Remember Lionel Messi last season? Me neither. For the first time in nearly two decades, the greatest soccer player of all time seemed just ... absent. He was fine -- great even, for the average player. In his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi scored six goals and assisted 14 more. That's 0.84 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes, and it still ranked in the top 20 among all players across Europe's Big Five leagues.

However, among Lionel Messi seasons since 2008, it ranked dead last; in fact, it was his first season over that stretch to come in below 1.00 NPG+A per 90 minutes. For most players, breaking that number marks a career year, an indicator of a brief dalliance with superstardom. Karim Benzema was as close to an inarguable Ballon d'Or winner as you can get over this past year, and he averaged 1.11 NPG+A/90 in La Liga. Since making his debut in 2004 as a 17-year-old, Messi has averaged 1.27 NPG+A/90 across his entire career.

Messi scoring and creating goals at an unmatched clip has been the background noise of the Big Five leagues over the past 15 years. He was there every weekend, over and over and over again -- while different stars rotated in and out of the picture. Until last season, when he was off in Paris, easily winning a fairly non-competitive league, getting dumped out of the Round of 16 in the Champions League without much blame, and putting up the same stats as Juanmi and Jamie Vardy.

And, well, maybe that was only last season. Three months into this season, the Messi we all remember -- the one you can't forget? He's back.

 

So, what happened last season?

Given that he was 34 years old at the start of the season and suddenly became a teammate to a pair of physically dynamic attackers in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, it's perhaps unsurprising that Messi started to drift further away from the goal.

Since 2010, Messi has lived in what some analysts refer to as "zone 14" -- the central area atop the penalty box. It's the most dangerous area on the field outside the box because it's usually in-between the opposing defensive and midfield lines and it provides easy access to the penalty area, the gaps between the center backs and full-backs, and the wings.