Seasons watched: 2006–07 to 2008–09 (Age 19–21 seasons according to FBref)
The Greatest of All Time debate is a mainstay within sporting discourse in North America, especially in basketball given how much a singular player can impact winning. It has led to many forms of analysis, both interesting and nauseating, all in an attempt to evaluate legendary figures from different eras. In comparison, football hasn’t had to deal with this at quite the same amount for a whole host of reasons, one of which being the lack of historical data publicly available. That said, any GOAT debate in football likely ends with Lionel Messi holding the title given his unique combination of remarkable peak performance and freakish longevity at an extremely high level.
When strictly looking at the best under-21 attackers of the past ~25 years, Messi’s case is perhaps not as definitive as one might think due to strong contenders like Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima and Kylian Mbappe (the latter of the two will be profiled towards the end of the series). Even with the knowledge of how good he became, I still find Messi’s early years to be fascinating. Ronaldinho’s decline helped hasten the transition towards Messi eventually becoming the focal point of the attack, and the passing of the torch wasn’t without some awkwardness in the 2006–2007 and 2007–08 seasons. Barcelona finished second and third in those two seasons, and success in the Champions League didn’t quite materialize. All the while, they were building towards their next great side with the acquisitions of Gerard Piqué, Thierry Henry, and Dani Alves.
We know the heights that Messi reached post-2009, the move to a permanent central position turned him into football’s ultimate cheat code. But just how good was he during his U21 seasons? Unlike with the previous profiles in this series to this point where historical data was almost nonexistent, that won’t be the case here. Statsbomb unveiled the Lionel Messi Data Biography, event data collected for every La Liga match which he competed in since 2004–05. With the help of everyone’s favorite neon style visualization artist Maram AlBaharna, this profile will attempt to ballpark how valuable he was at this stage of his career.
Going back and watching this version of Messi, the obvious thing that stood out was him being less worried about picking his spots when attempting to initiate as a ball-carrier (compared to his later years). He had massive on-ball gravity from all areas in the opposition half. In 1v1s out wide, he could throw off his marker with a feint and immediately gain a noticeable edge due to his combination of hip flexibility and elite acceleration. He was a threat to either cut inside or attack the byline, so opponents would often load up to his side with a quick double team to try and eliminate any potential of getting burned.
Particularly in the latter portion of the 2009 season when he operated more centrally, his low center of gravity became an even greater advantage. He had a remarkable ability to utilize his balance to maintain possession in traffic. Whether it be diagonal carries or ones originating from the interior, losing control of the ball while at full flight was far from common which made him a major threat on the move. All together, few players in the history of football manufactured chaos off the dribble at a comparable level to what Messi did from 2007–09.
Another part of what made Messi a dangerous initiator stemmed from his passing. He loved to create quick combination sequences, whether it be from the right touchline to cut inside or within the middle. He had good awareness to switch the point of attack when needed, even attempting to put teammates through towards the opposite side of the box. Manufacturing reverse passes into the box were already a regular for him, which led to quality scoring chances (Samuel Eto’o was great in general off the ball, but particularly in this department). Playing him centrally only enhanced his playmaking further because of the increased angles that were available to him. As potent as he was as a creator, Messi wasn’t without his faults, especially compared to the spellbinding heights he later reached. He could be guilty of missing the occasional advantageous passing window, opting to instead safely recycle possession. Relative to others, he was good with his weaker foot but would still suffer from the occasional errant touch.
When operating as a wide forward in 2007 and 2008, Messi’s off-ball movement was more overt. He would look to make short diagonal runs into the box, and some chemistry did exist between him and Ronaldinho during these instances. He could also curl from wide to set up potential cut-back chances. As he moved further inward in 2009, Messi received greater opportunities to display his advanced spatial awareness. When central, he’d try to move slightly deep to receive and potentially drag a centerback out of position. He was great at knowing when to show himself as a passing option for a nearby teammate by sidestepping a few inches in a given direction. There were numerous instances of him popping up in dangerous areas from third man runs where he received and quickly change tempo. Add to that his excellent control in traffic and his stealth runs into the box, and Messi caused a lot of headaches for the opposition off the ball.
Perhaps the most impressive part about Messi’s shooting is the power he could generate. While in congested areas, he attempted threatening shots without major backlift. He was prone to taking questionable shots from time to time, particularly when cutting inside. At a young age, he showed consistency with his shot placement which would continue to be the case with him throughout his career. Although he didn’t take a large volume of shots with his right foot, he didn’t shy away from taking them when receiving in the right wide zone in the box.
