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An analysis of Lionel Messi (fivethirtyeight.com)
374 points by napolux on July 1, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 128 comments



I love watching extreme outliers in play - its one of the main reasons I watch. Guys like Messi, Jordan, Ali are so high above the standard (and often so different) that they elevate the whole sport just by taking part.


The cricket player Donald Bradman [1] is the outlier among outliers. Even compared to greats like Michael Jordan, the statistical significance of his achievements almost defy belief.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Bradman


If you're willing to branch out beyond physical sports, Marion Tinsley [1] is perhaps even stronger, losing only 7 games in his 45-year career of checkers.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Tinsley


I don't think checkers is comparable, since there's no luck component in checkers. In a physical sport with random winds/ground conditions/ball imperfections/bat imperfections/etc, you have to be that much better than your competitor to beat them consistently (and that margin varies by sport, where baseball, for example, has many more random factors than tennis).


This is a false conception people have about sports like checkers, chess, go, etc. It depends on how you think about luck. Sure, if you're an omniscient being who knows the entire decision tree for a given move in [checkers/chess/go/etc...], there's no luck, in the Monte Carlo sense. But, except for simplified positions, nobody is fully aware of the consequences of their move in these games. This "fog of war" is a good analogue for the random winds/ground conditions/ball imperfections that you mentioned in other sports. It's often why great players in these games sometimes lose to far worse players.


Checkers is a solved game. It proven possible to always not lose a game if you play correctly from the beginning. As such high level games feature many draws and few wins. Marion Tinsley also didn't compete in the World Championships for 20 years in the middle of his 45 year streak, during which time Walter Hellman was world champion for 17-odd years and only lost 7 games at the World Championships during that time.

Marion Tinsley may be the best checkers player of all time, but his achievements are nowhere near unbelievable given the nature of the sport and achievements that are similar to his. Statistically, Donald Bradman is much more of an outlier when compared to other people who have played his sport.


That's an interesting perspective. Thanks.


I'm not sure I agree with you

physical sports sometimes come with sustainable competive advantages

until he gets old, LeBron is always going exceptionally big, and athletic

in contrast, checkers exists on a much more fragile competive advantage


You should check out this [1] titled "The most remarkable graph in the history of sport" to get an idea of just how much of an outlier Bradman is. Read the whole thing, it's brief, but a quick excerpt:

   To understand how Bradman’s 99.94 average compares with other batsmen, 
   consider that a typical topflight batsman has an average in the range 45 to 
   55. Batsmen with averages above 55 are once-in-a-generation phenomena who 
   dominate the entire game. After Bradman, the second highest average in 
   history [2] belongs to South African Graeme Pollock, with 60.97, and the 
   third highest to West Indian George Headley, with 60.83.


[1] http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/the-most-remarkable-graph-in-...


And it would have been an average of 100, if he hadn't got out for a duck (no score), in his last game.


Yep, all he needed was a single 4 and he would have had an average of 100. Impressive guy, the idol of basically every kid whos ever played cricket.


Prior to the 1932-33 Ashes Tour(1) his test average was 112.29 after averaging over 200 per innings against South Africa and dropped to a mid career low of 89.55 as a result of the English tactics. Very impressive.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodyline


Agreed, but I'd put Heather McKay up there with The Don.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heather_McKay

> When she retired in 1981 at the age of 40, McKay had gone nearly 20 years undefeated (with the only two defeats to her name occurring at the beginning of her career).

Interestingly, both come from Australia.


Great to see a cricket comment.

I wonder how he would've fared against the present day Akhtars, Akhrams, Donalds, Steyns, Warnes or Muralitharans.

Would older greats have stood out as much faced with the technological and biological advances of the present day?


possibly apocryphal story, but...

During the recent radio coverage of the current Ashes tour, between England and Australia, I heard a great quote about Sir Donald Bradman, the famous Australian cricket player. It went as follows: In the 1980s, England's fast bowler Bob Willis had the fortune to meet Sir Donald Bradman, legend of cricket. Bradman had been the dominant player from the 1930s and 1940s and the Australian had amassed stats that are unlikely ever to be bettered. Willis was keen to get The Don's view on what he might have averaged if he had played in the modern game. Bradman looked at Willis and replied that he reckoned that he would have averaged about fifty runs per game. Willis expressed surprise, having thought that the great man might have expected to have averaged more. Bradman looked Willis in the eye and then responded along the lines of "Well, I am in my seventies now!".

from http://www.sportinglife360.com/index.php/donald-bradman-cric...


