Lionel Messi: Deserving of Player of the Year Honors?

Guest Article by EastCoastBias. 

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.

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5 Responses to Lionel Messi: Deserving of Player of the Year Honors?

  1. Sam says:

    I like Messi

  2. pakastallion says:

    Bravo. “Thoroughly enjoyed the nate.” Glad you resisted the urge to jump on the Messi bandwagon. While I am a big fan of the guy, I was surprised by his lack of production during the World Cup. Your numbers and line of reasoning make a compelling case for Wesley Sneijder. It would have been nice to see him get more coverage and hype this past year.

    In other news, it is high time you concede that, TODAY, LeBron James is a better basketball player than Kobe “I drop 82 points like whoa” Bryant. Im not saying who you’d rather have on your team with three seconds left… just saying, you are a GM you have one pick — who ya got?!

  3. The Unknown Sports says:

    Eastcoastbias, well done on the article. As a self professed messi fan, I found your argument to be good, however I have two main points:

    1. The award of World Player of the Year is an individual award and not a team award (obviously). So although Sneijder won the Treble, it was also due to Mourinho’s genius, Eto’o’s control of the front, and a solid defense that allowed them to win each award (in addition to Sneijder’s magic in the midfield).

    From an individual standpoint, statistics point towards another player that I would place above that of Sneijder AND Messi: Xavi Hernandez. Most people are just starting to create the fan fair for Xavi (although La Liga has been saying it for ages), but lets just look at the numbers. For 2009/2010, Wesley Sneijder averaged 484 minutes per goal with a 42% shooting accuracy. That is very impressive for a midfeilder who does not cherry pick for shots (see most forwards). However, Xavi averaged 432 minutes per goal with a 63% shooting accuracy! That is nearly an hour quicker than Sneijder! Yet, these are stats more associated with shooters. To better analyze the midfeild, we turn to passing stats. For 2009/2010, Sneijder had 70 touches per game and a pass complete rate of 83%. Xavi had a near identical pass completion rate of 82%, but has a staggering 108 touches per game! The man controls the team in each of the games he plays in (even on his off day!).

    Both players had fantastic years, but at the end of the day (for this particular accolade) Xavi Hernandez was the best player in 2010.

    2. In respect to world cup play, I would not take away from Messi’s prowess due to his lack of international production. Most soccer teams are dominant due to their midfield control and possession, which Argentina does not hold. Although they have many superstars, each of the stars are nearly all upfront. Sniejder had Klose (who showed up to play even in his old age) and Xavi had Villa (and perhaps Torres). So although Messi has not ‘shown up’ on the international stage, he should not be down played. Additionally, like you mentioned, he is still relatively young (and hopefully does not burn out like so many before…aka Ronaldinho). We still do not know how he/Argeninta will perform during his years with the team.

    I look forward to more of your articles.

    Stats:
    http://strikerno9.blogspot.com/2010/07/evolution-of-wesley-sneijder-statistics.html

    http://communities.sportsnet.ca/message/811103;jsessionid=SGGcNrRPjsQDV7zVVvmSKMlTnjBJhl1PMWH9yXtx1MLG0qjZJL4Y!1283582281

  4. Cristiano Ronaldo's Tub of Hair Gel says:

    This article fails to mention how only I have been able to revolutionize the playing field by rocking man purses, thigh high shorts, and pastel pink polos all while rolling with escorts. Can little lionel or the pint sized dutchman do that?

    I am outraged.

  5. Jay H. says:

    A quick correction. You say that Inter-Milan won an “unprecedented” 3 trophies at the country and international level. In other words they won the “Treble.” The Treble is when a club wins the top league in their country, the top tournament in the country (the FA Cup in England, the Copa del Rey in Spain, the Coppa Italia in Italy), and the Champion’s League.

    Yes, Inter did win the Treble last year. However, this wasn’t the first time it has happened. In fact, Barcelona won the Treble two years ago. Manchester United won it in 98-99. Ironically, if Bayern had defeated Inter in the Champion’s League final, they would have won the Treble last year. The same is also true for Man U the year Barcelona won the Treble (they lost in the final to Barca, denying them third 3rd trophy).

    Basically, I’m trying to add some perspective to Inter’s accomplishments. While winning 3 trophies is always impressive, it is far from unprecedented.

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