Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Why Messi is the only candidate for the Ballon D’Or

As the nights draw in and the weather gets a touch colder it is traditional for gifts to be showered on deserving candidates, among them top footballers. It is at this time of year that an assortment of media bodies hand out their annual trinkets in recognition of the outstanding performers of the past year in football. As such it is a good time to look back on the year of 2010 and consider who is in line for these accolades and who truly merits the awards to be doled out. When considering the potential winners we must realise that there tends to be a healthy amount of revisionism in all reflections on past seasons (which only grows with time), and as such it is imperative to remember accurately just what did happen in 2010 as these may be the only memories that endure.

First it is worth noting that there has been a major change to the landscape of footballing awards with the amalgamation of two of the most noted prizes. The Ballon D’Or, the oldest of the major footballing awards and inaugurated in 1956, has merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award to form the imaginatively named FIFA Ballon D’Or. The significance of the merger in terms of the likely winner is as yet unclear. Since the FIFA award was created in 1991, they have chosen different winners on seven occasions with only one of those (1994) being due to differing eligibility. The last five years have seen the two awards choose the same victor.

The variances noted between the winners reflect the differing voters who previously determined the year’s premier player. While the Ballon D’Or was chosen by journalists, indeed the award is organised by France Football magazine, FIFA’s gong was initially selected by national team managers and later by managers and captains. FIFA have smoothed out some of the issues that plagued their award (such as Marco van Basten and Carlos Alberto receiving votes some years after retiring), but it remains imperfect and tends to suggest that many of those voting have watched very little of the players eligible. While FIFA’s move to prevent voters selecting their compatriots was a sensible one, it has still not ironed out the issue at a club level. John Terry chose Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack as the top two in the world in 2009 while Yossi Benayoun (then of Liverpool) found room for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

The final major award is that decided by English magazine World Soccer. Created in 1982, it is voted on by readers in an open poll. Since the birth of the World Player of the Year award, there have only been two instances (1994 and 1995) in which the World Soccer prize did not follow that  of either FIFA or France Football.

Given that this is a World Cup year, the importance of that great event will inevitably have a significant bearing on the destination of the famous trophies. Since the Ballon D’Or was created in 1956, World Cup years have almost universally since the award go to a star performer from the tournament. In the intervening years only twice has the recipient not come from a team reaching the semi-finals of the competition. Kevin Keegan won the award in 1978, when England didn’t even qualify, but that reflected the fact that non-Europeans were ineligible until 1995 and so Kempes, Passarella et al were barred from the voting. Equally Maradona was a sure fire winner in 1986 (he romped home in the World Soccer poll), but his exclusion let in Igor Belanov, a star at the World Cup for the Soviet Union as well as a winner of the Cup Winners’ Cup that year. World Soccer in comparison has only seen one winner from a non World Cup winning team, and then it was Paolo Maldini, a losing finalist as well as a Champions League winner in 1994, who scooped the title.

This World Cup focus is increasingly outdated in the modern era. In the earliest days of the awards this level of focus was understandable. For starters there simply wasn’t the availability of footage, even to journalists, that exists today. A journalist in England might only see a Kopa or a Masopust once in an entire season at club level, if that, and so it was natural in a World Cup year to focus on the players who did perform well wehen you got the chance to see them. That simply isn’t the case anymore. Nor does it remain true that the World Cup represents a level above that of top club football. The Champions League knock-out rounds now offer a standard the equal of anything the World Cup can muster. As such, to place seven games out of 60 or so in a season on a pedestal is just not representative of the current status quo in world football. Although we may dislike this overemphasis, we must though remember that this remains a factor in the minds of voters.
Inevitably then the betting currently seems to reflect the heavy bias that exists towards World Cup performances. Paddy Power currently have Wesley Sneijder as the 6/5 favourite with the Spanish cohort of Iniesta, Xavi and Villa close behind. World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan and Holland’s outstanding winger Arjen Robben are also deemed to be in contention by the bookmakers. The only other man deemed in with a shout (at under 20/1) is the reigning champion Lionel Messi, and in my opinion he is the only candidate for the trophy this year.