I have watched on TV Ian Chappell narrate this same story, as an incident between him and Bradman when they met at a party celebrating Bradman turning 90. Very likely apocryphal.


As long as he gets the advantages of modern nutrition, fitness conditioning, and analysis, then I'm pretty sure Bradman would tower over modern day players.

Don't forget, in Bradman's time, there were no covered pitches, leg side theory was legal, batmen didn't wear helmets or much in the way of protection (and bowlers weren't that much slower than they are now).


Bradman survived the 'Bodyline' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodyline) series where the bowlers (pitchers in American parlance) literally targeted the body to injure the players and to hamper Brandman's prowess. It had the desired effect (Brandman only averaged 56 for the series as opposed to his career average of 99.94) and resulted in multiple injuries.

I think he would do just fine today.


Sure, but that is more than a hundred years ago. Back then the sport was not nearly as competitive.


I've always wondered about what it is that kicks someone up from great to "how is that even possible?". For example Mozart being asked to remove a ring because his playing was so good an audience thought the ring was a talisman. It's one thing to be so good people think you cheat. It's another level when people think you are magic.

Clearly opportunity, talent, and work play their parts, but there have been many people that have all three and don't turn out a Gauss, or a Newton, or a Pele.


Actually, thinking about it a bit more I think there is a natural explanation. If measured ability follows a normal distribution then the farther out you go the more spread out (on average) individuals become. For example, draw a billion samples from the right half of a normal distribution with mean 0 and stddev 1. There will be more drawn between 4 and 5 than between 5 and 6. The extreme outliers will be in some sense more lonely.

Edit: here are the most extreme values from a run of a billion draw with the distance to the next smallest value.

5.967211966 0.056293894

5.910918072 0.043174783

5.867743289 0.081026984

5.786716305 0.043416671

5.743299634 0.094533593

5.648766041 0.000088773

5.648737164 0.005932669

5.642804495 0.011669773

5.631134722 0.003206244

5.627928478 0.004643796

5.623284683 0.013723654

5.609561028 0.014653298

5.59490773 0.018714748

5.576192982 0.001690759

5.574502223 0.031026791

5.543475432 0.002331827

5.541143605 0.022237834

5.51890577 0.004242771

5.514662999 0.009347961

5.505315038 0.004298492

5.501016547 0.02271157


"Ability" isn't a single variable either. There's a combination between natural talent and hard, determined work. For instance, many people thought Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo had similar amounts of natural talent as young players, but Quaresma wasn't as determined as Ronaldo to become the greatest player in the world. Conversely, Michael Jordan's contemporary Charles Barkley didn't really have Jordan's natural talent, but made up for it by working exceptionally hard. So you have at least two (and possibly more) variables, all of which have to reach extreme outliers together, to produce an athlete like Messi, Jordan, or Gretzky.


One thing that might play into it is that actual talent distributions are leptokurtic, ie they have a fat tail, while our internal model is more of a normal distribution, or maybe even some kind of truncated normal based on what we have previously seen. So these outliers that occur naturally in the leptokurtic have a much lower perceived likelihood.

PS: the bit about talent distributions being leptokurtic is pure conjecture, no idea if it is true. Seems like something Nassim Taleb would say.


This is an amazing comment. The only way it could have been funnier is if you had made up the word "leptokurtic."

You should get Malcolm Gladwell's people on the phone and set up an interview.


If you look into that wave of great central european composers most of them were third generation successful musicians/composers from big families. Natural selection in action. I'm sure genes played into it.


We have the rare opportunity of watching two top 10 forwards of all time at their prime at the same damn time. One of those sport rivalries to tell your grandchildren about.


Similar thing in tennis with Federer and Nadal.

Nadal's stats on clay is incredible. He's lost just 11 matches and won 270 odd in the last 9 years.


