Soccer is supposedly a team sport—but so is basketball.
During the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron James became the pulsating core of the series, and everything else, including the results, moved to the fringes.
Without his two best teammates, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, James scored the second-highest percentage of a team’s points in Finals history and became the first player to ever lead a Finals series in points, assists, and rebounds per game. The Cleveland Cavaliers lost in six to the Golden State Warriors, but the series was closer than anyone expected it to be. Superstars always take on a heavier load come playoff time, except this was something else entirely: Gone was any of the ball movement or positional interchange that defines the NBA’s best teams, and in its place was the best player in the world, pounding the ball into the court, running each iteration of the shot clock down to its last second, and deciding how every possession was going to end.
“LeBron is alone,” Zach Lowe wrote at the time. “And what he is doing within this context is remarkable — one of the weirdest, greatest, toughest individual feats in NBA history.”
Lionel Messi is not alone. Yet what he’s done to start the season is as weird, as great, and as tough as anything you’ll ever see on a soccer field.
Five games into the La Liga season, he’s taken 39 shots. The rest of the now-Neymar-less Barcelona team has taken only 37. Messi has scored nine goals, while his teammates have combined for just seven. In Barcelona’s first Champions League game, a 3-0 win over 2016-17 runners-up Juventus, Messi took five of the team’s nine total shots and scored two of the three goals. And the numbers could be even hotter: In addition to his 11 total goals on the season, he’s hit the woodwork six times.
Most recently, we saw him putting four past Eibar in the Spanish Separatist Derby:
One-man teams shouldn’t work. In modern basketball, the Warriors rose to previously unreached heights by spreading the ball around with a fluid offense that was unpredictable. In modern soccer, the holistic Dutch concept of Total Football—“In my teams,” Johan Cruyff, its most famous practitioner, said, “the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender”—has been sanded down into something more direct and efficient, but it still dominates the managerial philosophies that populate the highest levels of the sport. It’s simple: Eleven or five is better than one.
But what if that one can do everything? What separates Messi and LeBron from their peers is how far they stretch across the spectrum of what’s possible in their respective sports. They both can be the best scorer, the best creator, and the best facilitator in the world; it’s just a matter of what they’re feeling in the moment. So when a player can answer any question the defense asks, why would they complicate things by asking their teammates for feedback?
If Messi maintains his current rates, he’s going to shatter all kinds of records for both usage and production. He’s taking over two more shots per game than he ever has in a full season, while Barça’s shots-per-game numbers as a team have taken a slight dip compared to the past few years. He’s dribbling more than he ever has—nearly double the second-most-dribbly player in La Liga this season. And of course, he’s putting the ball into the net at a higher rate than ever before:
Lionel Messi is scoring a goal every 52.2 minutes of La Liga play. His current low is a goal every 60.1 minutes, in the 2012-13 season,— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 20, 2017
Most importantly, it’s working. Despite coming into this season as clear second-favorites to Real Madrid for the first time in a decade, Barcelona are 5-0-0 in the league and already seven points clear of their biggest rivals. The main difference between the two teams is that one of them has the supernova version of Messi and the other doesn’t: Real’s underlying stats are better than Barça’s, but Messi is one of the few players in the world for whom concepts like expected goals don’t apply. He converts his chances at a higher rate than everyone else, so when a stat uses historical data to spit out the likelihood that a given shot ends up in the goal, it falls apart when it gets applied to Messi.
LeBron knew he had to play only a maximum of seven more games when the 2015 Finals began. Right now, Messi has something like 50 more games to play this year. Plus, he just turned 30. Most likely, some of his teammates will have to shoulder more of the load as the year progresses: Luis Suárez has been injured or ineffective for the first month of the season, while Neymar’s replacement, Ousmane Dembélé, managed only 122 minutes of game time before rupturing a tendon and landing on the injured list for the next couple of months.
Yet, if there’s one player in the world who can keep this up over an entire season, it’s Messi. And with his former sidekick now in France squabbling over free kicks, the conditions are at least in place for the hyper-usage to continue.
After the Eibar game, Messi’s new boss, Ernesto Valverde, called him “the most intelligent player that I have ever seen on a football pitch." But then he struggled to continue: “He's extraordinary. There are no words."
When you coach Messi, his play does all the talking for you.