Statistics are everything in football. That is the simple yet sad reality in which we live.
At the dawn of the statistical age, the widespread use of numbers by coaches and trainers were a plus to the game, as coaches could concretely identify where games could be won or lost, or which tactical game plans had the best chances at circumventing an opposition’s style of play.
Too many stats
Not anymore. We have reached the threshold (and for quite a while now), where statistics give less credit to the beautiful game, that they reduce it to meaningless garbage for internet trolls to feed on.
Surely, if you are one to frequent soccer blog posts and comment sections for game coverages, you would have been inundated with comments using goal and assists statistics to tell you why Mesut Ozil is a better playmaker than Andres Iniesta let's say, or why Steven Gerrard is better than Xavi.
And yes, at some points even last season you got some occasional statistical evidence of why Gareth Bale was becoming a better player than Lionel Messi himself. As the man Ray Hudson himself has said time and time again, he hates statistics, and for a very good reason.
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the problems inherent
There are many things that players do that cannot be quantified by statistical evidence but that yet should somehow be captured and reflected in player performances. That brings me to the main point of my article, which is that the rising value of statistics diminishes the actual value and skill set of players; none more so than perhaps Iniesta, but very much so with the likes of Messi.
For the good part of half a decade, the internet has been flooded week in and week out by what is supposedly a shoulder to shoulder battle between Real Madrid ace Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barcelona talisman Messi.
In all honesty however, comparisons between Ronaldo and Lionel Messi do not do any justice to the Argentine, who is quiet simply and without any disrespect to the Portuguese, on a playing field of his own.
Messi over Ronaldo
Sure, in a statistical duel between Ronaldo and Messi, both have certainly been a match for each other and have constantly displayed a frightening level of one-upmanship; the likes of which I have certainly never seen before. However, outside the realm of statistics, I have a hard time locating the player who is equal to and according to some quarters even mightier than Messi.
Certainly there is not a single player out there who can play as a winger, centre forward, or deep lying midfielder - and sometimes central midfielder - and still look like the best player in the world in all of those positions.
Surely there isn’t a player out there capable of breaking down a compact defence like Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, be it through individual dribbling capacity, masterful passing vision, or simple one-two interchanges.
People will tell you that Messi is back to his 2012 form, but the truth is, with the exception of his rather uninterested demeanour in games last season, the real Messi has never been gone. We would be better off saying Messi is posting Messi like stats again, rather than saying 'he’s back'.
He started the season as an attacking midfielder, and performed exceptionally well at the position. Sure he wasn’t scoring as much, which is all it takes for our stat-obsessed generation to write a player off as not performing well enough. It is games like the one against Athletic Bilbao yesterday that show you why Messi is truly the greatest player of our generation, and arguably the best ever.
Sure you may say it’s just Bilbao, but that would be an ignorant statement which overlooks the history of games between Barcelona and Bilbao at San Mames. For illustrative purposes I could also use the game against Villarreal last week or the one against Atletico a week before that, but the Athletic game is freshest in memory and will do just fine.
Barca v Bilbao
Messi may have scored a goal and recorded two assists during the game, but a truer measure of his performance in the game has absolutely nothing to do with those stats. The Argentine was absolutely sublime, dishing in some delicious passes which his team -mates, especially Neymar, failed to capitalise on.
His one-touch pass to beat the offside trap and find Xavi, who rounded the 'keeper yet refused to stab home towards an empty net was a marvel to watch. And yet his most telling contribution in the game was in the build up to the fifth goal, when he simply took Bilbao's defence for a stroll, lost them somewhere along the way and then fed Sergio Busquets a scrumptious pass, who in turn found Pedro for the tap in.
That is what makes Messi the best player in the world. It’s not about his goal scoring, and yes he quite frankly scores some beyond-ridiculous goals, but it's about his ability to completely dictate play, and get involved in everything productive that his side can muster, while also dishing goals out for teammates with abnormal regularity.
And while his assist rate is impressive, it falls short of the quality of the passes that lead to these assists, which is where the magic is truly at, and which unfortunately cannot be quantified by stats.
So yes. Ronaldo might be statistically Messi’s equal, but make no mistake, Messi is by far more well-rounded. If you took away Messi’s goals, you would have a playmaker statistically equivalent to Francesc Fabregas, yet technically equivalent if not superior to Iniesta and David Silva.
And if on the odd chance Ronaldo lost his scoring touch, I in all objectivity I can muster (which isn’t much to speak of) think you would have a player inferior to Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling.