B/R Football Ranks: When Did Football's Elite Forwards Hit Their Peaks?

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterMarch 24, 2020

A combination of two pictures taken on October 7, 2012 shows Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L) and Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacting after scoring a goal during the Spanish League Clasico football match FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid CF on October 7, 2012 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. Messi and Ronaldo both scored two goals. The game ended in a draw 2-2.    AFP PHOTO/ LLUIS GENE/ QUIQUE GARCIA        (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

At what point did world football's elite forwards reach their peaks? 

We've trimmed a pool of exceptionally talented players to just 15—Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar chief among them—and tracked back through their careers to find the period in which they showed their finest-ever form.

The task of narrowing the selection to just 15 was arduous and difficult. Brilliant forwards like Paulo Dybala, Timo Werner and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have just missed the cut, which speaks to the quality present in the list.

We then relived their career highs, truly brightening what would have been a drab, football-less weekend in self-isolation, and picked a specific point in time where they were the best versions of themselves.

For some, like Neymar and Mohamed Salah, this was easy; for others, like Messi, Ronaldo and Benzema, it was difficult to select just one ultimate period. Take a look and see if you agree; if not, shout out and present your alternative case!

      

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Roberto Firmino

End of 2019, for Liverpool

Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino kisses the trophy following the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup Final football match between England's Liverpool and Brazil's Flamengo at the Khalifa International Stadium in the Qatari capital Doha on December 21
GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images

Firmino's an odd player. His highs aren't too high, his lows aren't too low, as his job is to knit Liverpool's front three together, create for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, and work hard defensively for the team.

He scores in spurts, but Jurgen Klopp doesn't really judge him on his goals, so when a barren run ensues, it's not really a problem. An odd player indeed.

That makes clear peaks rare, so when he scored two game-winners in the Club World Cup in December, then returned to England and took Leicester City apart on Boxing Day, people really sat up and took notice. There was a killer's edge to his forward play that isn't always on show.

      

Raheem Sterling

Spring 2019, for Manchester City

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 18:  Raheem Sterling of Manchester City celebrates following his team's victory in the the FA Cup Final match between Manchester City and Watford at Wembley Stadium on May 18, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Gett
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Sterling's 2020 so far has been a little slow, but before the calendar flipped, he'd essentially been dynamite for just over two full years.

It was a period defined by his tendency to score important goals at important times. It began away to Bournemouth in August 2017, when he scored a 97th-minute winner, and continued through to November, when he scored 84th- and 96th-minute winners against Huddersfield Town and Southampton, respectively.

It's tempting to label this his peak, as he's rarely felt more important in a team already jammed full of world-class players, but just over a year later, he hit a similar stride.

He scored two braces and a hat-trick as City embarked on a 14-game win streak to secure the title, sinking Chelsea, Watford and Crystal Palace almost by himself. He netted what he thought was a hat-trick goal against Tottenham Hotspur to send his side into the Champions League quarter-finals in the dying seconds—only to fall victim to one of VAR's most dramatic calls ever.

And that entire period was book-ended by two cup finals: In late February, he scored the winning penalty in the Carabao Cup final shootout against Chelsea; then in May, he scored two and assisted one as Watford were pummelled 6-0 in the FA Cup final.

     

Antoine Griezmann

Spring 2016, for Atletico Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 05: Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid celebrates during the match Atletico de Madrid vs Valencia CF, a La Liga match at the Estadio Vicente Calderon on 05 March 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

We certainly haven't seen Griezmann at peak powers at Barcelona so far, and when you compare his form at Camp Nou to what he's produced in the past, it hammers home just how big the gap is.

Winter 2018/19 was the most recent example of how talismanic he can be. He carried Atletico Madrid through close to an entire three-month period, scoring in five consecutive games through December and into January and excelling against Juventus in a 2-0 round-of-16 Champions League win in February.

But his peak was back in 2016, where he reeled off a series of crucial goals for Atletico Madrid en route to a Champions League final and then starred for France at Euro 2016 soon after.

In April, he scored twice to knock Barcelona out in the quarter-finals, then in May, he grabbed an away goal that would see his side squeeze past Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. 

Six goals at Euro 2016 led France to a final on home turf they should have won, but football didn't follow the script. Still, Griezmann's personal star had never been higher, and it hasn't risen to that point since (even at the 2018 World Cup).

