This is Lionel Messi like we’ve never seen him before, with only four Ligue 1 goals to his name and four matches left in the 2021-22 season.
The Argentine no longer has a high strike rate, but his job in the team necessitates him to provide assists to Kylian Mbappe.
At Barcelona, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was known for putting up absurdly high goal totals. Messi has scored at least 25 league goals in each of the last 12 seasons at Camp Nou, including a staggering 50 in 2011-12.
However, he is unlikely to achieve double digits on his first trip away from his formative club.
Indeed, Mauricio Pochettino, the coach of Paris Saint-Germain, stated on Thursday that the priority is for Kylian Mbappe to finish as the league’s top scorer and assist maker, no doubt as part of the club’s charm offensive to keep the World Cup winner out of Real Madrid’s hands.
Mbappe’s breakout season, on the other hand, has come at the expense of Messi, who has seen his on-field role shift from star to supporting cast.
This is due, at least in part, to Messi’s difficult transition to French football, which has pushed Mbappe to the front of the team.
His modest goal total has also had an element of luck to it. After all, no player in any of Europe’s top five leagues has hit the crossbar more than Messi, who has done so eight times — more than he has scored.
As much as his critics would like to dismiss his efforts – even his own fans have booed him this season – there are valid grounds for his toil.
Worse, his performance has been mostly evaluated through the lens of goal-scoring.
Messi’s personal issues have been exaggerated in light of his new role and PSG’s overall struggles to gel, while there’s no doubting that no one expected him to have so few goals at this point in the season.
“It’s a more physical league, with games that are closely contested and a lot of back and forth,” Messi told Sport just weeks after joining PSG. “The players are powerful and quick. It changes a lot in terms of appearance.
“In Spain, all of the teams attempt to play a lot more, and if you don’t press properly, they will take the ball away from you.” The most significant difference, however, is in terms of physical appearance.”
Pochettino has also spoken about the difficulties that his compatriot has endured.
“His prospects of adaptation have been limited due to Covid, injuries, and the Argentina national team calling him every month,” he told El Pais in February.
“Neither he nor we have ever made excuses.” However, he has never played for a club other than Barcelona, and when you join a new team, you must go through a normal process of settling in.
“Injuries, travel, and being away from your teammates all add to the time it takes for the team to adapt or for you to find your best self.”
And it’s been clear since he’s been playing consistently that the magic is still alive and well, but not in the sense that fans around the world have come to expect.
Lionel Messi has evolved from a prolific scorer to a prolific provider.
Long-time adversary Cristiano Ronaldo altered his approach as he grew older to become a center-forward and thus more prolific, and the South American now takes up pockets of space between midfield and attack to create opportunities for others, with Mbappe as the primary beneficiary.
This season, Lionel Messi has assisted on 13 league goals at a rate of one per 138 minutes.
Only four players in Europe have played more than 10 full games this season and have an assist rate of less than one every three hours. Messi’s lone rival is Ousmane Dembele, a former Barcelona teammate.
He is comfortably in the top 20 players in Europe’s main five leagues in terms of minutes per chance produced, though Neymar actually tops PSG in this area.
What does the future hold for the ex-Barcelona player?
There’s no doubt that Messi is still putting up exceptional stats, but they’re not in the same way that supporters have come to expect from him during the last 15 years at Barcelona.
Meanwhile, there have been glimmers of what he can still do when given enough time and space.
His Champions League goal against Manchester City – his first for the club – was a signature strike, but his score against Lens last weekend, which proved to be the game-winner, was possibly even better.
As a result, Messi’s decline has been exaggerated. After a difficult transition at PSG, he is now an integral part of the squad. Mbappe may be the headliner, but the Argentine’s contribution is crucial.