At the beginning of the 2013 calendar year, Franck Ribery looked past his best. The Frenchman had long been Bayern Munich's primary source of creativity in every competition, but last season, he struggled to shine in his biggest tests—those that came in the Champions League—as he had in the past.
With a modest tally of one goal and two assists in the competition through the first half of the semifinals—none of which had come in the knockout rounds—it appeared that Ribery, who turned 30 in April, was beginning his natural decline. He was able to make his mark against lesser teams but not the best, and other Bayern stars were relied upon to make the difference against the likes of Dortmund, Arsenal and Juventus.
But late last season, Ribery turned over a new leaf. He was man of the match in the second leg against Barcelona, a 3-0 win that, despite coming with a 4-0 first-leg advantage, was by no means a dead rubber. And in the final against Dortmund, he played a key part in both Bayern goals in their 2-1 win.
Not long after looking past his best, Ribery was Bayern's hero not only in the Bundesliga, but also in the Champions League. He's since been crowned UEFA's Best Player in Europe for 2012-13 and is shortlisted for the Ballon d'Or, for which he is the resounding favorite.
With world football's most prestigious individual award there for the taking, Ribery has started 2013-14 in the form of his life. And not only has he produced tremendously for Bayern, but he's changed his style of play.
Finishing was never Ribery's strongest point, but he's become a new man since being named UEFA's Best Player in Europe. He's now shooting with more confidence than ever before. And he's scored some outstanding goals—from long-ranged blasts against Chelsea and Manchester City to his brilliant dribble and finish against Viktoria Plzen. The 5'7" man even scored with a header against Nuremberg.
Ribery has never ended a season with more goals than assists, and typically, he sets up goals at a rate on the order of one-and-a-half times the number he scores. He's also never directly contributed to goals at a rate greater than or equal to one per game. But in 2013-14, he's scored nine and assisted eight in 16 appearances in all competitions for club and country.
It truly is amazing what confidence can do for a player, and Ribery is a perfect example. He certainly trusts himself to shoot more often now than ever before. But just as important is his understanding of his own limitations
Although he will eagerly take on defenders in the Bundesliga, the Frenchman is more wary of situations in which he is more likely to lose an individual duel. There were times in previous years when he'd try to do too much on his own and would be often dispossessed by a quick-footed defender. With age he—much like teammate Arjen Robben—has accepted his limitations, trusted his teammates to do more and, as a result, has become more economical.
Many footballers reach the age of 30 and are past their prime; their physical decline begins, and their technical qualities are no more refined than they were in their early 20s, so their effectiveness progressively drops over time.
A few others, however, see natural barriers and find new ways to develop their game: their experience, self-awareness and ingenuity brings them to the next level. Ribery falls into the latter category. At 30 years of age, he is playing the best football of his career and should be the odds-on favorite for the Ballon d'Or.