I think an even better example would be Nadal v Djokovic on the 2012 Australian Open final. According to Nadal the best game he ever played and consolidated Djokovic as one of the greats. And you could see how one lifted the other up to do better and be better. Such an amazing game.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Australian_Open_%E2%80%93_...


That game was such a amazing thing to watch, I would be hesitant to assign a winner or loser to that game, I would say both won the game.

I remember at the presentation ceremony the players were finding it difficult to stand due exhaustion and Nadal started his speech[Post match] with a 'Good morning' since it lasted so late into the night.


What about Nick Kyrgios defeat of Nadal today at Wimbledon?


Quote from Kyrgios before the game:

"Between us, we have 14 Grand Slams, so it should be a great game".

The guy's got a great future.


Well, one man can only dominate for so long.


The most amazing part about them is their ability to adapt with age.

The Michael Jordan of his first 3 years in the NBA was about attacking the basket with an insanely fast first step. The Michael Jordan of his second trio of championships didn't have that level of quickness or burst anymore, but he developed a post game along with a fadeaway jump shot that was virtually impossible to guard. The man had a 20+ point per game average after returning from retirement for the second time at age 40. I don't think the average person understands how quick and athletic NBA players are. A 40 year old man being able to play that game at that high a level with a terrible team around him for 82 games a season is insane.


I wonder if these kind of stats are available for players of past eras. I would be fascinating to see what Pelé or Maradona would look like compared to Messi !

It is true, though, that you only really become a football legend when you win the World Cup (or show some insane talent at the World Cup). Pelé, Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo et al. all won world cups. And Pelé is considered the greatest of all time precisely because he won 3 world cups out of the 4 he participated in.


Very much doubt it - it's all about http://www.prozonesports.com/subsector/football/

Pretty impressive kit.


I don't understand the point of this link. Is this related to the comment you replied to or is simply spam?


Another player to add to this list is the hockey player Pavel Datsyuk. IMHO he is the most underrated player of this generation, although a perennial all-star and stanley cup champion. The way he handles the puck and dekes people out is unreal. . . He is unique on this list as he is not a dominant superstar, but he is an unstoppable outlier.


It's the same in tennis... Rafa and Federer have both been titans, in a class of their own, for years, but sport generally is just getting more and more professional, competitive and extreme as we hone our ability to analyse performance.


Another outlier: Sébastien Loeb (paired with Daniel Elena) has been in a league above every one in rally. His abilities extend way beyond rally: you could throw him anything with four wheels and he'll pull something great out of it (see his team's 2nd place at Le Mans in 2006)

The unfathomable thing is that in France, basically no one cares about his (and others) success, while everyone raves about the national men's† football team.

† women's team apparently performs significantly better on the same period but it's a blackout too. I know why I'm not into football, the whole thing is pervasively biased in so many ways...


I watched rally for a few years, but lost interest after Loeb won his third straight WC. There was absolutely no suspense, everyone knew Loeb would win most of the rallies barring the winter courses.

As for Women's football, there's a reason it's not really appreciated and that is the fact that the skill level is significantly lower. Far fewer women play, which results in less competition and less highly talented individuals. Another problem is that the goals are sized for men, while the women keepers statistically speaking are smaller and can cover a smaller area, which means it's far easier to score with cheap shots. It all makes for rather dull spectating, sadly.


Not sure why that's unfathomable.

Canada is nuts about hockey. Americans as a whole are indifferent at best, yet we share a border. Mexicans are crazy for soccer.

If the US had the world's greatest soccer player, the majority of the country wouldn't care. Soccer is a sport that is played by about 30 million Americans a year, but it's a blip on the map at the collegiate and pro level here. People simply enjoy different sports, and the local culture reinforces it. Jim Brown was probably the greatest lacrosse player who ever lived, but his career was a footnote because the sport he played professionally was football, and he was an outlier at it.


Not true that no one cares about the success, but football is just much more popular than rally. Motor sports are incredibly expensive to practice and you can't expect them to have the popularity of cheap "universal" sports like football.


Usain Bolt is an example of this. I remember being totally shocked when he ran the 100m in 9.59 [1]. Check out this awesome graph from the "Men's 100 m progression" wikipedia page.

[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nbjhpcZ9_g [2]http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/World_rec...


I think one thing that's interesting is how this relates to things like pay equality.

