Once the dribbler, then the false nine, now the playmaker. In 2015 we witnessed the birth of Lionel Messi 3.0 and it took him to new heights of football excellence.
After two years of watching Cristiano Ronaldo walk away with the Ballon d’Or, Messi reaffirmed his untouchable brilliance over the past 12 months, his clear superiority showing in his success on the pitch and the manner in which he achieved it.
Who should win the 2015 Ballon d’Or?
It is not a goal from the past 12 months which best sums up his enduring genius, though plenty do, not least the incredible run and finish against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey which has also seen him shortlisted for the Puskas Award.
It is not even an assist, nor one of the defence-splitting passes which have become as reliable a weapon in his arsenal as those famous dribbles, when the ball seems magnetically attached to his boot.
It was a nutmeg, brutally inflicted on James Milner in a Champions League match in May. Pep Guardiola was watching his former pupil in the stands and gasped, covering his face in utter astonishment. The audacity and the ability involved left even him speechless.
It was a reminder that of any player who currently plays the game, no one excites like Messi. And no one does so while winning a treble and facilitating possibly the best attack in the history of the game.
This is an important distinction when it comes to the Messi v Ronaldo debate this year: Messi is prepared to adapt his talent for his team-mates and bring out the best in everyone, Ronaldo is not.
When Luis Suarez had an unspectacular start to life in Barcelona, a tactical rejig brought the MSN to life. On November 25, 2014, three days after the period of consideration for the 2015 Ballon d’Or begun, Messi moved away from the apex of the Barcelona attack to allow Suarez to take centre stage for the first time in a Champions League game against Apoel Nicosia. Messi scored a hat-trick and the MSN went on to contribute 137 goals in 2015.
Of course Messi still scores at a historic rate, doing things that no other player can do. But he has adapted his game to become more of a rounded talent, a more complete player. It is another big distinction when it comes to Ronaldo.
While Ronaldo has concentrated his ability and limited his scope, becoming more of a penalty-box poacher as he focuses on scoring as many goals as possible, Messi has broadened his own horizons.
The Champions League final victory over Juventus was notable for the sight of Messi dropping deep to influence play and causing havoc with diagonal balls from his position on the right. He didn’t score, but he didn’t have to.
In a year that his prodigious goalscoring saw Messi crowned the all-time top scorer in La Liga, and his reliably delicious technique destroyed Milner and then Jerome Boateng, Messi managed to became more than himself. He got even better.