There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year’s men’s FIFA Best winner on January 17.
While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?
The Ballon d’Or is broadly seen as football’s version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women’s winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich.
The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA’s website.
Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men’s prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.
The Best… at scoring goals
It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.
The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season’s Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).
However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.
Lewandowski, last year’s winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller’s record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.
Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds’ poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League’s top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards’ 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.
His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England’s top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.
For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.
However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year’s Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.
Consistency and underlying numbers
While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski’s consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi’s 45.95 and Salah’s 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah’s 19.37 and Messi’s 15.74.
Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.
While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah’s 29.6 and Messi’s 24.37.
Not all scorers have to be selfish
Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.
Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.
However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being “selfish”, Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.
In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.
Show us your medals
While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.
It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year’s Ballon d’Or.
Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.
Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.
He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.
Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d’Or voting.
The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.
It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year’s honours.
The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d’Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski’s goalscoring exploits, or by Messi’s final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah’s explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?
Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you’ll find plenty of people willing to try.