People throw their arms up and say "How the hell can a CEO pay themselves 1000 times what the lowest paid staff gets paid"

But that CEO may be a "Messi".

Some people really are 1,000x more productive/as talented as the average person. And so should be compensated accordingly.


Besides the obvious inequality, and unlike Messi, ceos rig the game.

If the company performs incredibly well, they receive dynastic levels of wealth. If they completely fuck up... they receive dynastic levels of wealth. If they're essentially fired for cause after 5 months... they receive enough wealth to retire ($7.3m for 130 days including weekends) [1]. If an already stunningly wealth ceo submits fraudulent expense reports trying to get in the pants of one of his employees (who doesn't seem to have been much besides eye candy), demonstrating at bare minimum incredibly poor judgement along with the possibility of sexual harassment, he's given dynastic levels of wealth ($40m) and merely made to resign. [2] In short, there's no performance requirement.

[1] http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/14/technology/yahoo-ceo-no-seve...

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/backlash-against-hewlett-pack...


AFAIK every one of those statements can be replacing the CEO with a sports star and everything is still true


In short, there's no performance requirement?


Sounds nice except when you consider that:

1. Even Leo Messi isn't "1000x more productive/as talented as the average [footballer]". Messi is a difference maker to be sure, and one might even say he counts for two or three men on the pitch, but even an extreme outlier like him only, perhaps, double or triples the statistics of another very good player. 1000x? No, simply no.

2. All of the recent studies coming out demonstrating that highly paid CEOs have no correlation with high performance, or worse either a correlation or possible contributor to poor performance, would say differently.

3. While most CEOs are certainly talented, many simply achieve their position thanks to connections and networking, and are not necessarily superhumans compared to their employees.

So no, this really says nothing about pay equality.


1000x is a bit much, but double/triple production is hugely significant when you realize that teams are constrained to only playing 11 players at once. Its not like they can make up his production with 2 average players playing together.


Nah, people have been able to block even Piero if they gang up on him at once this world cup. Messi himself was stiffled by Iran until the last few minutes of the game.


That's how most of the teams have been able to counter Messi so far; whenever he gets the ball, make sure two or three guys are on him. That he's still scored four goals despite that is a testament to his prodigious skill, but its certainly been effective at cutting that number down.


You're sort of on the right track with this (and I'm not sure why you're getting downvoted). The difference in talent of the top 250 or so CEOs is actually very small, but the huge size of modern companies means that even a small difference in CEO talent makes a huge difference in dollars.

Gabaix and Landier [0] run a counterfactual (based on their model) and suggest that "if firm number 250 could, at no extra salary cost, replace for a year its CEO by the best CEO in the economy, its market capitalization would go up by only 0.016%. ... this talent difference implies that the pay of CEO number 1 exceeds that of CEO number 250 by 530%. Substantial firm size leads to the economics of superstars, translating small differences in abil- ity into very large differences in pay."

[0] http://qje.oxfordjournals.org/content/123/1/49.abstract


250 doesn't sound like a large enough statistical sample to eke out even the most trivial performance differences in a single person when you consider the size of the companies being discussed.


High pay isn't really the issue so much as spiraling executive pay while other wages are stagnating and the economy is screwed. Also, if tech was run like modern football, the engineers salaries would be far higher. Tech is more like the old days of football before the players got more control over their contracts.


Definitely. Sports star salaries aren't keeping up with growing gate receipts, concession sales, TV DEALS, etc. Especially when you at the short careers and how injury can derail things. Owners/club execs are laughing all the way to the bank.

It's almost more like a guy going broke trying to invest his life savings on a stock tip than a CEO. You fail to ascend to superstardom? You end up with no money, no roots since you've moved around 30 times in five years, few employable skills outside of being physically fit, but wait... you're not physically fit because your body is broken from years of abuse.


I don't know if ya'll are watching the world cup right now but Messi was stifled by Iran, and Nigeria just recently. Belgium is coming up next so....

Argentina would be doing far better with a team that play together better than with Lionel Messi at the helm, and Messi himself said so.


Statistically, high paid CEOs are worth less than low paid ones. There's a negative correlation between CEO pay and stock performance.