So far in this series, the players who have been profiled tended to be either those who were versatile while perhaps not necessarily great in any one thing, or vice versa. What made Messi such a unique young attacker was that he was very good-great in pretty much every key area. He provided immense positive value as a dribbler from many areas of the pitch, especially through the middle. He could expertly blend his gravity on the move into creating scoring chances in the box, and by the end of 2009, he went from being a very good playmaker to a great one. Off the ball, he displayed craft that one wouldn’t expect to see from attacking talents at such a young age, amplified by his remarkable control of the ball in different situations. While he wasn’t quite a devastating finisher, he did show enough to give some confidence he could overhit his expected goal numbers on at least a semi-regular basis.
In the three season stretch from 2007–09, Messi’s non-penalty goals and assists numbers on a per 90 minute basis were among the game’s best. He ranked in the top 20 in both 2007 and 2008, before jumping into the top three in 2009. What’s made Messi such an outlier throughout his career has been the constant overperformance in expected vs actual production, and that was already the case during these seasons. The 2008 season being the worst of the three in terms of underlying contribution could be partly due to Ronaldinho’s continued decline and trying to have Henry play a less dominant on-ball role. While we don’t have expected goal numbers to compare across the big 5 leagues that season, I find it hard to believe Messi’s 2009 xG numbers weren’t top ~20 in Europe, which is no small feat for a young attacking talent. He had excellent Champions League campaigns in 2008 & 2009, the only form of resistance came from English clubs at the time being quite compact in defense.
It’s impressive enough for a young attacker to put up great numbers while being an important part of a high-end team attack, but being the engine of an elite attack is another thing entirely. And yes, Barcelona in 2009 didn’t reach the same peaks as the 2011 iteration, which might be the most cohesive unit football has ever seen. That said, they were still fantastic in their own right and won all the major trophies. They compare credibly to the best teams seen in the series so far such as Manchester United in 2008, and perhaps even Ajax’s famous 1995 side. Their shot profile under Pep Guardiola was great in an era where teams weren’t yet trying to maximize premium shots. In a world where we didn’t have access to event data for these seasons, historical shot data collected still painted Barcelona in a extremely positive light.
Given the current state of Barcelona’s finances alongside the sub-optimal squad construction, it is a bit odd to look back at this period where they had greater organization (in large part due to an outlier amount of elite talent who graduated from La Masia). One of the most important signings, particularly for Messi’s development, was Dani Alves in the summer of 2008. Before his arrival, the right-back position was usually occupied by Gianluca Zambrotta, and occasionally Carles Puyol. Zambrotta could do a few of the attacking responsibilities you’d want from a full-back, but Alves brought a level of dynamism which no one previously could match. It allowed Messi to shift into the halfspace with greater regularity, and he had great chemistry playing off of Alves when either were in possession.
I wouldn’t have expected to make this link when writing about Messi, but his arc is somewhat similar to Henry’s during their U21 seasons. He went from primarily playing on the left wing and flashing a tantalizing skillset for Monaco and Juventus, to being deployed more often as a central attacker for Arsenal and making the leap towards stardom. While Messi was a better winger than Henry, it does go to show the importance of circumstances for a player’s development, especially in Henry’s case given the bond he had with Arsène Wenger.
It’s just very hard to poke any major holes at Messi’s combination of individual skillset, statistical production, and how potent Barcelona were with him leading the attack. He was a premium on-ball initiator who would relentlessly look to disorganize the opposition, while also being more than capable of operating off the ball in various ways. Once he became the go-to guy, the team’s attack took off and never looked back. Sure, Messi’s passing and overall playmaking weren’t quite yet at masterful levels, but there were few better creators than him by 2009. Similar to Henry, I do wonder what would’ve happened if Barcelona didn’t hire Guardiola in 2008. As well, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of Alves’ arrival alongside the general pivot from the Ronaldinho era. With that in mind, Lionel Messi has a credible argument for being the greatest under-21 attacking talent post-1994.
A big thank you to Maram for creating the visuals used in the piece, I wouldn’t have been able to publish this without her and I am ecstatic that she’ll continue to be a major part of the series moving forward. Please support her great work here. If you want to support the series, that’d also be greatly appreciated but given the unprecedented times we’re living in, it is totally understandable if this isn’t an option and won’t negatively impact the completion of the project.