Before we start we should note that along with the focus on the World Cup, the time periods considered by voters tend to be idiosyncratic. Although the award is nominally for the calendar year voters tend to look at the entire previous season (so in this case the whole of 2009-10) as well as any outstanding performers in the start of this year. This makes the period under consideration effectively 15 months, with the first three of a season being counted in two periods. As such when considering the statistical performance of players I will look at their record in the whole of 2009/10 and also the opening months of the new season.

To look first then at the current favourite, Inter’s playmaker, Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder’s candidacy is obvious, not only did he finish as joint top goalscorer with five at the World Cup he also proved instrumental in Inter’s Champions League triumph. The Sneijder bandwagon started with Inter’s victory over Chelsea in the second round of their European Campaign. It was Sneijder’s through ball to Samuel Eto’o which led to Inter killing off the game, but while his influence was to the fore in both legs it was surely Lucio and Walter Samuel’s shackling of Didier Drogba which proved crucial in the victory (as well as  referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez’s liberal attitude towards contact in the penalty area). In the quarter-final Sneijder again proved his worth against CSKA Moscow with a low free kick which secured a 2-0 aggregate victory, but once more the defence was vital in shutting out their Russian opponents.

Perhaps Sneijder’s most significant club performance of the season came in the semi-final against Barcelona. Certainly he took his goal well, but it was put on a plate for him by the industrious Diego Milito, as was Maicon’s goal in the second half. His “assist” for Milito’s crucial third goal, was in reality a misguided header which only the predatory instincts of Milito turned into a great chance. In the second leg Inter displayed the efficacy of teamwork and the difficulty that any top team (even Barcelona) face in breaking down a well-drilled defence happy to play with limited ambition. In the final his inch-perfect pass allowed Milito to put Inter into the lead, however when Milito returned the favour minute later Sneijder could only fire a tame shot at Hans-Jorg Butt. Finally it was Milito who applied the coup de grace with his neat footwork and fine finish to put the result beyond doubt.

Undeniably Sneijder played a huge role in Inter’s Champions League success, but he was only one part of a well oiled machine. Inter were fortunate to have a whole team that worked in sync to defeat. Julio Cesar produced some tremendous saves during the run, Samuel and Lucio were at their uncompromising best, Maicon and Zanetti could rampage down the flanks, Cambiasso and Motta provided an excellent shield for the defence, Eto’o and Pandev worked tirelessly for the cause and Diego Milito was there to finish things off. To pick out a single player (and to ignore the influence of Jose Mourinho in setting the team up) would be to ignore the collectivism that was the true cause of Inter’s success.

Of course, the game cannot be judged in numbers alone (if it was we could simply count the goals and assists of each player and come up with Ballon D’Or winner easily), but it is worth looking at the statistics to judge the influence of Sneijder on Inter across the season in club football. Sneijder made 26 appearances for Inter in Serie A last term, scoring four goals and providing six assists. In the Champions League he made 11 appearances, scoring three and making six goals. In comparison Milito played 35 times en route to Inter’s Scudetto triumph, netting 22 times and providing four assists. In Europe he also appeared 11 times, and scored six goals with two assists.

Holland’s excellent performances at the World Cup were the other cause of Sneijder’s prominence in the list of likely contenders for the Ballon D’Or. With five goals in the tournament Sneijder ended as joint top scorer, and as such guaranteed that he would be in the reckoning. In considering performances at the World Cup, I think it is important to look at the actions in significant detail. Due to the (in my view) over importance attached to a seven game run in the context of a 60 game season, we have to look at these performances closely because the normal argument that blips even themselves out over the course of a season simply doesn’t apply to such a small population.

Sneijder’s tournament scoring started against Japan when Robin Van Persie’s miscontrol saw the ball break free to Sneijder on the edge of the box. While his crisp strike was certainly hit with venom, it was a soft goal for the Japanese to give away. Kawashima actually dived past the ball as he let it in and in normal circumstances it should have been a routine save. Against Slovakia Sneijder did play well, with a fine pass to release Robben and a clean finish of his own to wrap the game up. It was in the quarter-final against Brazil though that Sneijder really boosted his claims to recognition. Holland went into the game as underdogs, despite their perfect record in the tournament so far (not to mention an excellent qualification campaign), but managed to come back from a goal down to shock the Brazilian and progress to the semi-finals. Sneijder’s two goals in the game marked him out as Holland’s star man, but in reality each was the result of major errors in the Brazilian defence. His first was a hopeful cross into the box which Felipe Melo and Juilo Cesar conspired to allow in the net, the second an instinctive header which the Brazilians allowed to an unmarked man of 5’7 inside the six yard box. Certainly Sneijder was clever to take it, but the Brazilians were the architects of their own downfall in the game with Felipe Melo especially culpable.

