When Luka Modric was announced as the winner of the 2018 Ballon d’Or, there were precious few neutrals within the football world who felt the Croatian hadn’t merited the accolade.
He hadn’t won La Liga that year; in fact his side had finished some 17 points behind Barcelona in third place. But he had inspired Real Madrid to a third successive Champions League, while starring for his country on the road to a World Cup final.
He’d become the first player not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to win the prestigious award since 2007. And more significantly, he’d dispelled the myth that goals weren’t all that defined a Ballon d’Or winner in the modern age, and proved that you don’t even necessarily need domestic success to be voted as the best player in the world over a calendar year.
Yet, fast forward 12 months, and it’s back in the trophy cabinet of Messi, who takes home the award for a sixth time.
And let’s be honest; it’s difficult to begrudge him of it. Individually, his 2019 has been spectacular.
41 goals in 44 games this year helped Barca on to win La Liga last season. It’s helped them top it heading into the Christmas period this time around, it led them to the semis of the Champions League and to the final of Copa del Rey.
It’s difficult to argue against his performances meriting the recognition. Yet anyone who watched Liverpool to any significant degree in 2019 is left wondering one thing: what on earth did Virgil van Dijk have to do to pip the Argentine to the post?
Of course, it’s difficult to quantifiably compare the two. While Messi’s sparkling goal record speaks for itself, there is no individual metric that speaks to a defender’s performances over a prolonged period of time in the same way.
That is perhaps why many voting erred on the side of caution, and stuck with the status quo. But while there may be no definitive statistic that proves beyond doubt that Van Dijk, individually, had the better 2019, the bigger picture paints the portrait of a player who was notoriously hard-done-by.
With him in the team, Liverpool have conceded just 38 goals in 45 games in 2019 – that’s better than any other team on the continent, and a better individual record than any other defender on the planet. People will point to the downturn in their defensive record this season, yet they’ve conceded just 12 goals in the Premier League; only Leicester, PSG, Real Madrid and Athletic Club can better that across Europe’s five major leagues.
As the clear and obvious leader of the back four, which features two adventurous full-backs and one of Joel Matip, Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren – good, if not world class centre-halves in their own right – Van Dijk merits the bulk of the credit for that.
In truth, aside from ‘he’s scored an incredible amount of goals’, there is actually no other factual argument in defence of Messi’s win.
‘He won his league’ is the argument we so often hear, but that failed to factor in 12 months ago when Modric upset the apple-cart.
And if we’re moving the goalposts, and trophies are the deciding factor, then 2019 finished 2-1 to the man who has two European medals to show for his efforts – medals which came as the ultimate reward for sending Messi and co. packing in the Champions League semi-finals.
Messi’s attacking contributions are one thing; Van Dijk’s defending is another. Both have been miles ahead of the competition this year, and intrinsically influential to their respective sides, hence why Messi and Van Dijk were the runaway top two.
Yet while it’s redundant to argue against the results of a vote conducted by those who have more football knowledge between them than the rest of the world combined, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the brilliance of Van Dijk’s year, both individually and with Liverpool, has been clouded by a rampant Manchester City side, and the lack of a solitary metric that underlines his influence.
Virgil Van Dijk in 2019:
UEFA Super Cup
✅ UEFA Nations League finalist
磊 PFA Players Player of the Year
磊 Premier League Player of the Year
磊 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year
✅ PFA Team of the Year
✅ UEFA Defender of the Year
Still, his time may well come. He turns 29 in the summer, and has another four or five seasons at the peak of his powers before his best days enter the rear-view mirror.
If he can carry the performances of the last 12 months into the years ahead, then there will be no shortage of individual awards coming his way.
And one of them may yet be the Ballon d’Or.