The Messi Paradox

Why is the world’s best player average at penalties?

In the space of ten minutes during last week’s Champions League draw between PSG and Barcelona, we saw the best and worst of Lionel Messi. His exceptional goal out of nothing from 30 yards was the best; his penalty, a few minutes later, which would have put Barcelona 2-1 up just before half-time, the worst.

Messi’s record from penalties is amazing in one respect. He has taken over 130 penalties in all, an astonishing number. He has scored 102 and missed 29 with a conversion rate of 78 per cent. This is exactly in line with conversion rates across the big leagues. The question for today, then, is how can a player so extraordinary be so, well, ordinary from 12 yards?

I’ve had a think about this question before. Back in 2015, Messi missed five out of ten penalties, and I traced that slump back to a change in strategy, as he had stopped using the GK-Dependent method – the strategy that failed him when he missed a crucial penalty in the 2012 Champions League semi-final against Chelsea. Since then, he has mixed up his strategies, but the conversion rate has stayed the same. Still average. I think this issue goes beyond technique, though.

The first thing I wanted to establish is if a 78 per cent conversion rate actually that bad for a player who has taken so many penalties. Is it fair to hold Messi to a different standard from the spot because of his exceptional talent – and prolific number of penalties?

I ask Professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, expert in game theory and author of the seminal academic work on penalties, Professionals Play Minimax. “The large sample size only means that the scoring rate is measured more precisely,” he says, making clear that Messi’s average is exactly that – average.

Palacios-Huerta points out that Messi takes penalties in line with Nash’s theory of equilibrium, namely that his scoring rate is similar whatever side or option he chooses plus his penalty-choice behaviour is more or less random.

Here’s a reminder of the penalty against PSG:

Simon Kuper has written an eagerly-anticipated book about Barcelona, and Messi’s role at the club, coming out later this year. “Maybe it's too easy for him,” Kuper tells me.

“He thinks too hard about what should be quite a simple exercise, and tries to fake out the goalkeeper. That may be why he's merely average at penalties whereas he's one of the best in the world at the related but much harder skill of scoring free-kicks.”

Moisés Llorens, ESPN correspondent in Barcelona, tells me two things that surprise me. Firstly: “One of the things that Messi practices the most is penalty-kicks.” And secondly: “He talks a lot with goalkeeping coach José Ramón de la Fuente, who always explains the opposition goalkeeper’s skills to him.” Messi clearly thinks about improving his penalty record; by drilling into the opposition goalkeeper strategy, is he over-thinking it?

Graham Hunter, author of Barca: The Making of the Best Team in the World, is the only journalist I know to have specifically asked Messi directly about penalties. That conversation came in 2012, just as Messi emerged from the doping-test room after a Champions League tie against AC Milan in which he scored two penalties past Christian Abbiati.

Hunter asked Messi what was in his mind as he approached the ball. Messi said that he was thinking about how big Abbiati is, and how much he filled the goal. Hunter was surprised that Messi was letting thoughts of the goalkeeper and what could happen come into his mindset as he was about to take the penalty. This backs up Llorens’s comment that Messi takes this aspect of the game seriously.  

However, Hunter has another theory behind Messi’s record – that he’s basically so good that it doesn’t even matter if he misses from the spot.

“I think it has become wired into his brain: ‘We will win, I will do something [special] no matter what I do now’. Messi must feel a bit god-like at times, that he can alter the situation at any point. I think he has a subconscious understanding that he can probably produce something magical, whatever he does with the penalty.”

Opta kindly ran the numbers for me going back to 2007 and this holds true. Messi has only finished on the losing side ONCE in a Barcelona match where he has missed a penalty. That was against Espanyol in January 2018, in a Copa del Rey tie. Barcelona lost the game 1-0, but guess what, they won the second leg 2-0, with Messi scoring.

Of the other 21 misses logged for Barcelona, six of the matches ended in draws (this included the Chelsea and PSG games), and 15 were matches Barcelona won.

With Argentina, it’s a little more complicated. Messi did miss a penalty for Argentina in a 2014 friendly against Brazil, who won the game 1-0.

His most devastating penalty miss was for Argentina in the 2016 Copa America final shoot-out defeat to Chile. He struck first for Argentina, firing over the crossbar after Arturo Vidal had also missed. Chile won the shoot-out 4-2. Messi briefly retired from international football after the game, amid reports that he was broken by the penalty miss.

We know that the skills required to do incredible things in open play are totally different to those required for penalties. Palacios-Huerta, author of Beautiful Game Theory, has made another finding that I think is also significant when it comes to Messi and penalties.

Palacios-Huerta looked at player salaries and correlated them with player quality. In most cases, player quality and salaries go hand-in-hand – the better the player, the higher the salary. Then Palacios-Huerta explored the correlation between wages and penalty success rates. His finding? “There is statistically zero relationship between these two factors,” he says. Put another way, player quality has nothing to do with penalty-kick success among frequent penalty kick takers in the top leagues.

  • I like Kuper’s theory that penalties are too easy for Messi.

  • I am fascinated by Llorens’s insight that Messi thinks about opposition goalkeeper strategy.

  • I can get behind Hunter’s idea that Messi has such a strong belief in his own ability that penalties don’t matter to him as much as to other players.

  • Palacios-Huerta grounds his idea, that player wages and penalty conversion rates are not linked, with clear evidence.

These four reasons help explain the Messi Paradox. Messi is extraordinary in open play, but ordinary from the spot. And that’s just fine. But it helps to know why!

And if you do want to watch 25 Messi misses from the spot, this rather cruel video is for you:

PEN PALS

  • Credit to Alex Lacazette, back at the front of the penalty queue for Arsenal. He admitted facing former team-mate Hugo Lloris was stressful but scored with a confident strike to his non-natural side. Laca scored 11/14 in his last season at Lyon, then was 2/2 in his first season at Arsenal. He then dropped behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe in the pecking-order. After a two-and-a-half year hiatus (how frustrating must that have been?), he has now scored 3/3 pens since December, in wins over Chelsea, Leicester and Spurs. Aubameyang was not on the pitch for any of them. So who takes the penalty if they’re both playing?

Photo: PA

If you enjoyed this post, please spread the word about Twelve Yards and share this with your network. And if you’re new, you can see recent pieces including: how Robert Lewandowski became a penalty killer, who really invented the two-touch penalty (and Robert Pires relives his trauma) why it’s better to aim high than low, the great Ederson penalty debate, an interview with Antonin Panenka, how to define a true Panenka, how to end Antoine Griezmann’s run of five missed penalties in a row, penalty records in empty stadia, and Barcelona’s first shoot-out win in 23 years. Thank you!

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Ben Lyttleton is the author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty