I Needed Another Excuse to Write About Lionel Messi

Who are the best attackers in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy?

And thus begins the final international break of the season -- two weeks of half-meaningful soccer where players scatter across the globe to join their national teams. Some of us will agonize over whether new US manager Gregg Berhalter can successfully convert his best center mid into an inverted fullback. Others will wonder if Gareth Southgate has spent the past three months waistcoat shopping or scouting -- how else to explain James Maddison’s omission from the England teams? And another group will do like Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and potentially ignore part of the onslaught of international soccer in favor of some form of personal care.

I, however, am going to take a step back. Not a step away -- I have beloved readers, whose desires (and subscriptions) I must fulfill. At this stage of the season, with title races so close in England and Germany -- and Champions League places also up for grabs not only in Anglo-Saxony, but Italy and Spain, too -- following the sport is thrilling, nerve-racking, and crazy-making every week. Performances barely matter; we basically know how good every team is at this point, and it’s cold comfort for a Liverpool or Milan fan to hear that their side created the better chances and would have won that game more often than not, if said result is accompanied by a drop down the table. And so we’ve reached a point where a game like Liverpool's 2-1 win over 19th-place Fulham can mean whatever you want it to: Maybe it was the sign of a champion, overcoming a dual-error from their two coolest customers to grab a late victory? Or maybe an 81st-minute winner against one of the worst teams in the league is proof that they don’t have what it takes to keep pace with last year’s champions? (I, personally, would suggest that if you can ask both of those questions, then you’re looking for the wrong answers!)

So, today, instead of gauging the title races or Champions League odds or anything like that, I wanted to zoom out and take a look at what’s already happened. Forget any advanced metrics or xWhatever; we only care about goals and assists. Well, not quite. We’re gonna take a tour across the attacking leaderboards across Europe’s top four leagues (we’re not including France because I have better things to do than just recite Paris Saint-Germain’s roster from top to bottom) and see who’s topping the charts in terms of non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes. Simple: attackers are supposed to score and create goals. We’re not counting penalties because they don’t tell us much beyond “this player was chosen to take penalties for this team” and we’re not looking at raw totals because not everyone gets the same amount of playing time.

All the numbers come from FBRef, and to qualify for the leaderboard, a player has to have played at least half of his team’s available minutes. Players’ ages when the season began (i.e. “his age-24 season”) are listed in parentheses. OK, let’s get to it.

The obvious: The clear top three consists solely of players from Manchester City. At his age, Sergio Aguero should be tailing off, and his numbers are actually slightly down from last year, but his current rate of 1.02 would mark the fourth-highest full-season rate of his career. He’s no doubt helped by the two guys behind him, but really, they all make each other better: Sterling’s assisted on four Aguero goals (second-most in the league) and three Sane goals, while Aguero and Sane have both set up three for Sterling. Sane’s been in and out of the lineup recently -- partially because Sterling is in his way -- but Pep Guardiola’s best front three seems pretty clear to me. Aguero and Sterling are already superstars -- Sterling legitimately might be the best player in the Premier League (he’s first in xG+A per 90) -- and whenever he plays, Sane produces like one, too.

The not-quite-as-obvious: Shoutout Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, the only player not from a Top Six team on this list. It’s not a fluky season either, as he’s 11th in non-penalty xG+A per 90. It’ll be really interesting to see where he goes from here. He’ll be 27 at the start of next season, he’ll likely be coming off the most minutes he’s played in a Premier League season, and he’s got a long history of knee issues. Does a big team take a chance on him as a backup so you can manage his minutes? Would he want a bigger payday and better teammates but less playing time? Could he move up to a slightly better but not quite Top Six side? Could he go abroad? Will he stay at Bournemouth? Watch this space.

One more thing: Marcus Rashford has officially made the leap. He’s already played more minutes in the Premier League than he ever has before, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that he’s already posted better goals and assists totals. But with increased playing time has come increased efficiency. He’s taking more shots per 90 minutes and creating more chances per 90 minutes than ever before. And he’s also in the top 10 of the xG+A charts, too. His theoretical prime isn’t until after the next World Cup, and yet he’s already one of the best attackers in the league.

The obvious: You’ll notice that none of the ranges for any of the other charts even go beyond 1.25. I mean, I should probably just re-brand this entire newsletter project more honestly into what it is clearly the beginning of: my path toward converting Lionel Messi worship into an actual religion. An L. Ron Hubbard Lite kind of thing. But, I mean, c’mon! This video has more highlights than most elite careers, and it’s only from this season!

Oh, and it also came before Sunday, when Messi scored a hat trick away to Real Betis, which led their fans to give him a standing ovation during the game. The guy is calculating the speed of the Earth’s rotation on its axis and the speed of the Earth’s rotation around the sun in real-time. Imagine having the foresight to even understand that this was possible, then imagine having the confidence to attempt in an actual game, and then imagine having the subtle dexterity to actually execute it:

In a lot of ways, this is a new era at Barcelona. Against Betis, they had less possession than they’ve had in any La Liga game since the 2004-05 season (43. 9 percent). Tiki-taka is dead. But only thing that really matters -- well, he’s as good as he’s ever been.

