Messi and Man City on No Grass in the Clouds: the Cadence edit

Newsletter Challenge, v. 5

Quick note: I recently wrapped up a writing coach package with Ari Lewis, host of the Mastering the Attention Economy podcast. We enjoyed working together (see Ari’s ROI here), and he proposed I take on a newsletter editing challenge.

The challenge: Twenty edits by 22 September. In paired blocks below, you’ll find the original and my edit.

My primary goal: add clarity, concision, and cadence.
For details on my process, click here, a Google doc. Please leave a comment or suggestion. Thanks!

“Why Messi and Manchester City Might Push Soccer To Its Limit,” August 28

Ryan’s work is in grey

My work is in black

The key tasks:

  • I tackled this one since I’m a Messi devotee, and
  • I wanted to take an already smart, readable piece (grade 11) and see what it would take to make it sharper
  • The trick: edit first, and see where hemingwayapp or equivalent makes suggestions

Key metrics on this 2343-word essay:

  • improved the readability from grade 11 to 8 (hemingwayapp.com)
  • cut the number of very hard to read sentences from 36% to 18%, and
  • trimmed the word count by 11%
  • Note: when I tackle 2300+ pieces in full, I might not have time to add subheads :).

Why Messi and Man City …

August 28, 2020

Prelude:

Black lives matter. This document has an exhaustive list of places you can donate. It’s also got an incredible library of black literature and anti-racist texts. Donate, read, call, and email your representatives. We’re all in this together.

Quick programming note: I decided to make this piece available to all subscribers. Happy Friday.

It seems like it’s really gonna happen, huh? Via Google’s hottest new search term, Lionel Messi informed Barcelona that he was terminating his contract immediately. There is, of course, still the question of whether or not he can actually terminate his contract — a sort of metaphysical legal argument over when things end, begin, and if ends and beginnings no longer even exist anymore — but, well, take it from ESPN’s Sid Lowe: “Does it necessarily mean that he is leaving for sure? No, not really, although it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. There’s no way back, in the sense that nothing can ever be the same again.”

The most bullish Barcelona-fan perspective on the situation is that there’s a 50/50 chance Messi stays at the club, provided the right leaders get sacrificed, the right replacements get brought in, maybe the new manager apologizes to him — and yeah, you start to see the point. The most powerful soccer player in the world wants to leave his club; the most powerful soccer player in the world is probably going to leave his club.

There’s no walking it back this time — or is there? As the phrase “Lionel Messi” trends on social media, FC Barcelona must be wondering if this recent threat to terminate his contract will be the last. There’s still the question, of course, whether he can simply walk away from his contract, or if saying as much out loud forces the hand of the club. “Does it necessarily mean that he is leaving for sure?,” wonders ESPN’s Sid Lowe “No, not really, although it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. There’s no way back, in the sense that nothing can ever be the same again.”

The most bullish Barcelona fan may still hope that if the right leaders get sacrificed, the right replacements arrive, and the new manager apologizes — and, well, you see where this is going. Or not. The most powerful soccer player in the world wants to leave his club and there’s few people in the world that can stop him.

~~~~~~

Manchester City always seemed the most logical destination during the he-won’t-really-do-it-will-he conversations of summers past, and now that it’s real, they still seem like they’re in pole position. According to reports, City have crunched the numbers on how they could make this move happen were a transfer fee to be required, and according to further reports, Messi has already spoken to his former manager and current City boss, Pep Guardiola, about joining the club. “It’s like some heist film,” Lowe wrote. “Pep Guardiola and Messi, the old gang, the best in the business, back together for one last job.”

Three seasons ago, Manchester City broke the points record in arguably the most competitive soccer league on the planet. A year after that, they pumped in the second-highest points total in league history. And although they dropped a spot down the table this past season, per the site FBRef their expected goal differential was actually better than in either of the previous two seasons. Despite the disappointing finish, Pep’s team knocked in 102 goals. How much better can they possibly get?

In the he-won’t-really-do-it-will-he conversations of summers past, Manchester City always seemed the most logical destination.  Now that it’s real, they still seem to be in pole position. Reports indicate, first, that City have crunched the numbers on a potential transfer fee on how they could make this move happen were a transfer fee and, second,  that Messi has already spoken to  Pep Guardiola, his former manager and current City boss, about joining the club. “It’s like some heist film,” Lowe writes. “Pep Guardiola and Messi, the old gang, the best in the business, back together for one last job.”

Three seasons ago, Manchester City broke the points record in arguably the most competitive soccer league on the planet. Two seasons ago, they tallied the second-highest points total in league history. Last season, they slipped a spot on the table, but still bested champion Liverpool FC by a goal differential of +15, having knocked in 102 goals. How much better can Man City possibly get?

