Lionel Messi is never far from the headlines, but the Barcelona star has been seemingly receiving criticism of late for not upholding his ridiculously high levels of consistency and match-winning ability.
Questions of him being allowed to have the odd poor game aside, has Messi even really dropped that much below the acceptable standards?
If he had, he answered critics in style with a two-goal haul against AC Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday night in a display that showed in part that he looks ready to return to his best once more.
Mentality and Goals
Barcelona forward Pedro said the team were not worried about Messi not scoring. His boss, Tata Martino, spoke about Messi not being desperate over his four-game goalless streak. And after the win over Milan, Martino told ESPN that he "knew" Messi would start scoring and winning games once more.
This is all fine, but the pure joy and fire on Messi's face as his penalty, his opening goal, hit the back of the AC Milan net on Wednesday told a different story.
A player who averages more than a goal per game most of the time, Messi often barely celebrates with a smile on his face, let alone with the roar, jump and punching of the air that accompanied his driven spot-kick.
Confidence is a wonderful thing, but a number of injuries and over 300 minutes of game time without a goal can make even the strongest-minded players waver a little.
Unsurprisingly, following that initial strike, Messi soon added a second goal, and one that was far more like his usual excellent self, showing poise, acceleration and an unerring finish to kill the game at 3-1.
Change in Role
It's easy to point fingers and say Messi hasn't been up to his usual standards, but there have—injuries aside—been a few factors to take into account.
Martino has attempted to mix things up a little of late, with Messi more than once reverting to his old role of cutting in from the right side to try and make use of space, with a Neymar-Cesc-Messi attack allowing for the most-dangerous and in-form trio to take their places in the team.
Alexis Sanchez's rediscovery of his goal touch has also aided matters in that opposition defences have to split their attentions somewhat, and perhaps Messi has not quite felt the pressures of previously to score almost every goal himself.
Sanchez and Pedro both have five or more strikes in the league this season, with Neymar and Cesc adding more than that number each in assists.
"He's set the bar so high that it seems when he doesn't score it's a problem." So spoke Martino, as per BBC Sport, after Barcelona's 1-0 derby win over Espanyol, Messi's fourth consecutive La Liga appearance without a goal.
But how much has his form really dropped this season?
A statistical look between Messi last season and this (albeit from a much smaller pool of games, of course) gives some insight.
|Season||Appearances||Goals||Goals per game||Shots per game||Key passes per game||Dribbles|
Of course, Messi's goals-per-game rate has dropped. That is hugely noticeable, and an obvious way to point the finger at his lowered performances.
But he is still getting away the second-highest number of shots in the top flight (only Cristiano Ronaldo beat him last season, and the same again this) and is averaging a higher number of key passes each match.
Messi claimed 12 assists in league play last season and is on course to at least equal that again this term.
His 3.8 dribbles per game was the biggest total last season, and an increase in that statistic so far this term sees him the second highest in the league.
Within Barcelona's first-team squad, Messi is the highest league scorer, has the best shots on target accuracy (not counting those with just one shot, on target, this term) and has created the second-highest total of chances for his team-mates this season.
With 19 in total, he has made more chances than Neymar, Andres Iniesta, Xavi or Alexis. Only Cesc, with 21, eclipses him in this regard.
Yes, sure, we can see by watching the matches that Messi has not been at his world-beating best. A series of hamstring or calf injuries will unfortunately rob a player of that initial sharpness and acceleration, something which Barca's No. 10 needs to be at his absolute peak.
But playing poorly, miles away from his best or letting the team down? Messi is none of these.
Martino has it right; when the ball doesn't hit the net, the world thinks Messi has an issue. His two goals, and most specifically his second, against Milan, should lay any doubts to rest on that score though.