While there will never be another Lionel Messi, there almost certainly will be another Messi-like (Messianic?) player.
Which raises an interesting question: will the rise of the “Next Messi” be an entirely unpredictable happening, a mere fluke of a million intangibles coming together in just the right way in a cosmic lottery? Or, perhaps with the aid of advanced statistics and better scouting, will we be able to see him (or her?) in formation years in advance? And if so, could that lead to an “observer effect”, in which a player with the skill of a Messi buckles under the weight of expectation? Or is the skill of an individual player inseparable from the relative skill of their team?
For the vast majority of football fans, these questions are merely academic. If we did nothing, we would almost certainly be graced by another astronomical soccer talent somewhere in the world, probably in our lifetime.
But for clubs and scouts, spotting the next elite talent ahead of their opponents provides an obvious competitive advantage, particularly as the level of talent in most European and South American domestic leagues is already both very good and as a result, very narrow. Finding a player that can overcome otherwise poor team metrics to score goals at an unheard of rate also provides teams with an incredible financial asset as well.
It’s therefore worth exploring some ways teams and scouts could, theoretically, discover the next Lionel Messi.
Improved player data
Some high profile North American sports are currently world leaders in advanced player scouting. This in part because of a growing cultural acceptance of the power of statistical modelling in uncovering counter-intuitive ways to identify future talent.
But it’s also because North American sports generally work with a comparatively concentrated player pool. Major League Baseball for example has an established farm system. From time to time, MLB clubs will spot talent in overseas leagues, but generally prospects play for smaller clubs in the US. It’s far easier to collect detailed information on these players, even in more complex team sports like hockey.
Football on the other hand is an global sport with countless domestic leagues and competitive tiers, academies, college teams etc. This makes it highly difficult and expensive to collect meaningful individual player statistics in an already complex team sport. There is a lot of noise and not much signal. Often talented players in lesser known leagues will rise to the top in these circumstances, but more often than not, potential future Messis from far flung fields will go ignored and fall through the cracks if they aren’t discovered and developed in an elite academy.
Inversely though, global football has a potentially rich data set to work with, which presents an incredible opportunity. By collecting and collating player data from a wealth of academy sides and tiers from all regions, it might be theoretically possible to run the numbers and isolate some previously ignored key performance indicators (KPIs) weighted for nation and league and see which tend to extrapolate from a certain age range into a footballing career, and perhaps even into elite status at the adult level.
This approach would face several obvious challenges. Data collection on that scale would be unheard of, and would require significant capital investment, probably from interested in clubs. Considering the ‘short-termism’ rampant in European football, this doesn’t seem likely. And of course there is the possibility that the data will tell us nothing ,and that whatever makes Messi ‘Messi’ is completely intangible, unseen, unpredictable.
But, if successful, it could give us an incredible window on the underpinnings of greatness in soccer.
Separating team performance from individual skill
On the soccer panel at the recent Sloan MIT Sports Analytics conference in Boston, Prozone’s Blake Wooster mused on the problem of separating team and player in assessing true soccer talent. While the cliche always involves whether Messi could do it on a wet night in Stoke, Wooster considered the far more interesting quetion: how well Messi would perform if he were to play for Stoke?
Messi’s forward movement and darting runs from deep are in some cases reliant on the incisive passes of Xavi and Iniesta and the intelligent runs of his fellow forwards on the wings. Moreover, Messi has played alongside his teammates for years as a member of the elite La Masia academy. Then there is the constant bugbear of Messi’s performances for Argentina, although 12 goals in 9 national team appearances in 2012 puts some of that into doubt. While Messi is undoubtedly brilliant, he is also a vital component of a dynamic 11-man squad in Barcelona.
This isn’t a trivial issue for potential scouts. Some players maintain an impossible standard of excellence between clubs and leagues, like Ronaldo. Messi is a question mark in that regard. In any case, in scouting a future elite talent it’s important to consider ways to put them on a career development path that best suits their innate gifts.
Making a Messi from scratch
Alternatively, one could also study any core tendencies in the elite footballers with us right now. What separates them from the merely great, or in Messi’s case, the merely legendary? How often did they practice as children? Did they nap during the day? What was their education, their socioeconomic background? Is there a Messi-friendly training system? Which ball skills did Messi and players like him learn first? What character traits lend themselves to performance of that calibre? Does Messi have inherent physical characteristics that set him apart? His small frame? Low centre of gravity?
We won’t obviously be able to manufacture elite talent, but we might better understand the circumstances in which it arises, and the kind of temperament and optimal career path that talent needs to flourish. Biometric science is improving, as is the understanding of the unique psychological make-up of the super elite athlete. Further study could pinpoint the particular make up of a player of Messi’s potential ability, and how to foster it in promising young players.