Leading sports scientist Simon Brundish gives a knowing look when asked who is the best footballer in the world.
“While he’s alive, there’s only Lionel Messi,” Brundish says. “If you’re saying anybody else is the best player in the world, Messi’s had a broken leg for a year, or he’s dead, or you’re lying.”
Given Messi is widely considered among the greatest players to ever play the game, that might not seem like too startling an insight. But Brundish has a set of statistics he believes sufficiently ends any debate on the matter. “Currently Messi has a goal or assist every 48 minutes,” Brundish says. “Bearing in mind that every game is almost 95 minutes long (when added time is included) that’s two almost every single game.” Few can come close to these feats — although Cristiano Ronaldo has long had a comparable, and sometimes superior, goal scoring rate. More recently, the likes of Luis Suarez, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Mohamed Salah have also all excelled in scoring for their respective club and national teams. Yet Brundish says the real supremacy of Messi lies not only in his goalscoring feats but also how highly he rates in a statistic known as xG-Build.
This metric awards points to every player involved in a goal except from the person who supplied the final pass (assist) and the goalscorer. For example, if a goalkeeper started a move by passing to a defender, who then played the ball to winger before squaring for a striker to score, the goalkeeper and defender would score statistical points under the xG-Build system.
Given Messi’s prodigious goal and assist rate, it would seem logical that his xG-build score would lag behind other players who have more of a role in the early stage build up to a goal given the spaces they usually occupy on the field. But Brundish says that’s not the case.
Using 2017-18 full-season data from football statistics website, Understat, Messi scores considerably higher in xG-build than some of the world’s most potent play-makers, including Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil and Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen. He also comfortably outpoints the likes of Ronaldo, Salah and Neymar.