Lionel Messi's season for Barcelona helping secure 'best player ever' status
For years now, Lionel Messi has been considered one of the best footballers ever to play the game. Although comparing the Argentine genius to legends such as Diego Maradona, Pele or Johan Cruyff seemed outrageous at first, his impressive stats in terms of Ballon d'Ors won (five), collective titles conquered (26) and goals scored (439) at only 28 years of age prove that he truly deserves to be considered in such high-calibre company.
While Messi's innate skill is unquestionable, it is the way in which he has constantly adapted to his teammates and evolved into a much more complete player with time which is the most impressive.
Football experts generally agreed that Messi had reached his peak in 2012, when he found the net a jaw-dropping 91 times to beat Gerd Muller's previous record (85) of most goals scored in a calendar year. At the time, the diminutive No.10 was thriving in his role as a false striker and showcasing his lethal goal-scoring instinct week in, week out.
Being surrounded by teammates who constantly looked to him to solve difficult situations helped La Pulga break countless records at an individual level but, in clear contrast, Barcelona only managed to conquer the Copa del Rey title as a result. Rivals found it increasingly easy to predict the team's attacking movements and isolate Messi by piling up to three defenders around him, tackling aggressively and blocking his passing outlets.
The arrival of Gerardo Martino as manager in the summer of 2013 was meant to signal the rebirth of Messi, the decisive next step in his evolution under his compatriot's watchful eye. Disappointingly, the many tactical experiments introduced by the Argentine failed miserably and, what was even more worrying, were taking a toll on Messi's health. The constant muscular injuries suffered during Martino's tenure at the Camp Nou really made Cules fear their talisman player might never be able to reach his former level of influence again.
Fortunately for the No.10, the Barca board sacked the uninspiring Martino after just one season and appointed former captain Luis Enrique as his replacement. Although the Asturian's more methodical approach and stern personality did not necessarily please Messi at first, the superb results the team have achieved since his arrival speak for themselves.
Love him or hate him, nobody can deny that Luis Enrique's exceptional leadership behind the scenes is the reason why Messi hasn't just returned to his best, but reached new heights in the last 18 months. No longer tied to zonal restrictions as a central striker, he is now excelling as a right winger free to roam around the team's final third, and Messi has never been more influential or seemed to be enjoying his football as much.
Undoubtedly, the extraordinary progression of Neymar and impact of Luis Suarez have been decisive factors in the No.10's progression. Having another two world-class stars to worry about forces opponents' back lines to spread over a far larger area, which inevitably creates more spaces for the Argentine wizard to exploit. Being surrounded by more influential attacking teammates, rather than hindering Leo's progression, has made him an even stronger leader on and off the pitch.
Despite having already been sidelined for two months due to injury this season, Messi has been the most decisive player for the Camp Nou giants so far. While his return of 27 goals in 30 matches are behind Suarez's 40 in 39, nobody can deny that the Uruguayan's stats in front of goal would not be so impressive without Messi's generosity and ability to attract defenders.
Having scored 14 goals in his last 11 matches, including his record-breaking 300th goal in La Liga, it is obvious that Messi continues to be as ambitious as ever. Although his apparent desire to help Suarez increase his personal stats has been made clearer in recent weeks, it is reassuring to see that his own goal-scoring hunger remains intact despite having already provided a remarkable 13 assists this season.
While the five-time Ballon d'Or winner has lead Barca's attack for over a decade, it would be fair to say that he has become even more involved in the Catalans' build-up play this year. The 75 passes he attempted in the 3-1 victory over Sporting Gijon in midweek clearly exemplify that his area of influence is no longer limited to the final metres, but spread all over the park in an attempt to get his teammates involved on a far more regular basis, keeping rivals chasing shadows as a result.
Although Messi's desire to enjoy every minute of football in every competition his team takes part in is as strong as ever, his more mature approach and a far better understanding of his own body helps him decide whether to dig even deeper or just accept a rest is needed. In moments in which he might have previously felt the need to risk a potential injury, the 28-year-old is now more willing to listen to his manager's advice, even if he doesn't fully agree with the decision himself.
Barca's historic treble last season was definitely due in large part to Messi's priceless influence, endless hunger and increased maturity. Having lead the Blaugranas to a record 31-match unbeaten run since last October, he could now very well be the driving force to lead his team to domestic and continental glory once again.
While it is clear that the debate about who should top the list of the world's best-ever footballer will continue for years to come, at least football lovers around the planet will agree that what the boy from Rosario went on to achieve is truly special.