- Argentina superstar Lionel Messi possesses one of the great goal-scoring records at club level.
- His dribbling and passing statistics rival the best in the game as well.
- But Messi’s feats at club level – particularly at World Cups – don’t match his club performances.
When the Socceroos take the field on Sunday morning (AEST) in just their second round-of-16 appearance at a World Cup, they will do so against a player many argue is the best there has ever been.
Lionel Messi. Leo. La Pulga. The GOAT. Whatever you call him, his combination of vision, control and fluidity can make professionals look like children trying to tackle their uncle in the backyard. Type “Messi dribbling” into YouTube and see for yourself.
But the eyes can deceive and, at its core, the beautiful game comes down to one ugly statistic: who scored more?
Well, usually Messi. Take this 10-year stretch from 2009-10 to 2018-19 when he scored more than 40 goals a season for Barcelona.
This run ended when he scored only 31 goals for Barcelona in 2019-2020 – and set the La Liga record for most assists in a season. He is the only player to score in the Champions League for 18 consecutive seasons. Good players have a peak but great players have longevity.
Detailed in-game club and international records from whoscored.com going back 14 seasons – 608 appearances – help make Messi’s case.
La Pulga (“The Flea”) is highly effective in front of goal: 19 per cent of his shots end in a goal and 47 per cent are on target. His goal conversion rate from shots exceeds reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and is significantly better than his major modern-era rival, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Goals alone don’t make a GOAT and they aren’t what separates Messi. Rarely does he turn to flashy step-overs or flicks, yet he can glide through teams when he gets on the ball.
The eye test says no one dribbles like he does, but what about the numbers?
Messi compares favourably with some of the world’s best known dribblers. On average, he carries the ball past a player 4.41 times a game – almost twice as often as PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe and far more often than the likes of Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior and one Cristiano Ronaldo.
Interestingly, the third prong of PSG’s attack, Neymar, appears to rival the GOAT: his 4.26 successful dribbles is awfully close to Messi’s, yet the former succeeds at a higher rate. Only time will tell if Neymar can keep it up for another 300 games.
So, is Messi’s status as the best ever to be denied for the part of the game that seemed guaranteed: the ball at his feet? Let’s take a closer look.
Messi loses control of the ball due to a poor touch just 1.4 times a game; that happens to Neymar more than twice as often. Neymar is also tackled slightly more often.
When it comes to moving the football on, both Messi’s long balls and short passes are more accurate, and he completes more of each per game on average. It’s clear whose spell the ball is under.
For all of his greatness, Leo has not always been popular in the home country he left for Barcelona aged 13. For whatever reason he has not always been able to replicate his success for Argentina – he retired from international football for a short while in 2016 after a shock loss in the Copa America final to Chile. He had failed to score and missed in the penalty shootout.
He’s scored 93 goals against 34 countries but despite joining the shortlist of players to appear at five World Cups, he has only scored eight goals at them. With all due respect to Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Mexico – he hasn’t been able to score in the big games.
Messi is one of the most reliable stars and has proven it over a long career. He scored every 1.2 games over 778 appearances for Barcelona but for Argentina – outside of World Cups – he has only scored every 1.8 games. When it comes to the biggest tournament of all, he only scores every 2.8 games. He failed to score at all in five games at the 2010 World Cup.
Messi secured the love of his home country when he delivered his first major tournament win in 2021, the Copa America, while also scooping its best player award.
If he is to finally claim the World Cup and all but secure his status as the best to ever do it, he’ll have to get past the Socceroos first.
Messi’s La Liga records
- Most career league goals: 474
- Most goals scored in a season: 50 (2011–12)
- Most career league assists: 192
- Most assists made in a season: 21 (2019–20)
- Most league goals scored in a calendar year: 59 (2012)
- Most league home goals in a season (38 games, 19 home games): 35 (2011–12)
- Most league away goals in a season (38 games, 19 away games): 24 (2012–13)
- Most league matches scored in a season (38 games): 27 (2012–13)
- Most league home matches scored in a season (38 games): 16 (2011–12)
- Most league away matches scored in a season (38 games): 15 (2012–13)
- Most opponents scored against in La Liga history: 38
- Most consecutive league appearances scored in: 21 (33 goals, from matchday 11 to matchday 34, season 2012–13)
- Most consecutive away league matches scored in: 13 (20 goals from matchday 8 to matchday 33, season 2012–13)
- Most league hat-tricks scored in a season: 8, tied with Cristiano Ronaldo
- Most braces (2-goal matches) scored in La Liga history: 93
- Most goals scored from direct free kicks: 36
- Youngest player to score 200 league goals: 25 years and 7 months (27 January 2013)
- Most La Liga Best Player awards: 6
- Most La Liga Best Forward awards: 7
- Only player to score 30+ goals in 8 different seasons
- Most wins in La Liga history: 383
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