striker during this World Cup. For instance, he made 21 key passes in 2022. A key pass is the final pass received by a player who then had a chance to score a goal but did not succeed. Only the French midfielder, Antoine Griezmann, made a similar number of key passes this year. Messi also made 13 shots on target (not including penalty kicks) this World Cup, which was two more than the young French star, Kylian Mbappé. This means that Messi matched the abilities of an attacking midfielder like Griezmann and was as good a striker as Mbappé.

Chart 1 shows the number of shots attempted by players in the 2022 World Cup against the percentage of shots that were on target. Only players who attempted at least 10 shots were considered. Both Mbappé and Messi dominate this metric with over 25 shots, while the third best is 16 shots. But Messi was more accurate than Mbappé as 48% of his shots were on target against Mbappé’s 38%.

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Chart 2 shows the number of key passes against the number of passes completed into the 18-yard box (excluding set pieces). The 18-yard box is where the keeper is allowed to touch the ball by hand. A pass into this area usually is followed by an attempt to score a goal. Messi made 18 such passes, eight more than Griezmann and Croatia’s Luka Modrić, who are two key playmakers in their respective sides.

Chart 3 plots touches in the attacking third area and penalty box of the opposition against successful dribbles performed in the 2022 World Cup. One touch corresponds to a player receiving, dribbling and then passing the ball. Attacking third is the area in and around the opposition’s penalty box. Dribbling is the act of advancing the ball by escaping the opponent defenders’ tackle. Messi and Mbappé had far superior figures than the rest of the players on these metrics with Mbappé surpassing Messi on both metrics.

Chart 4 shows a comparison of Messi and Mbappé in the 2022 World Cup. While both are similar in attacking attributes (goals plus assists and shots on target), Messi’s numbers in key passes and passes completed into the 18-yard box — which are the attributes of a midfielder — were far superior.

Chart 5 shows a comparison of Messi’s performance in 2022 with his performances in the 2018 and 2014 editions of the World Cup. In 2022, Messi had 1 goal per game, which is much higher than the 0.3 in 2018 and 0.6 in 2014. He secured 0.4 assists per game in 2022, higher than the 0.1 in 2014. An assist is a key pass which gets converted into a goal. He had 3 passes per game, higher than 2.5 in 2018. More importantly, he took 2.6 shots at the goal per game in 2022, which is much higher than the 1.5 in 2018 and 1.1 in 2014.

While Messi was indeed the best version of himself in 2022, he was not particularly bad in the previous editions. The key difference is that Argentina performed better as a team in this edition. Consider this: 43% of Argentina’s shots were on target compared to 31.5% in 2018. They completed 76 key passes in 2022 against just 38 in 2018. In all, the team scored 1.96 goals per 90 minutes of play in 2022, against 1.5 in 2018 and 0.87 in 2014. They also scored 1.04 assists per 90 minutes of play in 2022, against 1.5 in 2018 and 0.37 in 2014.

Source: FBref.com, WhoScored.com

Also read | Down the World Cup memory lane: When Asian, African and North American nations challenged the giants of football


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