In the game against Uruguay Sneijder was especially fortunate to find his name on the score sheet. His shot appeared to be going wide, before taking a deflection off Walter Gargano and then going under the legs of Van Persie who had been stood in a marginally offside position. The final saw Holland’s run come to an abrupt end, but Sneijder did come close to playing a crucial role when his pass allowed Arjen Robben to run in on goal only to fluff his lines at the crucial moment. That miss might just have cost Holland the cup. So, of Sneijder’s five goals scored in the tournament, two took crucial deflections, one was a major goalkeeping error and two were well taken. It knocks some of the lustre of his joint top goalscorer accolade.

In summary, Sneijder has had a superb year in 2010, however it is just not as good as is often being made out. He was one of many crucial players for Inter in their run to a magnificent treble, and in fairness to him his influence is perhaps not adequately reflected in his statistics (especially in Serie A). However, on national duty he is flattered by his goal tally and his performances in no way merited his receipt of the Bronze Ball in the tournament.

Next, to the Spanish trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Villa. With Spain’s victory in the World Cup the likelihood that one Spaniard would lift the Ballon D’Or raised significantly. As the scorer of the only goal in the final Andres Iniesta was catapulted to the top of the list (at least with the bookmakers) for the year end awards. He is though surely not a serious candidate. In the last two years the cult of Iniesta has taken hold among many observers, but the Ballon D’Or is a leap far too far.

For all his artistry, and Iniesta does possess a sublime first touch and dazzling footwork, he just does not deliver enough. Last season he only managed to start 20 games in the league (making nine substitute appearances) and mustered a single goal to add to his five assists. For a midfielder of his supposed level that is a criminally poor level of output. In the Champions League he featured on nine occasions and did not supply a goal or an assist. Unquestionably this fails to take account of the way that Iniesta links play in midfield, of his dribbling ability that shifts defences around or of the number of passes he makes which lead indirectly to goals. But none of that makes up for his lack of personal contribution. While he took his goals well in the group game against Chile and in the final against Holland, his overall performances were not earth shattering. He certainly played his part in the relentless passing machine that is the Spanish midfield, but so did Sergio Busquets and nobody has put him forward as a candidate. His neat footwork helped to undo both the Paraguayan and Portuguese defences at crucial moments, but his club form was not on the level needed of the supposed best player in the world. In short, if Iniesta did triumph in the Ballon D’Or it would be the least deserved recipient in history.

Many struggle to separate Iniesta from his partner in crime Xavi. Certainly the diminutive pair share similarities, composure on the ball and the precision of their passing foremost among them, but their contributions in the last year have been markedly different. While Xavi, like Iniesta, suffers from the fact that numbers cannot do justice to his overall impact his was a far more tangible contribution last season.
Xavi’s greatest strength remains his ability to retain possession and by doing so to push and pull defences until an opening (however small) might present itself. For a player to make more than 100 passes in a game is an astonishing milestone, for Xavi that is a common occurrence. At the World Cup Xavi led the way yet again with his passing. He completed more passes than any other player and averaged over 95 passes attempted a game. It was this control of possession that acted as Spain’s greatest defensive asset. Even teams (like Germany) whose gameplan was based on the counter-attack struggled against Spain because they just couldn’t get the ball, and by the time they did they were too tired to do anything with it.

So to try and judge Xavi purely on his output is not enough, but there are a couple of notable figures which may help our analysis. Xavi led La Liga last season in assists with 14, and also made three goals in the Champions League. In the World Cup though he was only directly responsible for a single goal, his pass to David Villa against Portugal was a sublime flick of his boot, but it did not represent an adequate return on the levels of possession that Xavi enjoyed. Admittedly, almost all defences held a very deep line against Spain, content to let them pass the ball interminably with a lack of penetration, but Spain surely would have expected more goalscoring chances to have been created.  

