Lionel Messi : A Closer Look At His Goal Scoring Record


How great is Lionel Messi's goal scoring record? In the context of the Messi vs Muller and Messi vs Ronaldo debates, does Messi truly exceed any rival's performance? Today on the blog FootballInNumbers takes a closer look at Messi's stats and consider his goalscoring feats.


At the age of just 25, Lionel Messi has already won more honours, plaudits and accolades than any other footballer on the planet. First his achievements with Barcelona and Argentina: five (and surely soon to be six) La Liga titles, three UEFA Champions League winners medals, two World Club Cups, an Olympic Gold Medal. And then there are the personal awards – four times Ballon D’or winner, four times Champions League top goalscorer, two times European Golden Boot winner. The list just goes on and on.

When you look at the sheer mountain of prizes the Argentinean has won in the last half-decade or so, it is perhaps understandable that many are calling him not just the greatest player of his generation, but the greatest of all time.

However, does a closer look at the facts really back this up? To examine this, I will take as my starting point Messi’s record-breaking year in 2012, when the Barcelona man surpassed a forty year record previously held by legendary Bayern Munich predator Gerd Muller – that of most goals scored in a calendar year.

Firstly, a little qualitative analysis. If you look at Messi's haul of goals from 2012 – which you can watch below - then a few things stand out.

The first is how many goals are tap-ins/goalkeeping mistakes/dreadful defending, but that in general is irrelevant - it shows good anticipation and I'm sure Gerd Muller benefited from plenty of mistakes.

The second is how many of these goals are penalties; 16% (or 14) of these 86/91 goals (depending on which source you believe) were penalties. One could make a case that penalties should not be included when considering achievements such as Messi’s, at least not without a little qualification; especially when you consider that the man whose record Messi broke didn’t actually take any penalties for Bayern Munich or West Germany.

On The International Stage

Speaking of West Germany, Muller also set the European Championships alight in 1972, scoring both of his side’s goals in the semi-final, and two out of three in the final. Most observers would agree that Messi has been far below his brilliant best for Argentina in his career thus far – just one goal in two World Cups, and that as part of a 6-0 victory over Serbia and Montenegro, does not compare with the impact others of Messi’s stature such as Pele, Muller, Cruyff, Zidane and (Brazilian) Ronaldo have had in the competition.

The player Messi is most often compared with – Maradona – literally dragged his country to a World Cup victory in 1986, when surrounded by a team generally considered to have been largely unexceptional. Messi is actually in quite a good Argentina side, and remains largely ineffective. 31 goals in 77 games is not a shabby return by any means, but in the biggest games, Messi has more often than not failed to step up to the plate for his country.

In The Champions League

Another record which Messi broke in 2012 was the Champions League record for goals in a season. But again there are qualifications and caveats to this achievement. Messi scored 14 goals in 11 games - but this included 5 goals in one home game against Bayer Leverkusen side when Barcelona already had a 3-1 advantage from the first leg in Germany; and a total of 5 goals across two games against Victoria Plzen and Bate Borisov, who I’m sure most would agree are not the most impressive of opposition.

He did score 3 goals across 4 games against Milan - but all three were penalties. The only real pressure penalty he had to take was against Chelsea, and Messi missed it. Over the last couple of years Messi has played Inter Milan, Chelsea and AC Milan over the course of 11 games, and – minus the penalties – has not scored a single goal. Messi has played four times in England for Barcelona, and again has failed to score a single goal.

In fact, you could argue that when all is said and done, Messi is not a particularly good taker of chances, but Barcelona create so many that he can still rack up a mighty goals tally even with this shortcoming.

Strength Of Opposition

Finally, on most occasions when faced by outstanding footballing feats - Alfonso Alves' 40+ goals in Holland a few years ago is a case in point – it is important to put them into context in terms of quality of opposition faced.

For example, despite his incredible goal scoring record, Henrik Larsson was never really considered to be one of the very best strikers in Europe, largely due to most of his goals being scored in the weaker Scottish Premier League. However, most people do not seem to have bothered with this sort of thing when it comes to Lionel Messi. From a purely observational perspective, most of the teams in La Liga do not put up much of a fight when they play Barcelona. When the Catalans come up against well-organised defences, they tend to struggle, and Messi tends to struggle with them.

The recent defeat to AC Milan is a perfect example, as are the Champions League semi-final defeats against Inter and Chelsea. La Liga is one of the better leagues in Europe, but there are very few teams who would call defending their strong point, and even less who appear to approach games against the Spanish Champions-elect with any genuine aim to shut them out for 90 minutes. Rather most seem to write it off as a defeat before they even start. I am far from convinced of the quality of most Premier League sides, but they are far better organised and have far more desire to dig in and man the barricades than do their Spanish counterparts.

How Great Are Messi's Achievements?

I’m not saying that Messi wouldn’t be a success in England, or Italy, but he is playing in a league which is almost designed to allow him to run riot. Many of the all-time greats – Zidane, Maradona, and both the Brazilian and Portuguese Ronaldos for example, have proven themselves in more than one of Europe’s biggest leagues, and most have proven themselves at the World Cup, the greatest stage of them all.

All in all, Messi's achievements are to be admired and highly respected, but should be qualified by looking at little closer at the minutiae: there are a number of factors which need to be taken into account when giving out awards to the all-time greats, and though Messi has ticked some of the boxes, he is far from ticking all of them yet.



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