Talent vs trophies: What matters more when analysing football greatness?

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Robert Lewandowski Lionel Messi Kevin De Bruyne GFX
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With the Goal 50 Fan Vote now under way, we tackle the dilemma facing our readers as they try to determine the best player of the 2019-20 season

Gary Lineker once pointed out that if football's individual prizes were just about naming the best player in the world, Lionel Messi would win every year.

The Goal 50, though, is obviously about selecting the premier footballer on the planet based on their performances during the previous season.

It's never an easy choice, as there is an innate, contradictory element involved in selecting the best individual in what remains unequivocally and fundamentally a team sport.

Goal 50

Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the game's two undisputed superstars but they are always the first to thank their team-mates whenever they take to the stage to accept a shiny new trophy.

However, there's a further complication when it comes to picking the most deserving winner of an annual award.

After completing the easier task of identifying players who have performed with the requisite level of consistent quality to warrant a nomination, one must then decide how much weight to attach to the success of their respective teams.

Is there more merit in being the most important cog in a winning machine – or the only outstanding performer in a struggling side?

This is the question facing not only the selected representatives from our 44 editions across the globe casting their votes in the Goal 50 – but also you, the readers, with the inaugural Goal 50 fan vote having got under way on Tuesday.

The talent-versus-titles dilemma is particularly relevant this year.

Ronaldo and Messi have dominated the Goal 50, winning nine of the previous 12 editions (for those of you who like to keep count, it's presently 5-4 to the Portuguese). However, will either prevail this year?

After all, neither managed to get their hands on the Champions League – which is usually a prerequisite for Goal 50 glory. In all but two editions since the award's inception in 2008, the recipient has been a European Cup winner.

Ronaldo and Messi are obviously the exceptions to the rule.

Ronaldo triumphed in 2012, after firing Real Madrid to the Liga title, but he was undoubtedly aided greatly by the fact that a limited and defensively minded Chelsea side upset Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.

The Blues' highest-ranked player in the Goal 50 that year was an attacker, Didier Drogba, but his inclusion owed much to his decisive contributions at the Allianz Arena – a late equaliser and the winning penalty – and the modern trend of voters favouring forwards over defenders.

Messi matched Ronaldo's feat in 2013. Even though Bayern battered Barcelona on their way to a historic treble, the Argentine was voted the world's best because of his ridiculous record of 60 goals in just 50 games in all competition.

The game's greatest soloist belatedly got one over the game's greatest group, so could history be about to repeat itself?

Bayern humiliated Barcelona on their way to winning last season's Champions League yet Messi is a strong contender for this year's Goal 2020.

In a bizarre way, one could argue that the Blaugrana's embarrassing 8-2 loss in Lisbon actually underlined Messi's greatness. The full scale of the chaos at Camp Nou has been exposed in 2020, making Barca's Liga title challenge, progression to the last 16 of the Champions League and Messi's continued excellence all look miraculous.

As well as winning a historic seventh Pichichi, the diminutive No.10 also broke Xavi's record for assists across a single Liga season (21).

Messi’s detractors, though, will say that he didn't get his hands on a major trophy, whereas Ronaldo did, after firing Juventus to a ninth consecutive Scudetto with 31 goals in 33 games.

Of course, 'Mr. Champions League' was bought to end the Old Lady's wait for a first European Cup since 1996 and the Bianconeri suffered an abysmal exit of their own, losing to Lyon in the last 16.

Ronaldo did what he could, as usual, scoring both goals in the second leg in Turin, but the 35-year-old's Goal 50 case is undoubtedly undermined by the fact that he didn't even make it to Lisbon for the Champions League knockout stage.

Even if he had, though, it’s hard to imagine that his remarkable propensity for rising to the occasion would have stopped Bayern from beating all put before them.

The Bavarians were undeniably the best team in the competition – they won every single game – but who was their best player? If the Goal 50 should go to a Champions League winner, which Bayern player deserves to finish top of the pile?

Bayern Munich Champions League 2019-20 GFX

After a couple of tough seasons, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer enjoyed a near-flawless campaign which culminated in a stunning shut-out of Paris Saint-Germain in the final.

Thomas Muller also rubbished all reports of his demise by playing a pivotal role in Bayern's treble triumph. Indeed, only Messi managed as many assists (25) in all competitions in 2019-20.

Alphonso Davies proved a revelation at left-back and provided arguably the social media moment of the season – his outrageous assist against Barcelona – and while Serge Gnabry's journey to the top has taken a tad longer, the former West Brom winger established himself as a genuine star with stunning displays against Tottenham and Lyon.