Here's a thorough analysis that argues that Dennis Rodman was not just the best rebounder of all time, but that he dominated his position more than any other basketball player dominated theirs.

http://skepticalsports.com/?p=112


If you love football or fútbol (I am from Argentina) you should watch this video called "Messi is a dog": http://youtu.be/pZocxOQUHzs

A really beautiful description of how Messi plays. I almost cried the first time I watched it.


Messi is a great example of what can happen if you run through the fouls instead of intentionally falling down. Of course, not many people have his ball skills and I bet his low center of gravity helps him stay upright.

On the other hand, it's a great example of why guys do flop -- refs are too bad to call things as they should.


Awesome video. The compilation he refers to is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RD9Zc2kwpI. As a Barca fan I remember the very early compilations.

Personally I think that if you grab another player's clothing or impede him with your arms or hands while he has possession, it should be an instant red card.


Seriously, there needs to be a holding rule in Soccer/football. I find it so absurd that they grab each other and hold each other and the refs think it's fair.


hmm... It is widely known that players are now must more protected by rules than 5 years ago. The fouls on Messis would be considered too gentle for Ronaldo (not C. Ronaldo)...


Widely known? I've followed the game for decades and haven't seen this. Messi takes a lot of punishment and rarely flops too.


Yes, very widely known. If you don't think the game was rougher 30 years ago, then you really haven't been watching very closely.


It strikes me as odd that half the graphs do not have clearly labeled axes. I'd expect all of them to be labeled or none of them -- but some of them? The first one struck me as odd especially since the scales are roughly the same.


For the first one you can figure it out based on the text before it. But I agree, it annoyed me too.


It would also be better to have other colours for the scatter plots rather than dark grey and light grey - it's difficult to tell the difference. Great data analysis and explanation of what makes him great, though.


That beautiful pass to Angel di Maria in the latest match against Switzerland went a long way towards proving that.


Today's match!


Just a curiosity: the word Ronaldo appears 27 times in the article.

edit: Whoa, why the downvote? I'm justing pointing it out that is impossible to talk about Messi without talking about CR7 (and vice-versa).


"Ronaldo" is one of the things that confuses me, as an occasional spectator, the most. In every generation there seems to be a person called "Ronaldo". Most of them played for Brasil, but the most recent one is a portuguese player. For me it's difficult to get who people are talking about when they mention "Ronaldo".


There are 3 Ronaldos, all of them was at some point the best player of world (awarded by FIFA inclusively).

The first, Ronaldo Nazario de Lima, started his the career known as Ronaldinho, but droped soon later to just Ronaldo. Idol of Brazil's 2002 winning. Transvestite scandals. Famous for performances with Brazil and Real Madrid. A.K.A. as "phenomenon". http://bit.ly/1pHIQH7.

The second, the well-known Ronaldinho, is most remembered for Barcelona, but also played for Milan. Not well known for it's performance with the national team, unlike the first. It still an idol across the globe even nowadays. Plays for Atletico Mineiro (my team :D :D). http://bit.ly/1mGDCmT.

The third, the portuguese one of the list, is the most recent one. Despite being Cristiano Ronaldo, we sometimes short to just Ronaldo since it's the "relevant" one today. Also known as CR7 (7 is his shirt number). Started the career in a astonishing way in Manchester United, he was a kid that got a place in a very old and experienced team. Nowadays an idol at Real Madrid. http://bit.ly/1i5uUSr.


Also known as CR7 (7 is his shirt number).

So, funny thing ...

When I first saw "CR7" I immediately thought it was some sort of abbreviation, like I18N, and assumed it meant "CR" followed by 7 letters.

So that's apparently how my brain works.


In fairness in this case your intuition does match with his name (CR I S T I A N O, CR7).


Ronaldo Nazario de Lima was known as Ronaldinho in the beginning of his career to distinguish him from yet another Ronaldo, Ronaldo Rodrigues de Jesus, now known as "Ronaldão": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronaldo_Rodrigues_de_Jesus

So at one point, Ronaldo Rodrigues de Jesus was "Ronaldo", Ronaldo Nazario de Lima was "Ronaldinho", and Ronaldo de Assis Moreira was "Ronaldinho Gaucho".

