The Ballon d’Or, otherwise known as the European Footballer of the Year, nominees were announced on November 1st, with nobody surprised to find a list dominated by Barcelona players. No fewer than 8 Barcelona players were nominated, including Lionel Messi, the man who has won the award the previous two seasons.
The 23 players nominated are all masters of their own craft, from the lethal finishing of Samuel Etoo to the way in which Xavi conducts the orchestra that is the current Barcelona side.
However, one player in particular stands out, Lionel Messi. Widely acknowledged as currently the best player in the world, Messi is now being talked as one of if not the best players of all time. A player who can change a game in an instant, his contribution to Barcelona in recent seasons has been extraordinary.
Messi has already scored over 200 goals for the Catalan club, yet the player remains 8 months short of his 25th birthday. Messi will undoubtedly continue to break records throughout his career.
Yet, last week last year’s French Ligue 1 player of the year Eden Hazard stated that while Messi is undoubtedly the world’s best, he lacks the elegance that characterised two former Ballon d’Or winners, Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini.
Hazard was quoted as saying ‘One thing is clear; Messi is the best player around at the moment. However, in my opinion, he does not have the elegance that Zidane and Platini had.’
Hazard has been tipped to play for one of Europe’s top sides in years to come, with a style that has been compared to Messi himself. His comments posed the question, how important is style?
Some managers may see it as fundamental. Others may see it as insignificant in comparison to substance, in other words a player’s contribution in terms of goals and assists.
Now let’s be clear, Hazard is hardly criticising Messi, indeed, criticism of the man is nigh on impossible right now. Yet, clearly his style is markedly different to Zindedine Zidane and Michel Platini, two former players who were acknowledged as the world’s best at points in their career.
Messi is a joy to watch, his game is about pace, close control and off the ball movement and he draws comparisons to Diego Maradona for his low centre of gravity. Zidane and Platini were players who acted as the central point in a side, who would glide past players through power and deception rather than raw pace.
A few years back, Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy were considered to be two of the best strikers in the Premier League, perhaps the best. Yet, in style they were fundamentally different. Thierry Henry would score goals from everywhere, 20 yard curlers, 30 yard thunderbolts and goals where he would breeze past defenders as if they weren’t there before finishing exquisitely.
In comparison, Van Nistelrooy was almost famed for the percentage of goals he would score from close range. He was the prodigious poacher of his time, from the same school as Filippo Inzaghi or Javier Hernandez.
Van Nistelrooy was marginally more prolific, yet Henry received more plaudits domestically and internationally, likely due to him being a more enjoyable player to watch.
The argument can be carried over to the differing styles employed by teams. Some manager’s will look to build a solid defensive base and look for clean sheets. Think of Jose Mourinho’s sides while at Chelsea and Inter Milan. While other manager’s adopt a much more attacking approach, think Kevin Keegan with his Newcastle side, an ‘if you score 3, we’ll score 4’ attitude if you will or the current Barcelona side.
Style and substance is something that people will always disagree on. Some will accept seeing a player go past 5 on a brilliant run before missing the target, while others will crucify that player for not sliding the ball sideways to give his teammate a tap in.
It’s the same with the playing style of different teams, some people will accept seeing their side lose 4-3 away from home if they witness 90 minutes of entertainment, others would rather see their side involved in a drab 0-0 draw for the point it brings.
The joy of football is this disagreement, we will all have our favourite formations, playing styles and we will all have our favourite players. Messi is undoubtedly the world’s best, perhaps the best player ever. Yet, it is a good thing that the likes of Eden Hazard remember and prefer the elegance of Zidane and Platini.
After all, if everyone agreed the debate would soon fizzle out.
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