~~~~~~~

You’ve heard me say it enough times by now, but that’s not gonna stop me from doing it again. Lionel Messi is the best player of his era because he’s the best goal-scorer, the best finisher, the best creator, the best dribbler, the best final-third passer, and the best facilitator — all at the same time. Plug him into your system properly, and you’ll be an elite attacking team just by virtue of having Lionel Messi on the field. That’s not true — and frankly, has never been true — for any other player. He’s LeBron James, shrunk down and with some really unfortunate shin-tattoo decisions.

Yet, Lionel Messi? Not young! He turned 33 in June, and while you’re 33 until you’re 34, if Manchester City were to add Messi for, say, three seasons, they’d be adding him for his 33-, 34-, and 35-year-old seasons. Let’s zoom out and look at how his career has progressed, by non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes:

You’ve heard me say it many times, and that not gonna stop me from saying it again. Lionel Messi is the best player of his era. He’s the best goal scorer, the best finisher, the best creator, the best dribbler, the best final-third passer, and the best facilitator — all at the same time. Plug Messi into your system properly, and you instantly become an elite attacking team. Call it the Law of Leo, for it’s not true — and frankly, has never been true — for any other player. He’s LeBron James, 4/5 scale, with really unfortunate shin tattoos.

Yet, Lionel Messi? He’s no kid anymore. He turned 33 in June, and you’re 33 until you’re 34. So, if Manchester City were to add Messi for, say, three seasons, they’d be adding him for his 33-, 34-, and 35-year-old seasons. Let’s zoom out and look at how his career has progressed, by non-penalty goals+assists (NPG+A) per 90 minutes:

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As I wrote about last week, since 2008 there are only four players in Europe’s Big Five leagues who have averaged at least 1.00 NPG+A/90, and Messi’s at the top with 1.34. That should put some context on what we’re looking at here; these are fluctuations up above the clouds, so far ahead of anyone else that the year-to-year bounces are almost irrelevant. However, there is a bit of a trend: from age 28 until now, his production has declined when compared to the previous five-year stretch: 22 to 27. In his prime, he was Babe Ruth — completely untouchable by his peers. Now, he’s more like Mike Trout — still the best and most consistent, but every year someone else can have a career-year and challenge his production for a single campaign. He can’t keep that up forever, and the possession-value model “goals added” thinks he’s declined a good bit since last season, but even with a more sudden age-related drop-off with a new team he’d still be one of the handful of best players on the planet.

Beyond the raw trends of production, Messi’s game has changed over the years. He’s still the best finisher there ever was, but perhaps because of his aging legs, he’s settling for worse and worse shots with each passing season:

Since 2008, only four players in Europe’s Big Five leagues have averaged at least 1.00 NPG+A/90: Messi’s 1.34 tops them all. On this chart, you’ll see that Messi is so far beyond the league average that the year-to-year bounces are almost irrelevant. There is a visible trend, though: young Messi (22-27) has better goal-scoring numbers than the mature Messi (28-33). In his prime, he was Babe Ruth — completely untouchable by his peers. Now, he’s Mike Trout — still the best and most consistent, even if someone can challenge his production for a single campaign. Age is a cruel mistress, and the possession-value model “goals added” indicates he’s declined a good bit since last season. Still, with a new team, he’s bound to remain one of the best players on the planet.

Beyond the raw trends of production, Messi’s game has changed over the years. He’s still the best finisher there ever was, but perhaps because of his aging legs, he’s settling for shots below his standard with each passing season:

~~~~~~~~~~~

When he was younger, he was getting a ton of great shots and finishing them at a higher clip than any normal human being ever would. That’s how he scored 50 and 46 goals in consecutive La Liga seasons. Now, he’s edging closer to the shot-type of your average player, just with more shots and a much higher conversion rate. But given that, how have those goal-contribution numbers remained so steady?

When he was younger, he made a ton of great shots and finished them at a higher clip than any normal human being ever would. That’s how he scored 50 and 46 goals in consecutive seasons in La Liga. Now, he’s edging closer to the shot-type of your average player, just with more shots and a much higher conversion rate. With that in mind, then, how have those goal-contribution numbers remained so steady?