Cristiano's explosion onto the scene at Manchester United was remarkable but "astonishing" is a bit of a stretch, since they've always given chances to younger players to work their way into the first team and many of them have impressed, including David Beckham (who Cristiano Ronaldo replaced), Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and more recently Adnan Januzaj.


Just so folks know, nicknames are very common in Brazil, and formal names are rarely used. That's why you have lots of overlap and whatnot. Slate did a quick primer on this before the start of the World Cup in 2006: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/20...


While not strictly PC, in euro footbal circles we split the three into Fat Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo (Christinao Ronaldo). Fat Ronaldo because he got fat when he retired, Ronaldinho because thats what his shirt said when he played for FC Barcelona, and just Ronaldo (Christiano Ronaldo), because he is the current one.


"Fat Ronaldo" is a little unfair--he played for the last few years of his career with an untreated thyroid disorder. It was left untreated because evidently levothyroxine is a banned substance since it can be used for doping.


He got fat much before he retired. The last three seasons at Madrid he was overweight but still the most explosive player in the box.


He was a sight to behold. At least 5 kilos overweight (as a professional football player!) and he could dash in front of defenders in front of him. I saw him 2-3 meters behind a defender during a 10-15 meter sprint where he ended 2-3 meters in front of the defender at the end.

Really explosive!


I remember watching him play. His free kicks/long range shots were amazing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGbjmD3btJg


That's Roberto Carlos who plays midfield

I think you wanted this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8bZhNBQktQ


Carlos actually plays left back.


That's Roberto Carlos


In Brazil people always add say the full "Cristiano Ronaldo".


As the primary striker for such a juggernaut, it can be hard to detangle Messi's goal-scoring prowess from Barcelona's general offensive dominance. (...) I think this criticism is fair -- and I found it intriguing enough to look into the matter myself.

(...)

By now I've studied nearly every aspect of Messi's game, down to a touch-by-touch level: his shooting and scoring production; where he shoots from; how often he sets up his own shots; what kind of kicks he uses to make those shots; his ability to take on defenders; how accurate his passes are; the kind of passes he makes; how often he creates scoring chances; how often those chances lead to goals; even how his defensive playmaking compares to other high-volume shooters.

Yet none of that really addresses the main potential confounder the author acknowledges: most measurable aspects of a player's game --not only (assisted) goals but also even touch-by-touch, more seemingly 'individual' skill measures such as passing success-- are arguably heavily conditioned on the ability of the rest of the team. (Today, for instance, Messi didn't score against Switzerland, and the team was goalless for 117 mins until a tepid 1-0 in extra time (edit: but assisted by Messi! my apologies)... go figure).

A 'matched' design would have been much more appropriate, but I realize it's hard to do sound data analysis on a journalist's deadline.


Today, for instance, Messi didn't score against Switzerland, and the team was goalless for 117 mins until a tepid 1-0 in extra time... go figure

Except that goal would not have happened were it not for Messi. A great player makes all the other players a little bit better too.


I found this curious as well. Hockey has by far the most rudimentary statistics out of the 4 major North American sports plus Soccer and yet even the hockey stats community has the ability to show how well a team does with a given player on the ice vs. without.


Excellent point, but would you care to explain how you would match subjects in this case? They should be comparable pre-something, but what would that something be?


Perhaps a superficially plausible ignorability assumption would be that, during rapid breakouts from the defensive zone, striker skill would strongly depend on the midfield's ability to open up favorably, which in turn would depend somehow on the defense's overall (relative) skill; so that, via d-separation, striker skill and defense's relative skill would be independent conditional on midfield's skill during breakouts. It would definitely not be trivial!


Maybe he's a living ballistical computer? Or has one built in? I'm actually curious whether there are objective reasons why he's so good.


I think around 80% it is due to a lifetime of hard work in a perfect environment (FC Barcelona's Academy) surrounded by the best people in the game. The other 20% may come from his psychological abilities, being able to reach very high levels of concentration at peak moments. Notice that he is not a very active and working player throughout the whole match, instead he shines through certain moments.

Some people also related this to the Asperger's Syndrome. http://www.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/1m17yp/alltime_gr...


