Before I get into the nitty and gritty of the beautiful game, I want to give a shout out to the boys of 2524 for letting me write an article on the blog. Wishing you guys the best of luck and looking forward to contributing more articles down the road.
2010 was a unique year in the world of futbol. The 2009-2010 season saw Inter-Milan dominate on both the domestic and European front, as they won an unprecedented three trophies. And as most of you are aware, the World Cup took center stage this summer and did not disappoint, as Spain emerged as victors for the first time.
Although futbol is a team sport (11 vs. 11), often times in the most important of matches, it is a moment of individual brilliance that wins the game. This year, for example, saw moments of individual brilliance win the years two biggest games: Wesley Sneijder’s deft pass to Diego Milito to seal Inter Milans victory over Bayern Munich and of course, Andres Iniestas World Cup clinching goal against Holland in extra-time. However, no player has shown more glimpses of individual brilliance over the past three seasons then Barcelona and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Last week, Messi was named World Player of the Year for the second consecutive year.
Messi has the ability to go out as the best that ever played, and his 2009-2010 performance which saw him beat the goalie 47 times and assist 11 other goals was remarkable, as he helped Barcelona defend their La Liga crown. However, in my opinion, Fifa and the soccer community got it wrong when they awarded Messi with this award. One player deserved it more than Messi during the 2009-2010 campaign: Wesley Sneijder. It’s a pity that Fifa did not even consider Sneijder a finalist for the award.
Sneijder was the heart and soul of the World’s best club team, Inter Milan. He was picked up during the summer of 2009 by then Inter Milan coach, Jose Mourinho. Sneijder was released by Real Madrid, as they made room for the influx of stars that they had coming in (Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Xabi Alonso). At Inter, Mourinho employed Sneijder as an attacking midfielder directly behind the strikers, and Sneijder did not disappoint. He scored 41 goals in all competitions and had over 20 assists. Although his stats are comparable to Messi’s, Sneijder’s performance in the big games is what gives him the edge.
In the Champions League semi-final, Sneijder’s Inter faced Messi’s Barca, who were favorites to win the trophy for a second consecutive year, yet it was Sneijder’s Inter that prevailed over the course of two legs, thanks to an exquisite game plan by Mourinho and nearly flawless execution by his squad. Sneijder scored an equalizing, first goal in the first leg and was instrumental in setting up Inter’s second and third goals, as Inter went on to win the game 3-1.
Messi, on the other hand, did much of nothing over the two semi-final legs. He was barely able to get any time on the ball, and the few times that he did get the ball at his feet, he was quickly tracked down by an army of Inter Milan players. He did not play a role in either of Barcelona’s two goals, and he spent much of the semi-final isolated on either of the two wings. One would think that the heir apparent to Diego Maradona and the best player of his generation would surely be able to garner up some magic and will his team to victory. Yet, Mourinho’s game plan was not designed to stop Messi only, but it was designed to disrupt Barcelona’s entire system, their foundation of short passes that lead up to one magical through ball.
And for those you have discussed this topic with me before know that this is my biggest bone to pick with Messi. For all of his greatness and individual abilities, he is a product of the Barcelona system. Messi has had the fortune of playing with arguably the best midfield combination in generations, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Xavi Hernandez is a diminutive, midfield maestro, who completes nearly 90% of his passes, and is credited with being the engine of both Barcelona and Spain. Iniesta is a chameleon, if you will, fully capable of playing up front or in the midfield. Together, the two of them are capable of stringing together passes and finding spaces that no other players in the world can. Messi is often times the beneficiary of this, as he receives the ball deep in the opponent’s end and finds him self one v. one with a bigger, slower defender. Who do you think is going to win in that battle?
Thus, when teams disrupt Xavi and Iniesta’s rhythm, Messi is left stranded, and his impact on the game is minimal. Take for example, in the 2009 Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, my beloved Blues successfully disrupted Barcelona’s rhythm for 183.5 minutes until Andres Iniesta broke Chelsea hearts with a class goal. (Note: SheilaKiJawani, if I hear you utter Iniesta one more time, I will cut out your vocal chords). Digressions aside, Messi did virtually nothing in both semi-final legs, and more importantly, proved to me that without Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona cannot function.
Now, dissenters will argue that I am just seeing one side of the argument and point out that Xavi and Iniesta are able to flourish because of the fear Messi instills in opposing teams. However, I firmly believe that when a team sets out to disrupt Barca’s midfield flow, Messi is not as effective. Only two teams have employed this strategy successfully (Chelsea and Inter Milan), and very few teams have the depth that both Chelsea and Inter possess. But it still puzzles me why teams try to play offensively against Barcelona, that simply put, is a death sentence.
For example, in the 2009 Champions League final, Manchester United tried to take the offensive against Barcelona, yet that left the Red Devils exposed at the back and gave Xavi and Iniesta precious time to pick out passes to both Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. Barcelona’s roster is offensively better than any other squad, and it’s not even close. So why try and beat Barca at its own game, when you know its not going to work.
Lastly, I think the biggest indicator that Messi is a beneficiary of the Barcelona’s system is examining how Messi performs with his national team, Argentina. With Argentina, Messi has the privilege of playing with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuain, and Angel Di Maria. Yet his production takes a sharp drop. During the 2010 World Cup, Messi scored zero goals, and in Argentina’s decisive game with Germany, Messi’s presence was ruthlessly minimized by the Germans, as they went on to embarrass Argentina.
Unlike Messi, Wesley Sneijder’s production did not drop off during the 2010 World Cup. One overlooked factor is that since Sneijder’s Inter team was so successful during the 2009-2010 season, Sneijder’s domestic season went well into May, giving him a little over a month to reenergize for the World’s biggest sporting event. Yet, Sneijder was still able to score five times and was named to the World Cup’s All-Star squad. More importantly, however, were the games in which Sneijder’s impact was most felt. In the quarterfinal against heavily favored Brazil, Sneijder scored both the Dutch’s equalizing and go-ahead goals. Subsequently, in the semi-final against Uruguay, Sneijder scored a decisive goal in Holland’s 3-2 victory over the South American team. Sneijder was also responsible for the through ball that gave Arjen Robben a chance to give Holland the lead in the World Cup final against Spain. Robben was, however, displaced of the ball by a questionable tackle at the hands of Carles Puyol.
To me, it is an absolute shame that Sneijder was not considered a finalist for the POY award. He was instrumental in leading his team to an unprecedented three trophies on the domestic front. En route to being champions of Europe, Sneijder led his team to victories over the champions of England (Chelsea), the champions of Spain (Barcelona), and the champions of Germany (Bayern Munich). What more does a guy have to do to get some love?
The world and more importantly, Fifa, continue to buy into the Messi hype. Don’t get me wrong, he is a fantastic player, but he is not as valuable to Barcelona as Xavi and the gap between him and Cristiano Ronaldo is not as far the media make it out to be. The so-called best player of his generation should be able to perform for both club and country. It’s a shame to players like Zidane and Ronaldo that Messi receives so much attention, when all they did was revolutionize the game on the World’s grandest stage. Messi has time on his side, as he is only one year older than me, and will be given at least two more opportunities to try and lead Argentina to World Cup glory. Moreover, as Xavi and Iniesta increase in years and decrease in ability, it will be interesting to see if Messi’s production for Barcelona takes a toll.
Messi has years to cement his legacy as the best of his generation, but Sneijder, not Messi, was the best of 2010.