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Virgil van Dijk had a great year, but one individual shone more than others: Lionel Messi

The sixth Ballon d’Or is deserved even if his team did not win European glory

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When it comes to the Ballon d’Or, there seems to be, essentially, three theories people have to decide the winner. The first is to see which player placed high in several competitions for both club and country. The second theory looks at the team who won the most important competition and chooses the best player on that team as the one who deserves the Ballon d’Or. Finally, the last theory looks at individuals only, and asks, as an individual, which player was truly the best, regardless of what his team won or not?

Of course, all people use a bit of each argument each year, but those are the basic theories of the Ballon d’Or.

The first theory explains why Luka Modrić won last year, when he won the Champions League and placed second in the FIFA World Cup. It also explains how Riyad Mahrez placed #10 in the voting this year despite being Manchester City’s sixth best scorer last season. He won the Africa Cup of Nations with Algeria and also the Premier League. It’s also, I think, why so many people insist Wesley Sneijder should have won the 2010 edition. He was second in the World Cup and won the treble with Inter Milan. It also explains why many voted for Alisson to win it. Sure, he wasn’t Liverpool or Brazil’s best player, but he was a part of both teams that won the Champions League and Copa América. Or indeed why Ronaldo placed third this year, thanks in no small part to a Nations Cup. He had a pretty standard club season and didn’t get far in the Champions League, but he did win Serie A, for whatever that is worth to Juventus these days.

The second theory is the one under which Virgil van Dijk would succeed. It’s quite simple, the biggest competition is the Champions League, Liverpool won it, and Van Dijk was their best player. Ergo, he should win the Ballon d’Or. It also explains why many thought Ronaldo should have won last year despite not having as deep of a run in the World Cup as Modrić - he was Real Madrid’s best player, or so they say, when they won the Champions League that year. Or why many wanted World Cup winner Manuel Neuer to win in 2014, or treble winner Franck Ribéry to win in 2013. Or indeed, why Antoine Griezmann may have felt disappointed not to win it after winning the World Cup with France last year.

The third and final theory is the one which gave Messi the victory. While he won La Liga, he didn’t reach either the Champions League or the Copa América final. He didn’t win the biggest competition of all in 2019. But guess what? Individually, he was the best player of the year. This, to me, is the theory that makes the most sense for a prize such as this. It’s fine that other people have other theories, but to me this is the most logical.

(As an aside, it also seems league competitions are being devalued. On the trophy front, Messi didn’t win the Champions League nor Copa América, but he did win La Liga. Van Dijk didn’t win his league. Surely that counts for something?)

Messi won the IFFHS Best Playmaker award and the European Golden Shoe for the best goalscorer in Europe. It’s fairly difficult to both be the best playmaker and best scorer in the same year, but well, Messi did it.

Barcelona melted down in the Champions League, but that was clearly not Messi’s fault. They got as far as they did mainly because Messi willed it that way. They were 3-0 up against Liverpool in large part due to two big goals from Messi. And it should have been more, with the Argentine setting up a couple of golden chances for his misfiring teammates. All in all, only Philippe Coutinho scored more than one Champions League knockout goal for Barcelona last season, apart from Messi, of course. That’s a shocking lack of support for the competition’s top scorer, who bagged 5 in the knockouts.

It’s hard to compare even an attacker to a slightly different mold of attacker, so comparing an attacker to a centerback is very hard. If you appreciate the skills a centerback uses more than an attacker, that’s subjective and I won’t change your mind, but consider this. If you give Van Dijk to Barcelona and Messi to Liverpool in exchange, would Barça win the Champions League? Would Liverpool fail to win it?

I don’t think so. Barcelona’s organizational problems would be ameliorated by Van DIjk, but I think he would find it hard to cope with players completely panicking or making stupid mistakes like Jordi Alba did in their game at Anfield. Meanwhile, he would have no way to supplant the goals Messi scored or created. Liverpool with Messi, on the other hand, would run rampant. Part of this, I think. is that defense is something a team does as a unit and attacking can be more about an individual. Of course, both sides require coordinated effort and individual brilliance, but defending tends towards the former and attacking towards the latter. You can see this especially in something like Messi’s free kick goal.

This is why teams - even defensive teams like Atlético Madrid or relegation scrappers - all spend most of their money on attacking talent. You can build a great defense through organization even if your defenders are not individually the best. On the other hand, you can’t have a great defense even with great individuals if they do not work well as a unit. Attackers do need help from their teams, but the effect is less marked. A brilliant attacker can make things happen on their own much more often than a brilliant defender.

Statistical analysis has shown that attackers are the players that add more points to your team, and therefore where you should prioritize spending money. This might seem unfair to a defender when talking about individual prizes, but it is the nature of the sport.

This isn’t to diminish Van Dijk, who was a brilliant part of an outstanding team. His ability as a defender is second to none at the moment, and he is even able to contribute in attack with headed goals. He was a more than worthy rival and lost by historically small margin, and had he won the award, it would have been thoroughly deserved.

In my opinion, however, Messi deserved it just a little bit more.

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