~~~~~~

It basically looks like this: Messi turned 30, realized he couldn’t score like he used to, and so he turned into John Stockton in order to make up for the decline in goals. It makes sense, too: the athletic movement required to score a number of goals only identifiable with a government-funded telescope doesn’t last forever, but when you’re setting your teammates up, you can let the ball do most of the work.

That sort of mutable omnipotence has a place on every team, but every club is different — with specific strengths and weaknesses that can be addressed. For Manchester City, the attack … is not the problem. Only two teams in Premier League history have scored more than their 102 goals: Chelsea’s 103 in 2009-10 and this same Manchester City team, who scored 106 goals two years ago. This year, City had seven players average at least 0.7 NPG+A/90; no one else in the Premier League had more than two. Messi would be the best player in the Premier League from the moment he arrived, but he’d also be replacing someone who is already one of the best players in the Premier League.

Effectively, when Messi turned 30, he realized he couldn’t score like he once did, and he turned himself into playmaker John Stockton,  and drove up his assist numbers — which makes sense. The athletic prowess needed to score a stratospheric number of goals doesn’t last forever. When you focus on letting your teammates score, you can let the ball do most of the work.

That sort of mutable omnipotence has a place on every team. Still, every club is different, and has its own strengths and weaknesses, even at the top of the table. For Manchester City, the attack is not the problem. Only two teams in Premier League history have scored more than their 102 goals in 2019-20: Chelsea’s 103 in 2009-10 and Manchester City itself, which scored 106 goals in 2018-19. This past campaign, City had seven players average at least 0.7 NPG+A/90; no other club in the Premier League had more than two. From the moment he arrives, Messi would be the best player in the Premier League — and yet he’d be replacing someone who is already one of the best players in the Premier League.

~~~~~~

Only the richest teams in the world can afford Messi, and given that most of the best players play for all of the richest teams, he theoretically might be less valuable to all of his realistic potential employers than he would be to a, say, defensively sound team — hello, Atletico Madrid! — a little further down the financial pecking order

“We’ve also plugged Messi into our model and estimate that he’d be worth around 1.8 points per season above Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez,” said Omar Chaudhuri, chief intelligence officer at 21st Club. “Man City are running into diminishing returns — they’re already scoring about 100 goals per season, and a peak Messi-Barcelona was getting about 110. A 33 year-old Messi is still incredible, but can only add so much to their attack, which is close to the known ‘limit’ of what is achievable.”

Spoiler alert: only the richest teams in the world can afford Messi. So, with most of the best players on the richest teams, Messi might theoretically be less valuable to his expected suitors than, say, a defensively sound team — hello, Atletico Madrid! — a little further down the financial pecking order.

“We’ve also plugged Messi into our model and estimate that he’d be worth around 1.8 points per season above Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez,” reports Omar Chaudhuri, chief intelligence officer at 21st Club. “Man City are running into diminishing returns — they’re already scoring about 100 goals per season, and a peak Messi-Barcelona was getting about 110. A 33 year-old Messi is still incredible, but can only add so much to their attack, which is close to the known ‘limit’ of what is achievable.”

~~~~~~

However, we’ve seen something like this before in sports. The Golden State Warriors won the NBA title with a dominant, small offense that seemed to unlock a level of speed, ball movement, and scoring previously unreachable in the sport. Then, the following season they set the regular-season record for wins but blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite that hiccup, they, too, had reached close to the known limit of what’s achievable. But that didn’t stop them. That following summer, they added Kevin Durant, the best player in the league who was A) not named LeBron James and B) not currently on the Warriors. That first year with Durant, they outscored their opponents by an even higher margin than they had the year before, with the best offense, the best postseason record (16-1), and best postseason point differential (plus-13.5 per game) the league had ever season. They won two NBA titles in a row and turned the most talent-rich era in NBA history into a formality, year in and year out.

Messi, well, is a significantly better soccer player than Durant is a basketball player. This would be more like the Warriors adding LeBron. Plus, there’s still some room for City’s attack to go in order to reach their limit. Since 2008, the record for goals in a season in the Big Five leagues was, hilariously, set by supposed-defensive-menace Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who netted 121 times in 2011-12. Their goal differential — plus-89 — was joint-best with 2014-15 Barcelona, who scored 110 goals en route to a treble. In fact, Barcelona scored at least 110 goals in five of six years from 2011 through 2017.

