By: Anvesha Dutta and Nikhil Isukapalli
In 2021, Lionel Messi beat Robert Lewandowski to win his seventh Ballon d’Or, the most of any footballer in history. Messi’s victory has sparked much debate as to whether he truly deserved the award, though. Many fans argue that he has benefited from his reputation as one of the greatest players of all time and that Lewandowski was the worthy recipient after being denied the 2020 Ballon d’Or due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ballon d’Or is not the perfect indicator of the world’s best player by any means; it generally favors forwards and attacking midfielders who have leading numbers in direct goal involvements. The only defensive player since 2000 to win the award was center-back Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. The Ballon d’Or can also be seen as “unfair” due to the inherent disadvantage players on weaker or more defensive teams face. A player will most likely not record as many goals and/or assists on a team fighting against relegation than he would on a title-challenging team with higher-quality teammates. In addition, a striker might be less productive in a team whose manager employs a more cautious and pragmatic tactical style.
In this article, we will only be considering attackers, as it is difficult to compare them with goalkeepers, defenders, and midfielders without posing questions such as, what exactly makes an elite striker “better” than an elite center back? These can only be answered by establishing a set of highly subjective criteria, like whether goals scored is more valuable than clean sheets for goalkeepers, interceptions for defenders, or chance creation for midfielders, among other statistics. Moreover, star players are more likely to be attackers, so it’s easier to directly compare the most prolific goal scorers and assist providers with one another. For these reasons, we will not be considering Jorginho, a deep-lying midfielder who finished in third in the Ballon d’Or final ranking after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and the European Championship with Italy. Instead, we will pit Messi and Lewandowski against Mohamed Salah, who despite finishing in seventh behind Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably had a better 2021 than them in a more difficult league.
The Top Three
We first looked at the stats of Europe’s best wingers and strikers in 2021 to see if they consolidated our choice for the top three Ballon d’Or candidates. Each of the parameters we used represented the values of those metrics per 90 minutes, since each player made a different number of appearances across the year. The criteria for strikers was fairly straightforward — we only considered their non-penalty expected goals (NPxG) compared to their total shots, as all strikers are mainly judged by their goalscoring output. From the Total Shots vs. NPxG graph for strikers, it’s clear that Lewandowski is far ahead of nearly all the others. A major outlier in the data is Sébastien Haller, whose 40% goal conversion rate nearly doubles Lewandowski’s 21%. But despite both playing for sides dominating their respective leagues, Haller has faced much weaker opposition in the Eredivisie than Lewandowski has in the Bundesliga, so we decided to stick with Lewandowski.
For wingers, we considered NPxG, total shots, shot-creating actions, and expected assists (xA) per 90 to account for different playing styles. For instance, Salah holds more goalscoring responsibility due to Liverpool’s tactical setup, whereas a winger like Dušan Tadić is Ajax’s main creator. Messi stands out in both the NPxG vs. Total Shots and the xA vs. Shot-Creating Actions graphs as a top goalscorer and chance creator, and his all-round gameplay justifies his recognition as one of the world’s best players last year. Tadić is an outlier, placing in the 99th percentile for xA and the 98th percentile for shot-creating actions, but like Haller, he has faced weaker opposition than players in the Big Five leagues. Neymar’s creative statistics are comparable to Messi’s, but his inconsistency in 2021 rules him out of contention, having missed 28 out of 60 club games due to injury and disciplinary issues. The NPxG vs. Total Shots graph for wingers shows that Kylian Mbappé and Diogo Jota are similar to Salah in terms of goalscoring productivity. However, Mbappé is at a disadvantage due to the difference in quality between Ligue 1 and the Premier League, and Salah’s reputation as Liverpool’s star forward edges him over Jota.
In the second half of the 2020-21 season, Messi carried a Barcelona team burdened with poor management and crippling financial debt to third place in La Liga, also winning the Copa del Rey and finishing as runners-up in the Supercopa de España. In La Liga, Messi scored the most goals with 30, of which 23 were in 2021. He won La Liga’s February Player of the Month award and was included in the Champions League Squad of the Season. Since his summer move to Paris Saint-Germain, however, Messi has only scored once and assisted 4 times in 11 Ligue 1 games, missing a further 7 games through fitness and injury issues. But he has performed better in the Champions League, scoring 5 goals in 5 games as PSG finished second in the group stage, advancing to the round of 16. On the international stage, Messi guided Argentina to a second-place finish in the South American qualification group, scoring 5 goals in 9 games. He also captained his nation to win the 2021 Copa América, their first major trophy since winning the 1993 Copa América. Messi won the Best Player Award, shared the Top Scorer Award, and made the Copa América Team of the Tournament.
In 2020-21, Lewandowski was part of a Bayern Munich side that won the Bundesliga and Club World Cup. He was the top goalscorer in the league with 41, which was 13 goals more than his closest competitor, of which 24 were in 2021. With this total, he broke the 39-year-old record of most goals scored in a single league season and won the 2020-21 European Golden Shoe. He made the Bundesliga Team of the Season and the Champions League Squad of the Season. In 2021-22, he has continued his dominance of the Bundesliga, scoring 19 goals in 17 games, as Bayern sits 8 points clear at the top of the league. He also helped his team win the DFL-Supercup, scoring 2 goals. In the Champions League, Bayern won all 6 group stage matches, in which Lewandowski scored 9 goals. As captain of the Polish national team, he scored 8 goals in 8 games in World Cup qualifying matches, helping his country advance to the second round. However, he couldn’t prevent Poland from finishing bottom of their European Championship group, despite scoring 3 goals in 3 games.
In 2020-21, Salah had another great season for a Liverpool team that finished third in the Premier League, despite suffering an injury crisis for most of the season. He scored 22 goals, just one less than top scorer Harry Kane, of which only 9 came in 2021. Regardless, he won the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year and made the PFA Team of the Year. This season, Salah has been by far the best player in the Premier League. In 19 league games before the new year, he recorded 15 goals and 9 assists, the most in the Premier League in both areas, and was voted Player of the Month for October 2021. In the Champions League, he scored 7 goals in the group stage as Liverpool won all 6 of their games. With Egypt, he scored 2 goals and made 3 assists in 7 total qualifying matches for the World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations.
All things considered, we believe Lewandowski deserved to win the Ballon d’Or instead of Messi. Lewandowski has exceeded his 2020 heights by scoring an unbelievable 69 goals and making 11 assists in 59 games for club and country, which trumps all other players in Europe. Messi scored 43 goals and assisted 18 goals in 61 games for club and country, while Salah scored 39 goals and made 14 assists in 60 games for club and country. Salah comes in third-best, since Messi and Lewandowski have made more goal contributions and won more trophies and awards than him. Between those two, Messi is perhaps at a disadvantage due to being on a Barcelona team in decline, while Lewandowski was supported by a much better squad and manager. However, over the second half of 2021, Messi has also struggled to settle in a PSG team full of elite talent. In the end, we believe Lewandowski’s consistency over the entire year as well as his unparalleled goal-scoring feats just edge Messi’s Copa América win, and we deem him the worthy winner of the 2021 Ballon d’Or.