Lionel Messi’s first season in Ligue 1 would have been considered a success for most players. He scored 11 goals and provided 15 assists in 34 games for PSG, contributing directly to a goal every 110 minutes he was on the pitch. However, given his previous numbers – he had not dropped below one goal or assist per game since the 2006-07 season – it looked like the Argentinian was past his world-beating zenith. It turns out people have been too quick to write him off.
Messi’s form last season was affected by injuries, Covid and settling into new surroundings. His campaign was defined by his worst displays, rather than his best. His missed penalty and erratic display against Real Madrid in the last-16 stage of the Champions League stood out. He also struggled to adapt to Ligue 1, a pragmatic, physical league that is filled with teams who are well practised in deploying compact low-blocks.
As the season wore on, his influence grew as he moulded his style to fit his surroundings. Nevertheless, having won last year’s Ballon d’Or, Messi was still omitted from this year’s 30-man long list after making the top five every year since 2006. That was despite having a better goals and assists per 90 minutes ratio than Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Sébastien Haller, Luis Díaz and Rafael Leão, all of whom play in similar positions yet made the list. Criticism of the decision to award Messi a somewhat generous seventh prize in 2021 may have had an impact.
Supporting Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, Messi became more of a deep-lying playmaker at PSG and he still led the league for assists per 90 minutes as well as progressive passes, through balls and passes into the area. However, despite scoring some crucial goals that carried PSG through a tricky Champions League group, he was far less decisive than he had been in Spain. French sports daily L’Équipe awarded him four or below in their match ratings on 10 occasions in Ligue 1 last season as Mauricio Pochettino’s stale PSG side eased to the title almost by default as a group of evenly matched chasing teams took too many points from each other for one challenger to emerge.
He performed better than some reports suggest, but he was passive, seemingly on autopilot, and the 2021-22 season goes down as a career low point.