The Football Notebook
Leo Messi's Insane 2012
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
By January 1st 2012, Messi was already the best footballer in the world.
He had won the last two Ballon d’Ors and was heading towards a third successive win in just eight days.
Yet for some, it seemed like the best was still to come, with the Argentine International only turning 24 six months prior.
And how right they were.
Messi scored 91 goals in addition to 22 assists in just 69 games of football that year. He broke Gerd Muller’s 40-year-old record by 6 goals, carried Barcelona and Argentina all the while becoming the most wanted footballer to ever exist.
Everything he touched turned to goals, and it is unlikely that in this modern age of football that his feat could be repeated.
To put into context just how mercurial Messi was that year, the 113 goal contributions which he was a part of is SIX more than a free-scoring Liverpool side have managed this season in the Premier League, Champions League, and FA Cup.
But even if you took away the goals and assists - Messi’s underlying numbers were generational.
When looking at the Champions League and La Liga, Messi performed exceptionally well in the two seasons that overlapped 2012(2011/12 and 2012/13). Every 90 minutes he completed an average of 3.8 successful dribbles, supplied 2.3 key passes to his teammates, and took almost 3 shots inside the box - elite stats for an elite player.
Once again, context is key - Ronaldo, who also had arguably his best ever season in 2011/12 scoring a combined 56 goals in La Liga and the CL did not measure up with Messi.
He mustered 1.4 fewer successful dribbles, 0.3 lesser key passes, and only beat Messi out in terms of shots in the box by 0.5 more.
But what do these statistics actually mean, and why are they so important for understanding just how great Leo Messi was that year?
First off, a dribble is quite simple - it’s when you attempt to beat a man through either skill, close control, speed, or a combination of the three. A successful dribble is one where you beat that man and go past them into the space which you intended.
It is an ability which is honed through hard work and practice, and the 3.8 successful dribbles every 90 minutes which Messi accomplished on average in those two seasons have been touched by just a handful of players in the years since.
A key pass is a pass which results in a player taking a shot. 2.3 is not close to being the best in the world, but it is still very good, especially considering that Messi was so good in every single other category. KDB hit an average of 4.4 in 19/20 which is much higher than the Argentine, but at the time in 2012 only Mesut Ozil was bettering Messi by a decent margin in La Liga.
A shot is obviously when you shoot on goal, but the fact is that at the highest level of football it is incredibly difficult to get a high number of shots - it requires very good match intelligence, a knack for arriving at the right place at the right time, the ability to muster a shot from tough situations, and above all a supreme confidence which few have.
5.7 shots every 90 minutes is extraordinary - Harry Kane in his record-breaking 2018 put up around 5, and he is renowned for being one of the highest volume shooters on the planet.
And lastly, xG and xA, or Expected Goals and Expected Assists. Effectively, xG is essentially a statistic used to measure the likelihood of a shot resulting in a goal - you can read about them more here: xG xPlained.
We can obviously see that Messi has significantly overperformed his xG numbers, and done well on xA - showing us that he is an elite finisher, capable of scoring chances few other players would be able to on a consistent basis.
But perhaps the most important aspect of Messi’s game was something which is unquantifiable - his mind.
He played in the False Nine position, which he arguably popularised.
What this meant was that he played on paper as a striker, but during the game, he would drop off into midfield to create an overload and to allow his team to dominate possession.
Should the opposition centre-backs follow Messi, they would leave gaps in their defence which allowed either Pedro or David Villa(both on the wings) to make an inside run and create a scoring chance. If the defenders stayed in their line, they would allow Messi time and space on the ball - and when that happened, he would either unleash a shot from long range, or drive to goal and create a shot for himself or his teammates, or play an early pass in behind for one of his wingers.
What this would do is allow Messi to constantly be creating chances for himself, which obviously resulted in more goals.
The possibilities were endless, and this Barcelona system was seemingly unbeatable until a certain Bayern Munich utterly annihilated them 7-0 over 2 legs in the Champions League, before going on to complete a historic treble.
We go into more depth about the False Nine here - The Evolution of the False Nine.
And this shift to the role occurred at the same time in which Messi’s already-great finishing went supernova - he scored all kinds of goals from all kinds of areas with all kinds of types of finishes.
But as stated earlier, Messi did not just go ballistic in goals and assists - every part of his game was at the least world-class that year, and at the most stupendous.
So when you put it all together - the False Nine role, clinical finishing, electric dribbling ability, and a good team around him - you get the undeniably greatest ever goal scoring season in football history by the greatest player to ever grace the game.