David Villa’s contribution to Spain’s success in South Africa was obvious. The team only scored eight goals in their seven games, and Villa netted five of them. Their reliance on his predatory instincts was tremendous, and indeed in the early stages their tactic appeared to be to pass the ball until Villa got a chance and then expect to keep a clean sheet. His first goal against Honduras in particular, a slaloming run followed by a sliding finish into the top corner, will live long as one of the highlights of an uninspiring tournament. There was a tremendous economy of his goals, only his second against Honduras was not responsible for a victory. If there was a fault to be found in his play at the World Cup it was the drop off in his productivity past the quarter-finals. The much maligned Fernando Torres (who was extremely poor in fairness) did his best work as a central foil, allowing Villa to cut in from the left. Once Torres was withdrawn and Villa was asked to occupy a central role, he found goals far harder to come by.

In club football Villa’s performances need to be put in context. Compared to his previous season where he hit 28 in the league, or his first season at Valencia where he scored 25, a return of 21 league goals was a disappointment. However, given the financial difficulties facing Valencia and the importance that those goals played in lifting Los Che into third place (admittedly miles behind both Barca and Real Madrid) not a great deal more might have been expected. In light of the fact that Messi scored 34 league goals can a pure finisher like Villa really expect the Ballon D’Or with just 21? His claim is far stronger than that of Iniesta, but there is a more deserving candidate than David Villa.

As the winner of the Golden Ball at the World Cup, Diego Forlan must have a strong claim. Forlan’s performances in South Africa (along with Luis Suarez’s goalkeeping abilities) played a huge part in Uruguay’s dramatic progress to the semi-final. With a brace against South Africa, as well as goals in the quarter-final, semi-final and third place play-off Forlan finished the competition as joint top scorer. Furthermore the range of Forlan’s goals placed him among the star performers in the competition. However, as with Sneijder we need to look behind the raw numbers at the goals themselves. Forlan got off the mark with an audacious strike from 30 yards out, but the ball took a wicked deflection off Mokoena leaving Khune in the South African net flat footed. His second in the game was a penalty. Against both Ghana and Holland, the venom in Forlan’s long range blasts was considerable but in both cases the ball was largely straight down the middle of the goal and it was only late swerve that deceived the keepers. Both were great strikes, but there would have been few on the receiving end who would not have hoped for more from their goalkeepers. Forlan’s goal against Germany, named the goal of the tournament, was beyond reproach as he steered his volley powerfully into the net. Forlan’s tournament was a fine one, but he has his elements of luck along the way.

For Atletico Madrid Forlan’s form was mixed. In light of his incredible 32 goals in La Liga the previous season, a return of just 18 was a let down. The decline in output of Forlan (along with the fifth leakiest defence in the league) saw Atletico finish a lowly ninth, a staggering 52 points behind champions Barca (Atleti finished with just 47 points themselves). Where Forlan did come alive last season was in the Europa League, particularly the latter stages. The Uruguayan hit a goal against.Valencia in the quarter-final, and the followed it with an injury time winner against Liverpool in the semi, and a pair in the final against Fulham. Certainly impressive stuff, but putting the calibre of opposition to one side (neither Fulham nor Liverpool could even manage a top six finish in England last year) we must realise that the Europa League remains a second-tier competition. Forlan’s goals were vital to Atletico’s success, but their presence in the competition only came about by their failure in the Champions League. Is that really the basis for a Ballon D’Or winner?

Arjen Robben is another who, like Diego Forlan, performed well on multiple stages. With his club, Bayern Munich, Robben completed the domestic double and was crucial in their road to victory. Featuring in 24 league games, Robben scored a startling 16 goals and provided seven assists, a fine return for a right winger. In the Champions League Robben’s performances were equally crucial. His astonishing goal against Fiorentina in the second-leg of their tie, a mazy dribble before unleashing a thunderous drive, not only sealed the victory it must also rank among the goals of the year. Equally his volleyed winner against Manchester United in the quarter-finals was a stunning display of the quality of his technique. To show these efforts were no flukes, Robben repeated the trick with another wonder strike against Lyon at the semi-final stage, giving the diving Hugo Lloris no chance.