Lionel Messi was already known as an outlier as a young boy in Argentina. The psychological abilities and lifetime of training at Barca simply molded something that was already there, but there are hundreds of other footballers who trained at Barca the same time Messi did and none of them are Messi. Some of them are very very good, but none of them are Messi.


True, it's the 20% that makes him better than players like let's say Cesc Fabregas (same football academy) who is a top-level player but kind of lacks the magic. Also note that there is a thin layer between a very good player and a great one, sometimes measured in miliseconds and centimeters but the output is fantastic! :)


People forget to mention that Messi had a growth hormone disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lionel_Messi#Early_life

Fortunately barca was willing to pay him and take him in as well.


The interesting thing watching him play is that you attribute most of his game play to speed and balance due to his low center of gravity. I never thought he was that accurate because his motion when shooting doesn't seem very elegant.

I take that back after seeing this data!


In addition to the other reasons mentioned, I'd add that having a team of superstars built around you will help your stats no matter who you are. When your team has most of the possession and is consistently breaking down defenses, your stats will be high.


The article covers that. They compare Barcelona vs Spain. Both play the tiki-taka style and have mostly the same players. But Barcelona is significantly more efficient. The conclusion is that you need a player of his talents for that style to really pay off.


I found this article to be quite interesting, even though I do not follow soccer/football (fútbol?). I find this sort of data analytic to be fascinating. It almost seems like art, what data sets to pull from, how to compare it, etc. How would one, other than brushing up on statistics, get into this sort of field? It seems much more interesting than basic web development.


Coursera has a Data Science specialization track by Johns Hopkins university. That would be a good place to start.


This is the most dataful soccer analysis that I have ever seen. In US sports (NBA, NFL, MLB), stats are very much used and audience are well aware of them but in soccer (I follow closely premier league, la liga), no such data exist or at least it did not seem so.

Of course, one reason soccer is less dataful is the amount of luck involved in the game. So much underdog achievement is happening which is probably why the game is very much liked (there was a great link that I cannot find which shows the weight of luck of per sport (soccer is being close to the top))

Last comment about the study, given time, they could have considered defense aspect


Maradona and Messi are two different kind of players from two different eras. Maradona is a mid fielder who can control the game from the centre, whereas Messi is forward who excels in striking and last minute opportunity creation. Perhaps greatness of Maradona may be compared to Zidane. It will not be fair to judge a midfielder on the number of goals scored - midfielder is a strategist - which Maradona was.


Maradona and Messi are both natural #10's.


Timely since the Switzerland game just happened and Messi only got an assist. The Swiss goaltender was impressive, especially compared to the Argenine goalie who made a few bad fumbles that could have been goals with slightly different luck.


Messi assisted the only goal of the game with a beautiful pass. There were 2 minutes remaining in extra time when the goal was scored. Seems right in line with the outlier theme of the article to me.


A deluge of data but little insight. What am I supposed to take away from this article besides the well-known fact that Messi is one of the best soccer players in the world?


Sometimes it can be hard for non-fans to realize just how good a superstar is. When I was 10 or 11 in the early 90s, I had heard of Micheal Jordan -- everyone had heard of Michael Jordan -- but I wasn't much of a basketball fan. My older brother joined a fantasy basketball league, and since I was the computer guy in the family he asked me to make a spreadsheet designed to help with the draft. We put in all the stats from the prior year and calculated how many fantasy points each player would have gotten. It was only when I sorted the chart and saw how much of an outlier MJ was I realized why he was such a big deal.


The corollary of that argument is that it's also hard for statisticians to disentangle individual brilliance from being the focal point of a team whose other parts are also massively better than their average opponent.

Of course, you have to be a truly exceptional player for Barcelona to build their team around you for several years, but I still doubt Messi stats would stand out quite so far above other top European forwards if he'd been, say, a winger for 2010-14 Liverpool instead.

It would be interesting to see how well the statistical advantages for Messi and Ronaldo hold up in matches which are relatively even contests (internationals, late stage Champions League and El Clasico) as opposed to their clubs' routine thrashings of weaker La Liga teams. I'd expect the goals (and shooting efficiency) to remain high but some of the other advantages might not be quite so evident. The article does cover his goals and assists contribution for his recent World Cup performances, but that's one stat and an acknowledged small sample.