The classy Thiago Alcantara, now of Liverpool, was truly a joy to behold in midfield alongside Joshua Kimmich, who, despite occupying a variety of defensive roles across the campaign, created more chances (28) than any other player in the 2019-20 Champions League.

However, the undoubted star of Bayern's season was striker Robert Lewandowski, who hit 55 goals in just 47 outings in all competitions.

Those are the kind of numbers that only Messi and Ronaldo have ever previously posted and it’s also worth pointing out that the prolific Pole also ranked joint-second for assists in the Champions League (five), illustrating his all-round excellence at the age of 32.

Robert Lewandowski Bayern Munich Top Scorers 2019-20 GFX

Lewandowski only failed to score in one Champions League game – the final – and he maybe lacked one defining, decisive moment in Lisbon to cap a truly extraordinary year for him personally.

In addition, for all Lewandowski's undeniable brilliance, it was Bayern's overall strength which propelled them to glory and separated them from nearly every other side in the competition.

PSG pushed them all the way in the final and superstar duo Neymar and Kylian Mbappe did all they could to deliver the French club a first European Cup. In saying that, though, Marquinhos was arguably the Parisians’ key man in the knockout stage, while Angel di Maria – the Champions League’s top assist-maker, with six – was probably their most reliable performer throughout the season.

And besides, Thomas Tuchel’s clearly imbalanced squad – the lack of a prolific No.9 ultimately proved their undoing in the final – were lucky to avoid any of the European game’s traditional heavyweights in the last 16, quarters and semis.

PSG had been expected to run into the reigning champions, of course. Indeed, Liverpool looked destined to make a third consecutive final but they suffered a sensational extra-time collapse against Atletico Madrid in the last 16 when they perhaps paid the price for their relentless pursuit of a first English title in 30 years.

Jurgen Klopp's side eventually made history, breaking a number of records along the way, and there will doubtless be plenty of Goal 50 votes for star forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, captain Jordan Henderson, swashbuckling full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent-Alexander Arnold, goalkeeper Alisson, and last year's winner, Virgil van Dijk.

Like Bayern’s best players, Liverpool’s key men have the trophies to support their Goal 50 candidacies.

But what about those that didn’t claim silverware? What about Atalanta, for example?

Gian Piero Gasperini's side didn't win a trophy but they were arguably the story of 2019-20: a side with one of the smallest budgets in Serie A which came within a few minutes of eliminating super-rich PSG in the Champions League quarter-finals.

And this, after Bergamo had been devastated by the coronavirus. Atalanta were a people’s champions, the best pound-for-pound team in the world.

They didn't just play with passion either; they thrilled fans across the continent with their exhilarating brand of attacking football, with their mix of industry and innovation perfectly personified by captain Papu Gomez.

The Argentine deserves Goal 50 recognition for the first time in his career but his chances could well be hindered by the fact that his success is so intertwined with that his of his team.

For some, it would feel strange to single out one player from what is a triumph of the collective, a thrilling example of what can be achieved when a president, a coach and a squad are all working in perfect harmony.

There's also the fact that Gomez simply doesn't boast the same high profile as many of his peers – which is crucial in the era of social media, when votes often become more about popularity than performances.  

Indeed, it was telling that the Atalanta attacker didn't even land Serie A's MVP award last season, despite racking up more assists than any other player (16) and leading his club to a record points haul and a third-place finish.  

Lionel Messi Barcelona Top Assists 2019-20 GFX

The accolade instead went to Paulo Dybala, who was involved in far fewer goals than Gomez (17 to 23) and only started 25 games. It was quite clear that the voters felt compelled to give the prize to a player from the champions, Juventus, rather than someone like Papu, or even Romelu Lukaku, who broke Ronaldo's record for the most goals in a debut season for an Inter player.

There is an argument to be made for such thinking, of course, but it certainly shouldn't be the determining factor.

After all, Kevin De Bruyne is an obvious contender for the 2020 Goal 50 – despite the fact that the Belgian attacking midfielder only won the League Cup.

Manchester City actually had an underwhelming campaign, the most expensively assembled side in football history finishing a distant second to Liverpool in the Premier League before being dumped out of Europe at the quarter-final stage again.

 

De Bruyne, though, was brilliant from start to finish, with his consistency a beautiful anomaly in Pep Guardiola's talent-filled but wildly erratic team.

Consequently, there were few complaints – even from Liverpool fans – when De Bruyne was voted Player of the Year by his peers. The Reds had been the Premier League's outstanding team but the Belgian had been its outstanding player.

This, then, is the crux of the issue, the heart of the debate – one that this year involves you. When it comes to the Goal 50 fan vote, will you recognise a great team or a great player?

Lewandowski would probably argue that this year you can still do both...

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