At the World Cup Robben missed the early stages through injury, but his return in place of the impressive Eljero Elia made Holland even stronger. Robben’s goal against Slovakia in the first round was virtually a carbon copy of his strike against Lyon, cutting inside defenders from the right and driving a low effort into the bottom corner. In the semi-final against Uruguay Robben showed his versatility with a rare header to help the Oranje into the final. However, in the most important game of all the flying Dutchman squandered a golden opportunity when one on one with Casillas to put Holland into a crucial lead. To discount Robben for the major awards on the basis of that miss alone would be churlish, but his absence in that game as well as a low key Champions League final weaken his case for victory. The most notable problem for Robben is that he was only able to start 18 games in the league last season, while he was restricted in the World Cup to four. When he did play he was excellent, but so too were a number of players who got to play a lot more games and so showed more than the periodic bursts of brilliance that the Dutchman displayed.

In analysing this I have excluded the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba, both of whom enjoyed stellar club season but who look set to be passed over for recognition in favour of the World Cup stars. Equally many defensive players such as Puyol and Maicon, who performed well both for their clubs and their country, will miss out due to the longstanding preference for midfielders and attackers. Diego Milito, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Frank Lampard, Lucio and Gerard Pique all failed to even be nominated.  On the balance of the entire year all these players are more worthy candidates than Iniesta, but the bias is sure to prevail.

So that just leaves Lionel Messi. If this had been a non World Cup year Messi would have been a sure fire winner. To start by getting the statistics out of the way, he scored 34 goals in 35 games in the league and eight in 11 in the Champions League. The only player to provide more assists in the league was Xavi, and sadly for Messi he doesn’t have a Messi of his own to pass to. Those numbers are staggering. The last player to hit 34 goals in the league in Spain was Ronaldo in 1996-7, his first season at Barcelona, and widely considered to have been one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. Yet Messi isn’t even a striker.
Messi’s consistent brilliance last season ranks up there with the best in the history of the game, he was that good. Particular moments stand out as special memories. Successive league hat-tricks against Real Zaragoza and Valencia (with a brace against Stuttgart sandwiched in between) will live long in the minds of those who witnessed them. Arguably his finest hour though was a single-handed demolition of Arsenal at the Camp Nou in which Messi netted four times. Decisively that game was immediately followed by a victory in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid that in effect won the title for Barca, and which saw Messi yet again on the scoresheet.

Of course the doubters will point out Barca’s failure to break down Inter and eventual elimination from the Champions League as proof that the boy is not infallible. That is true of course, but no player is. Even the greatest players had their failures. Had Bojan been able to convert the header that Messi supplied on a plate in the second-leg, had Julio Cesar not made a finger-tip save from Messi’s curling shot, had a number of things have gone Barca’s way they might well have found themselves as champions yet again. Certainly Messi has difficulties in breaking down defences who are willing to sit with a flat back six and three screening players in front (as Inter did at the Camp Nou), but that simply displays the difficulties faced by any great attack in facing an equally great defence.

In addition there will be those who point out Messi’s failure to score at the World Cup. That though fails to take into account the position that Maradona asked Messi to take up, as a central playmaker. It also ignores the superhuman efforts of Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama who kept Messi at bay with a string of supreme saves. It certainly doesn’t recognise his overall contribution to the team or the fact Messi as well was named to the team of the tournament for his fine displays.

The season that Messi has just enjoyed is the sort that comes along very rarely, even for the very greatest players and as such we should treasure it. Surely Messi’s performances trump those of all his rivals, for the tremendous consistency he has reached as well as the singular brilliance of his efforts. Messi may have been the top scorer in both league and European play last season, but it was the genius of his play that most delighted spectators. Regardless of whether he found the net or not, fans could be sure that Messi would illuminate the game with a moment of magic, whether it be a pass, a trick or of course is incomparable dribbling ability. It is this combination aesthetic pleasure with brutal efficiency that marks out Messi as head and shoulders above his rivals, and as such he is the only genuine candidate for the accolade of the world’s best player. 

This piece first appeared on BigSoccer in 2010.

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