Some so-called experts are arguing that Lionel Messi has been far from his best this season. But is it really so? Is the player who was crowned the best player in the world as recently as in January of 2016 been in a state of decline?
In 46 appearances this season, Messi has scored 40 goals and provided 20 assists. Quite an impressive number for someone who is supposed to be out of form. His perfromances have meant that his team is on course for a domestic double. So why are so many fingers being pointed at La Pulga?
One of the reasons for the blame game is the recent shift in Messi's playing style. Two seasons ago he played as a 'False 9' centre forward. Last season, he was moved wide out to the right flank and, only a year later, he is usually back in the middle of the pitch albeit from a attacking midfielder angle. No other player in the world can boast of so much versatility and that is what makes Messi priceless.
Back in the day when Barça consisted of midfielders like Xavi Hernández and Cesc Fàbregas alongside Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, there was hardly any need for a forward to drop down to midfield to add some creativity. At the time, Messi was a goal-machine banging goals every other week. After breaking records for highest goals in a year and season, highest goal-scorer in a single season of La Liga and also a five-time Champions League top-scorer, the No.10 could in fact be easing off and living off his memories while cashing in his huge salary.
The young, fearless Messi would dart into the box with the ball glued to his feet, leaving spectators and players bewildered. Teams like Real Madrid, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao would remember how a young Messi tore through their defences before drilling the ball into the net and, more impressively, he seemed to do it without much effort.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. With time, a lot of players left. Xavi, although still a brilliant midfielder in his later days, wasn't capable of carrying the midfield on his shoulders.
Towards the end of Tata Martino's reign, glimpses of Messi bossing the midfield came to the fore. At times when the team was finding it difficult to break down stubborn defences, Messi would take up the mantle himself and try to exploit gaps and spaces. We were witnessing the birth of Messi the playmaker.
There simply isn't any midfielder who could replace Xavi. Ivan Rakitić who was bought for a paltry 18 million, but provides a different kind of service. A player with excellent offensive and defensive contribution, the Croatian soon became the engine of the Barça midfield. But nevertheless it was time for Messi to showcase his playmaking abilities.
With Neymar and Suárez leading the Barça frontline last season, Messi provided them a bulk load of assists, often delivering stunning diagonal balls for the duo to poke into the net. With a total of 58 goals, the No.10 was also among the top-scorers in Europe. Such a monumental influence was bound to lead into some silverware -- five trophies in a calendar year, to be more precise.
Such was Leo's dominance from the right wing that teams would surround him, trying to take him out of the game. It was easier said than done, however. League Champions like Manchester City, PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus found out to their dismay what a fully fit and hungry Messi looked like. Despite teams often parking the bus against the Blaugranas, Messi and co. managed to overcome any obstacles on the way to a historic year.
The current season began with a bang. Barca played well in the first few months, opening up a lead in the league table quite early on. Suárez and Neymar were playing the best football of their lives in the absence of Messi, who had been sidelined with a hamstring injury. When Messi eventually returned, Barça seemed to have become invincible and went on to register a 39-game unbeaten streak that would stretch for an impressive six months.
Messi welcomed 2016 by winning the Ballon d'Or and racking up goals and assists to quickly move up the goal scoring charts. Even now, Messi is the joint top scorer of the calendar year 2016 alongside Suárez with 28 goals and 15 assists. It is quite appalling that there are some who criticize and question the influence of the greatest player in the world.
In the match against Real Betis, Messi provided not one but two world-class assists -- one each to Rakitić and Suarez. The Uruguayan striker now leads the Pichichi race by four goals and is clear favourite to bag the trophy, but his success in directly linked to the No.10's support. Suarez might have been scoring goals for fun lately but without the little genius, Barça will still struggle to maintain the level of football that is preached in Catalonia today.
If we take Messi's creativity in context, no player has provided more assists in Europe in last 5-6 years. Be it through balls, dribbles, goals or even pre-assists, Messi tops them all. There hasn't been a player who is as dominating as Messi and yet due to his reserved nature, he still succeeds in staying away from the spotlight despite his status as the world's best player.
Who knows? The next Ballon d'Or may be awarded to not the "striker" or "winger" but the "midfielder" Messi. The little genius has been phenomenal over the years and, to his credit, keeps adapting to his new roles with relative ease -- getting better and better every time from an individual point of view and, most importantly, always putting Barca's interests first.