FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2016: No.2 – Lionel Messi
Despite suffering two muscle injuries, losing the Copa America Centenario final with a penalty sent over the bar and announcing his international retirement (before later reconsidering), Lionel Messi has every reason to be happy: his 2016 was the coronation of the modern Messi, the player we'll all enjoy in the years ahead.
Discussions over whether an ageing and slower Messi would become a static centre-forward or a classic No.10 have taken place for the past decade, with opinions divided. But 12 years after making his professional debut for Barcelona, Messi's now unlocked a different 3.0 version of himself.
From a right-wing dribbler (1.0) to a devastating penalty-box scorer (2.0), Messi's now became a strategist, capable of deciding when to score but also when to assist, when to be close to the box and when to enjoy the full-pitch panorama. Since the introduction of Barcelona’s current trident, which includes an out-and-out striker in Luis Suarez, Messi’s involvement in the build-up has been more active than ever before.
He's also excelled when it comes to playing through-balls, thanks in part to the movement of Suarez and Neymar
His free-kick technique has improved - witness his stunning strike against the United States - with Messi enjoying his most prolific year from set-pieces.
He's also excelled when it comes to playing through-balls, a skill he's been able to practice regularly at club level thanks to the movement of Suarez and Neymar. It's been a different story at international level, though, with Messi forced to carry Argentina due to underperformance from his attacking team-mates.
“You don’t win in chess with a Queen but no Rooks, or Bishops, or Pawns, or Knights. Argentina doesn’t get it yet,” El Grafico wrote earlier this year. “Messi’s challenge: how to defend the country with a plastic fork and a plastic knife” was the headline chosen by newspaper La Nacion.
National team pain
The modern Messi has become a leader, too, as demonstrated by his recent decision to lead his international team-mates in a boycott of the Argentine press
The disappointment at losing another final with Argentina brought about a change in Messi's appearance, who died his hair blonde and grew a beard. He later admitted that this was a way of him starting over and resetting ahead of the 2016/17 campaign, where he's dragged his country back into contention in World Cup qualifying.
The modern Messi has become a leader, too, as demonstrated by his recent decision to lead his international team-mates in a boycott of the Argentine press.
The 29-year-old will probably end 2016 as Europe's top scorer and leading assist provider, which shows how influential he's been. This is a different Messi now, but that doesn't mean he isn't equally brilliant.
Vote for your favourite player of 2016 at ForzaFootball here. We'll reveal the results next week.