We asked just last season if it looked as if Lionel Messi was slowing down.
The conclusion we reached was that Messi was becoming even more of a provider than ever before, and as his scoring stats decreased, his provision increased. He drops deeper than he ever did and he's no longer the goal-hungry forward of seasons past.
But this season his non-penalty goal total is zero. One penalty in the league against Villarreal, and another in the Champions League against Ferencvaros are all he has to show for his six full appearances so far, and it's a very un-Messi total.
And on Saturday he tried everything possible to break down a stubborn Alaves side, but despite his best efforts the team stumbled to yet another poor result.
So let's dive a little deeper, looking at his shots totals, expected goals and expected assists.
Messi shooting in 2020/21
Messi shooting stats, La Liga
|Shot Acc %||49%||44%||52%|
Looking at La Liga it's a small sample size for this season, of just 540 minutes. But Messi's volume isn't thst much different. His shots P90, shots on target and shot accuracy % are all in line with previous seasons. Against Alaves he himself his 10 shots, five of which were on target. Can we say he has been unlucky?
Messi expected goals in 2020/21
Messi xG, La Liga
|NP xG P90||0.3||0.48||0.65|
|NP xG p/shot||0.07||0.1||0.12|
This is a little more revealing. Messi's xG is unquestionably lower than in the past two seasons and by quite a margin, particularly his NP xG which should be our guide. As the minutes mount up without a goal from open play, he may be getting more desperate to end this particular run.
What is quite rare right now - and, again, small sample size, is that Messi is underperforming his xG. This very rarely happens. We should have expected, at a minimum, another goal from him so far this season.
Messi Chance Creation in 2020/21
Messi chance creation, La Liga
|Key Pass P90||1.3||2.7||3.0|
|Shot Creation Actions||5.6||6.9||7.3|
There's cause for concern here. Messi not only doesn't look like providing goals for his team-mates, he's down on the very basic elements of key passes and shot creation. If he's shooting less and yet not providing opportunities for his colleagues, what exactly is his involvement?
And if we go deeper, his attempted dribbles, and completed ones, are half of what they were even last season. His number of touches are down, and his carries and progressive yards are also down. Not by a small amount, but by an amount significant enough to cause concern.
And yet, there's one stat this is definitely up - short passes under five yards. These are up to 20% higher than last season as medium and long-range passes fall. It seems that matches are passing Messi by, or indeed he's also passing the ball on to others in key attacking positions. Maybe this is deliberate, to not make him the fulcrum of the team any more. But it doesn't seem like something that Messi would subscribe to.
The eye test
Having watched every Barcelona performance this season, his most effective display was definitely in the Champions League and so not captured in these statistics. But even then he is playing in moments, rather than sustained spells of dominance.
Against Celta in the driving rain, with Barcelona down to 10 men, he had an exceptional second half. His low cross was deflected into the net for an own goal while he had an effort of his own ruled out for offside. He drew a great save from the goalkeeper which was then converted by Sergi Roberto.
Against Real Madrid he, again, had glimpses. It was his ball over the top that released Jordi Alba to cut back for Ansu Fati, while a sublime dummy on Sergio Ramos almost saw him convert with his right foot. But in the second half he disappeared from the action completely.
And in Getafe, other than a curling shot which cannoned off the post, he offered precious nothing in the face of a staunch defensive unit. There's a pattern that when teams open up, Messi enjoys the space. What he very much doesn't enjoy is breaking down difficult defences.
You'd have to be insane to write off the greatest player ever. And the sample size to reiterate, is small. But Ronald Koeman is right to be concerned about his performances and the big question that only Messi can answer - is it because he is getting old, or is it because he no longer cares about the club he was desperate to leave in the summer?