"I don't know if it's the best year of my life," admitted Lionel Messi, picking up his seventh Ballon d'Or in Paris last night.
In fairness to the little genius, he has plenty of good years to choose from. Messi has changed what is expected of the elite in football and while his 2021 has been phenomenal - a first international title being the highlight - it's what we've come to expect.
It's safe to say he's not at his peak anymore, either. While Messi is still spellbinding, a touch of pace has deserted him; he's not as explosive as he once was.
So how much has the PSG star dropped this season? How does this year compare to his best?
2009: Messi's first Ballon d'Or
📆 OTD in 2009...Lionel Messi got up, stayed up, and headed Barcelona to Champions League glory over Manchester United.🐐pic.twitter.com/F90qL5zargMay 27, 2019
Trophies: LaLiga, Copa Del Rey, Champions League, Supercopa de Espana, Super Cup, Club World Cup
Goals in all competitions: 36
The most successful season of Messi's career as part of a team, Barcelona famously swept all six competitions in 2009.
No one scored more goals in all competitions in Europe's top five leagues, either. Messi managed 36, equal with Edin Dzeko. Messi had also scored in a Champions League final during this calendar year and had become the fulcrum of Pep Guardiola's side during its peak.
This was really the start of the dominance for the no.10 - and in beating reigning champion Cristiano Ronaldo to the award, it began the duopoly of the Ballon d'Or, too.
2010: Messi's second Ballon d'Or
🙌 Messi fired FOUR past Arsenal #OnThisDay in 2010! ⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️#UCL pic.twitter.com/7qm4ypTcqfApril 6, 2019
Trophies: LaLiga, Supercopa de Espana
Fifty-eight goals in 54 games in all competitions. Not a bad return - and a goal every 77 minutes.
We were starting to see extraordinary numbers from Messi and Ronaldo in 2010, with the Portuguese hitting 45 in 48 games. Though Messi only won LaLiga, he managed to keep himself on the throne, with Ronaldo not getting in the top three.
Messi had a comparatively poor World Cup - really beginning his story of international woes - though Barca team-mates Andres Iniesta and Xavi finished on the podium after becoming world champions in South Africa.
2011: Messi's third Ballon d'Or
📅 On this day in 2011...The night Lionel Messi lit up Wembley 🔥A superb goal as Barcelona saw off Manchester United in the Champions League final 🏆pic.twitter.com/aMT8JecERfMay 28, 2020
Trophies: LaLiga, Champions League, Supercopa de Espana, Club World Cup
Messi scored 52 in 54 in 2011; Ronaldo 53 in 52. Though CR7 had the better individual season, however, once more Barcelona cleaned up as a team.
Again, Messi put in a world-class performance in the Champions League final, scoring the second of third goals and earning the Man of the Match against Manchester United - and that's before considering the league season he'd had, too.
Messi also managed 25 assists in all competitions, as his ability as a creator was beginning to become a little more recognised, too.
2012: Messi's fourth Ballon d'Or
🗓️#OTD in 2012: Messi makes history by putting FIVE past Leverkusen! ⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️#UCL pic.twitter.com/CDMmDnbkAiMarch 7, 2019
Trophies: Copa Del Rey
Seventy-nine goals in 60 matches over 2012 - it was as if Leo believed in the Mayan prophecy.
Messi scored once every 65 minutes over that calendar year, as Barca transitioned away from Guardiola. The club was becoming ever more reliant on the Argentinian - and though Ronaldo won the league title with Real scoring 58 in 58, he couldn't lift the Ballon d'Or that time around.
Barça's talisman made another 31 goals in assists in 2011/12 in all competitions, too - that's three more than Real Madrid's best assister at the time, Mesut Ozil, and better than anyone else in any top tier in Europe. That's otherworldly.
2015: Messi's fifth Ballon d'Or
💥 Happy 6th anniversary to this Leo #Messi gem!#OnThisDay May 30, 2015 pic.twitter.com/3EmLVkaCW6May 30, 2021
Trophies: LaLiga, Copa Del Rey, Champions League, Super Cup, Club World Cup
Barcelona were back to their best, MSN was firing on all cylinders and Messi was the Ballon d'Or winner once more.
Messi's 45 goals in 51 games was slightly inferior to Ronaldo's 54 in 52 but with Barca on top in LaLiga, Messi got the nod in the end of year gong. Argentina reached the Copa America final, too - beaten by Chile on penalties, just a year after they were beaten in extra-time by Germany in the World Cup final. In both tournaments, Messi picked up the best player award.
In 2014/15, he assisted another 31 goals, too. It helps when you have Luis Suarez and Neymar by your side...
2019: Messi's sixth Ballon d'Or
Lionel Messi's stunning free kick vs Liverpool has won UEFA's Goal of the Season award 🏆As if there was any ever doubt 😉 pic.twitter.com/vqSgfNukyJAugust 9, 2019
Another 45 goals for Messi in 2019, just three shy of Robert Lewandowski's 48 - but the Barca star managed a goal every 86 minutes as opposed to Lewy's one every 88. If we're getting pernickety about it...
Just the one LaLiga trophy for Leo in 2019, as Barca crashed out of the Champions League in the semi-finals to Liverpool in embarrassing circumstances. It was Messi's sublime free-kick, by the way, that helped give them that 3-0 home leg lead before they blew it - while the little genius was great against Manchester United in the quarters.
Messi top-scored in that Champions League campaign, while Ronaldo only managed 25 goals across the whole calendar year at Juventus. Fabio Quagliarella outgunned him in Serie A, too.
2021: Messi's seventh Ballon d'Or
Still a cut above the rest 🤷♂️Ladies and gentlemen, Lionel Messi 🏆#BallonDor pic.twitter.com/5ZWyNXIWpGNovember 29, 2021
Trophies: Copa Del Rey, Copa America
There's still time to score a few more but as it stands, this is the lowest tally of goals that Lionel Messi has managed in a calendar year in which he's won the Ballon d'Or. It's also the first time that he's not been in the top two scorers of a calendar year across all competitions in Europe's top five leagues.
Messi has a goal every 109 minutes in 2021. Lewandowski has one every 66, Erling Haaland one every 88, with Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema also outscoring him this year. Messi has still delivered iconic Champions League moments in 2021 despite being a part of two dysfunctional teams - the goals against PSG last season and Manchester City this, stand out - while his big rival, Ronaldo is facing questions of how much he actually hinders new club Manchester United.
Still, the standout moment was winning a Copa America, top-scoring with four goals and being voted the player of the tournament. Even in a year that might not have been his best, he's still delivered big moments.
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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. He is a keen player of the Football Manager series and creates Twitter accounts for his Fantasy Premier League team every year, before losing interest in his team every September.
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