Remember Lionel Messi last season? Me neither. For the first time in nearly two decades, the greatest soccer player of all time seemed just … absent. He was fine — great even, for the average player. In his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi scored six goals and assisted 14 more. That’s 0.84 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes, and it still ranked in the top 20 among all players across Europe’s Big Five leagues.
However, among Lionel Messi seasons since 2008, it ranked dead last; in fact, it was his first season over that stretch to come in below 1.00 NPG+A per 90 minutes. For most players, breaking that number marks a career year, an indicator of a brief dalliance with superstardom. Karim Benzema was as close to an inarguable Ballon d’Or winner as you can get over this past year, and he averaged 1.11 NPG+A/90 in La Liga. Since making his debut in 2004 as a 17-year-old, Messi has averaged 1.27 NPG+A/90 across his entire career.
Messi scoring and creating goals at an unmatched clip has been the background noise of the Big Five leagues over the past 15 years. He was there every weekend, over and over and over again — while different stars rotated in and out of the picture. Until last season, when he was off in Paris, easily winning a fairly non-competitive league, getting dumped out of the Round of 16 in the Champions League without much blame, and putting up the same stats as Juanmi and Jamie Vardy.
And, well, maybe that was only last season. Three months into this season, the Messi we all remember — the one you can’t forget? He’s back.
So, what happened last season?
Given that he was 34 years old at the start of the season and suddenly became a teammate to a pair of physically dynamic attackers in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Messi started to drift further away from the goal.
Since 2010, Messi has lived in what some analysts refer to as “zone 14” — the central area atop the penalty box. It’s the most dangerous area on the field outside the box because it’s usually in-between the opposing defensive and midfield lines and it provides easy access to the penalty area, the gaps between the center backs and full-backs, and the wings.
Since 2010, Messi has completed more passes into the penalty area (1,990) than any other player. He’s also attempted the second-most shots (2,064) after Cristiano Ronaldo‘s 2,443.
That all suddenly changed last year, though. As Messi’s around-the-box influence waned, he looked more and more like a deep-lying midfielder. Last season, he completed 10.8 passes into the attacking third — more than in any season of his career, and way above his average of 8.1 since 2010. The site FBref only has progressive-pass data going back to the 2017-18 season, but Messi’s 9.5 progressive passes per 90 minutes and his 308 yards of ball progression per 90 minutes were both his highs over that stretch. Among players with at least 750 minutes of game time last season across the Big Five, no one played more progressive passes per 90 minutes than Messi.
So, you basically had an elite midfield passer and one of the 20 most productive attackers in the world — all in one player.
And what’s happened this season?
So, all that stuff that went away? Yeah, it’s back.
Through 1,000-plus minutes in Ligue 1, Messi has completed 7.0 passes into the penalty area, which would be the highest-mark of his career. He’s added back an extra shot, which brings him up to 4.6 per 90 minutes. And he’s averaging 7.6 touches per 90 in the penalty area — which is just slightly above his average since 2010.
Across the Big Five, Messi is tied with Newcastle United‘s Kieran Trippier for completed passes into the box, while only Mbappe and Fulham‘s Aleksandar Mitrovic have attempted more shots. He’s not so far away from everyone else anymore, but he’s still all alone.
Messi has already scored more goals (seven) than he did last season, and he leads all of Europe with 10 assists. Add it all together, and he’s back where he’d always been, scoring and assisting way more than a goal per match. Only Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Barcelona‘s Robert Lewandowski and Neymar have been more productive than Messi’s 1.45 NPG+A/90 so far this season.
Except … remember all that stuff that Messi added last season? It’s still there, too. He’s playing 10.1 passes into the final-third per 90 minutes, second only to his mark from last year. And per FBref, he’s completed 127 progressive passes; Bayern Munich‘s Joshua Kimmich is second in the Big Five leagues with 103, while no one else has broken 90.