The data and the analysis are excellent but I don't think people should rely completely on data to make the analysis as sometimes the data can be misleading.


Superb!

Is there any way to see who is who behind those dots on charts, very interesting.


It would have been great to include older data to be able to compare Messi to Maradona and Pelé.


Even so, the today's football/soccer is way different than before, much more raw speed, body weight, different balls etc...


I really need to see an analysis of Tim Howard and his blocking ability now.



The World Cup star is not Messi, is James Rodriguez.


"This content is not available in your location."

Fuck off.


http://gfycat.com/MessyOffbeatAsianelephant

Tbh, it's great goal but hardly an outlier. There have been many as good already this World Cup. Nor is it the type of goal that you only see from Messi.


I think the primary point is that Messi scores goals from that position an extremely high (12%) proportion of times.


What would be the reasoning behind this??

When we are talking about big downloads or video streaming makes sense, to save bandwidth (I'm not saying I agree with!!). But a blog article?


I think he's referring to the video at the top which is unavailable (for me anyway, in Canada). The rest of the article however is available.


> In their Group F World Cup match late last month, Argentina and Iran were still deadlocked after 90 minutes. With the game in stoppage time and the score tied at 0-0, Lionel Messi took the ball near the right corner of the penalty area, held it for a moment, then broke left, found his seam, took his strike and curled it in from 29 yards.

So he didn't score a goal for the first 90 minutes, or he just wasn't on the field? If he is so good, why did it take him 90 minutes to score the first goal?


One guy doesn't make a team.


Oh for sure. But it is funny thing to highlight the great goal he got in the last few minutes, when he didn't get a goal for the first 89 or so. Soccer is a funny game though.


"...found his seam..." Ever heard of the chink in the armor? It's more impressive to persevere for 89 minutes and score in the 90th entirely unassisted. Watch him play and try to call his "funny soccer" anything but impressive.


Strictly a casual 'soccer' fan in US, but here are a few problems for adoption of the game--again, as an American sports fan, journalist and media manager. And please, help me understand (and I promise not get into the usual 'no action,' 'too many drama queens' objections--although it is confusing when a player falls down like he's been stabbed, and the player who stabbed him also suddenly falls down.)

Messi is a freakish talent, but how many of his exceptional maneuvers translate into goals? I don't know Messi's ratio, but would Michael Jordan's talent have meant so much if style points didn't also show up on the scoreboard? We make fun of baseball because a successful batting average is three in ten (.300) and .400 is god-like. Messi's miracles pay off, sure, but -- for the casual American fan -- the effort needs to ring the bell or it doesn't count.

Top level competition (Euro leagues) is a completely different game (and vastly superior) to what the kids play here, or even school boys and universities. It's like pro baseball vs. weekend softball. And very few moms and dads, even a full generation into 'the soccer generation' know much or care.

Americans won't go 'all in' if they can't win. Belgium: 11 million people? That's Tennessee and Alabama. The day an SEC team can go to Europe and compete, that's when the US has become a soccer power.

I love the World Cup--once every four years. Those guys are tremendous athletes with freakish skills. But I still don't care. I leave the broadcast on for background noise, like golf or NASCAR or CNN.

Please HN, correct me if I'm wrong.


> Messi is a freakish talent, but how many of his exceptional maneuvers translate into goals?

Did you read the article? It answers that question about eleven different ways.


Your thinking that 'the effort needs to ring the bell or it doesn't count' is a little short sighted in my opinion. It'd be easy to make the scores higher if that was the big need of football. They could just make the goals larger. Sport is a fun mix of probabilities. The fact that goals are hard to score means that each goal is therefore valued higher, and celebrated a lot more. Do you experience the same thrill watching a goal in football vs a normal 2-pointer in basketball? Definitely not. In addition, goals being a rare event means that the underdogs have a higher chance of victory. If the scores were easy to make, the better team would much more frequently score and therefore win. Since goals are rare, with a combination of one lucky moment and some heroics from your keeper/ the better opponent having a bad day, underdogs frequently win the game- which makes it exciting for all kinds of fans. As for leaving games on in the background - it's a lot more to do with personal preference than the absolute value of the sport. I watch all 90 mins of soccer but frequently leave american football on in the background as it has so many breaks.




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