Sure. But we’ve seen something like this before in sports. In 2015, the Golden State Warriors won the league title with a small-bodied, dominant offense capable of a level of speed, ball movement, and scoring previously unseen in the NBA. In 2016, they set the regular-season record for wins, but blew a 3-1 lead in the finals to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite that hiccup, they had once again reached close to the known limit of what’s achievable. So, what did they do that summer? They added Kevin Durant, the best player in the league who was (a) not named LeBron and (b) not currently on the Warriors. In that first year with Durant, they outscored their opponents by an even higher margin than in 2016, and their #1 offense posted the best ever postseason record (16-1), and best ever postseason point differential (+13.5 per game). They won two NBA titles in a row and turned the most talent-rich era in NBA history into a formality.

Messi is, well, a significantly better soccer player than Durant is a basketball player. (Yes, I expect you to take this claim as a matter of faith.) From City’s perspective, Messi is more LeBron than Durant. Plus, there’s still some room for improvement in City’s attack . Since 2008, the record for goals in a season in the Big Five leagues was set by the allegedly defensive menace of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, which netted 121 goals in 2011-12. Their goal differential — +89 — was joint-best with 2014-15 Barcelona, who scored 110 goals en route to a treble. In fact, Barcelona scored at least 110 goals in five of six years from 2011 through 2017.

~~~~~~~~~

Messi, then, has played for a team that produced a better goal differential than 2019-20 City (plus-67) 10 times, and he’s played for a team that’s scored more goals six times. On top of that, I don’t think any of those high-scoring Barcelona sides would have scored 102 goals without Lionel Messi. They might have to move some players around to acquire him, but Manchester City would be adding Lionel Messi to the bones of a team that was already capable of scoring 102 goals last year and 106 just two years prior. In terms of what we’ve seen on a soccer field in the modern era of the sport, City still have 19 goals scored and 22 goals of differential to go before reaching exit velocity.

Another way to look at it: Gabriel Jesus scored 14 non-penalty goals on chances worth 17.8 goals this past season. Given Messi’s conversion rate over the past three seasons (84 NPG on 57.2 xG), you’d expect him to score 26 goals from the same chances Jesus got. They’re not the same position, sure, but that comparison also doesn’t take into account all of the other non-scoring things Messi would do for City.

Messi, then, has played for a team that produced a better goal differential than 2019-20 City (+67) 10 times, and he’s played for a team that’s scored more goals six times. And, of course, let’s imagine that none of those high-scoring Barcelona sides tally 102 goals without Lionel Messi. If Real Madrid and Barca are any indication, Manchester City have room for improvement: 19 goals scored and 22 goals of differential, before reaching exit velocity.

Here’s another way to look at it. Gabriel Jesus scored 14 non-penalty goals on chances worth 17.8 goals this past season. Given Messi’s conversion rate over the past three seasons (84 NPG on 57.2 xG), you’d expect him to convert Jesus’s opportunities into 26 goals. They don’t play the same position. I get that. But a more thorough comparision would need to take into account the many non-scoring things Messi would deliver for City.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Remember the Zidane Clustering Theorem? It’s from a paper written by German researcher Henning Vopel in 2013. Based on the O-ring theory of economic development, Vopel’s theory suggests that all players benefit from an increase in team quality around them, but that the elite players benefit the most from being paired with elite teammates. Here’s Vopel:

“Clustering of players with equal quality is a phenomenon that can often be observed in team sports. Based on the “O-ring theory” (Kremer 1993) a Zidane Clustering Theorem has been derived. The underlying assumption is that players benefit from better teammates. Moreover, a player benefits the more from better teammates the better he is himself. That implies that the best midfielder is most efficiently allocated when combined with the best striker. Consequently, a better team can pay higher wages for good players than those teams with a lower quality. As a result, the competitive balance is distorted by such a clustering effect.”

In other words, Messi would benefit more from playing with, I don’t know, Kevin De Bruyne than either Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez would — and vice versa. Messi and De Bruyne do a lot of the same things — they create scoring opportunities for their teams at an unrivaled scale — but presumably having Messi on the field will create more space for De Bruyne. The threat of Messi in the final third will make life easier on Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling — both by drawing defenders away from them and just adding a genius-level passer who can get them the ball in space to score. And Messi himself will benefit from 1) playing in a system that doesn’t totally collapse if he gets shut down, 2) having dangerous teammates who will draw defenders away from him, and 3) having teammates who can create great chances for him. There are potentially all kinds of additive effects — up, down, and across the team — that Messi might bring beyond just how much better he is than the player he’s replacing.

Remember the Zidane Clustering Theorem? It’s from a paper written by German researcher Henning Vopel in 2013. Based on the O-ring theory of economic development, Vopel’s theory suggests that all players benefit from an increase in team quality, but that elite players benefit the most from the addition of elite teammates.

“Clustering of players with equal quality is a phenomenon that can often be observed in team sports. Based on the “O-ring theory” (Kremer 1993) a Zidane Clustering Theorem has been derived. The underlying assumption is that players benefit from better teammates. Moreover, a player benefits the more from better teammates the better he is himself. That implies that the best midfielder is most efficiently allocated when combined with the best striker. Consequently, a better team can pay higher wages for good players than those teams with a lower quality. As a result, the competitive balance is distorted by such a clustering effect.”

In other words, if you want Kevin De Bruyne at his best, pair him up with Messi rather than Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez. Now Messi and De Bruyne do a lot of the same things. They create scoring opportunities for their teams at an unrivaled scale, but let’s imagine that Messi suiting up in blue will create more opportunities for De Bruyne. The threat of Messi in the final third makes life easier, too, on Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling — both by drawing more defenders and by being a genius-level passer. Messi himself is likely to benefit from

  • playing in a system that doesn’t totally collapse if he gets shut down,
  • having dangerous teammates who can draw defenders away from him, and
  • having teammates who can create great chances for him.

Messi’s talent — compared to the player he’d replaced — delivers all kinds of additive effects, up, down, and across the team.