The not-quite-as-obvious: Jorge Molina is 36 years old. He’s old enough to be  ... my slightly older brother. The guy has a freaking teaching degree in physical education. His career started in the byzantine depths of the Spanish fourth division in 2001, and prior to last season he’d played only about 900 minutes in the top tier. Now he’s got Getafe in fourth place -- slight favorites for the final Champions League spot, per FiveThirtyEight projections -- and he’s getting some buzz for a call-up to the Spanish national team. Getafe’s calling card is their defense, but they’re the rare defense-heavy, possession-lite team that doesn’t rely on set-pieces to gin up goals. Molina (and Jaime Mata) have to make do with fewer opportunities than pretty much anyone else on any of these lists. Their club has one of the lowest payrolls in La Liga; what Molina and Mata have done has almost no margin for error. It’s remarkable.

One more thing: Benzema and Bale are not having what you might call “good seasons”, and yet they’ve still managed to sneak into the edge of the top 10. To me, that just speaks to how great they used to be and to the high standard they’ve set. They’re both declining and this is Madrid’s worst season in a long time, but they’ve still produced like two of the best attackers in Spain when they’ve been on the field. Also, based on his first game back, it looks like Zinedine Zidane has decided to go with the “play my actual best players” plan at Madrid.

Good for him. Bad for everyone else.

The obvious: Eintracht Frankfurt ... are the Manchester City of Germany? I wrote about these guys a little over a month ago before their game against Borussia Monchengladbach, which seemed like a close-to-must-win game for Frankfurt’s Champions League hopes. They drew ... and then won four straight. They’re now one point out of fourth, and FiveThirtyEight gives them a slightly-better-than-50-percent chance of grabbing it. Among everyone, Jovic has the best attacking numbers other than Messi; he’s absurd and will likely command crazy money this summer. Shit, beyond City, Barcelona, PSG, and maybe Napoli, Frankfurt have the most productive front three in the world. They lost manager Niko Kovac to Bayern, but their expected-goal differential is is 12 times what it was at this point last year. Jovic, Haller, and Rebic were all under-25 coming into the season. Wanna punch above your weight? That’s how you do it.

The-not-quite-as-obvious: I know Harry Kane is England captain and that he’ll probably still be starting for the Three Lions once the World Cup expands to include various lunar and martian colonies, but how fun would a front line of Rashford, Sterling, and Jadon Sancho be?

Sancho’s current run likely won’t last -- or at least not in this form, it won’t. His output is almost double his expected numbers, but presumably he’s going to keep improving. I bet if a reporter asked him about Y2K he wouldn’t have any idea what he or she was talking about. (Rememeber when the US’s Deputy Secretary of Defense said this? “The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe”. Good times.) Anyway, given his age, perhaps Sancho will be able to overcome the inevitable conversion slowdown by creating and taking more shots. Even if he doesn’t, he’s still absolutely electric.

One more thing: No one in the top 10 is 30, and only two guys are older than 26. Coming into this season, the average age of a Bundesliga player was lower than it had ever been. Given the high-level struggles of German soccer across a variety of competitions over the past year, there’s likely to be good times ahead, again. However, honorable mention for Werder Bremen’s Claudio Pizarro, who turned 40 in October. He’d rank right behind Marco Reus in the leaderboard, but he’s only played around 550 minutes this year. This is true greatness. Wake me up if Kylian Mbappe’s still scoring goals in 21 years.

The obvious: Napoli are ... the Frankfurt of the Manchester City of the Bundesliga of Serie A? It’s been pretty cool to see how Carlo Ancelotti has shifted the balance of the team to incorporate a healthy Millik, who’s been injured/unfit since he came over from Ajax in the summer of 2016. Millik might be the purest goal-scorer on this list; he barely creates anything for his teammates (just 0.06 assists per 90). And so Mertens, who’d scored 40 goals over the previous two seasons -- the team-lead in both years -- has shifted into a more creative role (0.44 goals to 0.51 assists per 90) this campaign. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is currently under investigation after being credibly accused of rape, and Messi are the only players in Europe who take more shots than Insigne. They’ve been overshadowed by Juventus and an early exit from a really tough Champions League group, but Napoli really are having another phenomenal season.

The not-quite-as-obvious: Juventus have the most goals in the league and a 15-point lead atop the table despite a relatively meager showing here. Ronaldo’s scored six penalties this year, and the next name on the list after Mandzukic is Paulo Dybala, all the way down in 25th. Frankly, this really feels like a smoke-and-mirrors season in Turin. Despite that lead over Napoli, their expected-goal differential is only about a goal ahead. On top of that, Ronaldo actually has more xG than actual G this year. No one else on the team has scored double-digit goals, so they basically have this cadre of one-to-five-goal scorers who have finished a higher-than-average percentage of their shots. They’ve out-performed their xG in the past four seasons, but doing it like this just seems totally random.

One more thing: Fabio Quagliarella is a legend. He’s very handsome, and this specifically chosen goal makes Lionel Messi look like Martin Gramatica:

Compared to Germany, Italy’s basically a retirement home. Some research has shown that, especially for strikers, Serie A can help stave of age-related decline. But let’s just celebrate this: Quagliarella had to leave Napoli, his boyhood team, because of a stalker, who’s since been sentenced to five years in prison. That nearly totally derailed his career -- and how could it not? -- but now, at 35, he’s both scored and assisted the most goals he ever has in a season. In Italy, the top goal-scorer is awarded the Capocannoniere, which, incredibly, means “head gunner”. Quagliarella two ahead of Ronaldo, with 10 games to play. This matters to me more than the 2020 election.

As I said last time, and now say every time: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along.