The Argentine no longer boasts a remarkable strike-rate but his role in the team requires him to supply Kylian Mbappe with assists instead
With just four Ligue 1 goals to his name, and with four matches remaining of the 2021-22 season, this is Lionel Messi as we have never seen him before.
At Barcelona, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner regularly hit astronomical goal tallies. For 12 seasons in succession at Camp Nou, Messi scored at least 25 league goals, including a scarcely believable haul of 50 in 2011-12.
However, on his first adventure away from his formative club, he is unlikely to reach double figures.
Indeed, Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino indicated on Thursday that the focus is instead on having Kylian Mbappe finish as both the league’s top scorer and the top assist-maker – no doubt part of the club’s charm offensive to try to keep the World Cup winner from the clutches of Real Madrid.
Mbappe’s explosive season, though, has come, to some extent, at the expense of Messi, who has seen his on-field role altered subtly from leading man to supporting cast.
This has come about, at least in part, due to the complicated adaptation that Messi has had to French football, which thrust Mbappe to the forefront of the team.
There has also been an element of misfortune in his low goal tally. After all, no player in any of Europe’s big five leagues has hit the woodwork more than Messi, who has struck it eight times – twice as many times as he’s scored.
As much as his detractors might like to rubbish his performance – even his own fans have booed him this season – there are legitimate reasons why he has toiled.
Worse, his level has been analyzed largely through a goal-scoring prism.
Given his new role and the problems that PSG have had in gelling as a whole, Messi’s personal struggles have been blown out of proportion, although there is no denying that nobody would have expected him to be sitting on so few goals at this juncture of the season.
“It’s a more physical league, where games are hotly contested, where there is a lot of back and forth,” Messi told SPORTS a matter of weeks after arriving at PSG. “The players are strong and fast. Physically, it changes a lot.
“In Spain, all the teams try to play a lot more and they keep the ball from you if you do not press well. The biggest difference, though, is physically. ”
Pochettino has also explained the challenges his compatriot has faced.
“Between Covid, injuries and the Argentina national side that has called him every month, his chances of adaptation have been limited,” he told El Pais in February.
“He’s never made excuses and neither have we. But he’s never played at a club other than Barcelona and when you arrive at a new side, you always go through a natural process of finding your place.
“Injuries, traveling and not being with your team-mates all lengthens the time for the team to adapt or for you to find the best version of yourself.”
And it has been evident since he has been playing regularly that the magic still endures, just not in the way fans all over the world have grown used to seeing it.
Instead of a prolific scorer, Messi has become a prolific provider.
In the way that long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo adapted his game as he grew older to become a center-forward and, therefore, more prolific, the South American now takes up pockets of space between midfield and attack to provide opportunities for others, with Mbappe the chief benefactor.
Messi has laid on 13 league goals this season at a rate of an assist every 138 minutes.
There are only four players in the whole of Europe to have played more than 10 full games this season who are under the rate of an assist every three hours. The only one to eclipse Messi is his old Barcelona team-mate Ousmane Dembele.
In terms of minutes per chance created, he is comfortably in the top 20 players around Europe’s big five leagues, though Neymar actually leads PSG in this category.
There is no doubt that Messi is still posting elite numbers, but these are in a different capacity than what fans have become accustomed to for the best part of 15 years at Barcelona.
Meanwhile, there have been glittering hints of what he remains capable of when provided with time and space.
His Champions League goal against Manchester City – his first for the club – was executed in a trademark style, yet the strike versus Lens last weekend, which proved to be the one that sealed the Ligue 1 title, was arguably greater still.
Messi’s demise, then, has been somewhat exaggerated. Following a difficult transition to PSG, he is now part of the team fabric. Mbappe may be the superstar, but the Argentine’s role is integral.