~~~~~~~~~~~

But even if it’s just a two-point upgrade, City are only currently favored by around three points over Liverpool in the 2020-21 season betting markets. Those extra points make a huge difference, and they’re also way more valuable and difficult to attain than the two points that would bring a team from, say, 62 points to 64 points. If City become something closer to those Barcelona or Madrid-level attacks of years past, they’d be jumping by something more like 10 points based on the back-of-the-napkin calculation of “one goal equals one point”. Plus, City really, really want to win the Champions League, and nothing increases your odds of doing so more than going out and getting yourself the best player in the world.

If Messi does eventually join City, there are also reports that suggest there might be a clause in the contract that pushed him to join NYCFC in MLS once his time in the Premier League is done. What might that look like? For LAFC last season, MLS MVP Carlos Vela averaged 1.16 NPG+A/90 en route to setting the league record in goals scored. In his last full season in Europe for Real Sociedad, Vela posted a rate of 0.32 NPG+A/90. If Messi’s production was converted at the same rate, based on last season he would score and assist on … 4.5 goals per game in MLS. Last year, LAFC set the league record for most goals in a season. They scored 2.5 per game — as an entire team

Let’s imagine adding Messi only yields a two-point upgrade. City are currently favored over Liverpool in the 2020-21 season by close to three points in the betting markets. Those extra points make a huge difference. Two points added onto 81 (Man City, 2019-20) is also much more difficult to make happen than the two points added onto 62 (Leicester City, 5th place). If City become something closer to a Barcelona- or Madrid-level attack of years past, my back-of-the-napkin calculations using “one goal equals one point” figures they’re capable of a 10-point jump.

Plus, City really, really want to win the Champions League. And nothing increases your odds of doing just that by getting yourself the best player in the world.

If Messi joins City, reports suggest there might be a clause in the contract that pushed him to join New York City FC in MLS once he leaves the Premier League. What might that look like? For Los Angeles FC last season, MVP Carlos Vela averaged 1.16 NPG+A/90 en route to setting the league record in goals scored. In his last full season in Europe for Real Sociedad, Vela posted a rate of 0.32 NPG+A/90. If Messi’s production was converted at the same rate, based on last season he would score and assist on 4.5 goals per game in MLS. Last year, LAFC set the league record for most goals in a season. They scored 2.5 goals per game — as an entire team.

# # #

And that’s a wrap. If you like what you see, drop me a line over here.

Thanks!

Happy reading! Happy writing!

Published by Randal Doane

Living the good life in NE Ohio. I dig science and the written word. Let's build something amazing together.

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