         

Harry Kane

End of 2017, for Tottenham Hotspur

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates after he scores his second goal during the Premier League match between Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur at Turf Moor on December 23, 2017 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

2017 was one hell of a year for Kane.

In May, he netted seven goals in two games to leapfrog Romelu Lukaku in the scoring stakes and win the Premier League Golden Boot. He went into Gameweek 37 trailing by two goals; he came out of Gameweek 38 leading by four (29 in total).

He carried that predatory form into the following season, laying the foundations for a 30-goal campaign, and it was at the midpoint of said campaign that he achieved something no one had done since 2009: He outscored both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi across the calendar year.

He finished 2017 having scored 55 goals, one more than Messi and two more than Ronaldo. He achieved that by bagging consecutive hat-tricks in the final two games of the year, Southampton and Burnley the poor, unsuspecting victims.

Similar to his Golden Boot pursuit earlier in the year, no task is too tall for Kane if it simply involves scoring goals. 

       

Sergio Aguero

Spring 2019, for Manchester City

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - APRIL 28: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City shoots at goal during the Premier League match between Burnley FC and Manchester City at Turf Moor on April 28, 2019 in Burnley, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Image
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

It's mad to think, but there were once question marks over Aguero's fit at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola. January 2017 saw Gabriel Jesus arrive at the club, and he felt a better profile for the striker's role: more athletic, more willing to press, more adept at linking play.

Aguero's response to that has been sensational. He's upped his game considerably, becoming far and away a better overall footballer than he ever was—and he made that transition aged 28.

It means the Aguero we've seen over the last few seasons has been the best version of him ever, with spring 2019 representing his best period, much as it was for Sterling.

That 14-game win streak to secure the title included an array of magical moments, several of which the Argentinian provided. Hat-tricks against both Arsenal and Chelsea in February sent a serious message, then he delivered crucial goals and assists against West Ham United, Fulham, Tottenham and Burnley.

He has been similarly brilliant in patches before, but injuries have had a nasty habit of curtailing his momentum. In 2018-19, though, he barely missed a game, and the impact was telling.

     

Eden Hazard

Spring 2015, for Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18:  Eden Hazard of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Ima
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Picking Hazard's peak means sifting through a glut of incredible seasons at Chelsea, years and years of him being their best player and playing a crucial role in earning trophies.

There's also the World Cup in 2018 to consider, where he delivered a series of outrageous performances as Belgium finished third. Luka Modric was given the Golden Ball for the tournament, but there's a strong case that Hazard deserved it more (he was given silver).

But picking that month in Russia as Hazard's peak doesn't feel right. He was so synonymous with the blue of Chelsea for so long, one of his title wins feels more "him."

He was brilliant in 2017 under Antonio Conte, wreaking havoc in a finely tuned system, but 2015 under Jose Mourinho was even more impressive, as he resolved to carry Chelsea over the line with some sparkling individual showings at the end.

He made the difference against West Ham, Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City, Manchester United and Crystal Palace over the final stretch, scoring, assisting and unlocking defences at will. As the attack sputtered, he turned it up a notch, ensuring the trophy would go to Stamford Bridge.

       

Karim Benzema

Spring 2014, for Real Madrid

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MAY 24: President of UEFA Michel Platini congratulates countryman Karim Benzema of Real Madrid during the trophy ceremony after the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio da Luz stadium on May
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Benzema's peak is extremely tricky to track, as the player he was back in 2014 is extremely different to the one we appreciate today. His role in the Real Madrid attack has changed so much post-Cristiano Ronaldo it's difficult to compare.

He has essentially been two distinctly different players: The 2014-era Benzema, the one who tied the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) combo together with intricate link play, spatial awareness and clever movements; and the current-day Benzema, who grasps the scoring mantle and takes more responsibility than ever (because he has to).

Spring 2014 Benzema edges it, as not only was he starring for Real Madrid and won a Champions League that year (La Decima, in fact), but he took that form into the World Cup and produced some sparkling displays for France.

Les Bleus were knocked out in the quarter-finals in a seriously tight match with Germany. Had the chips fallen in their favour that day, they could easily have gone on to win the tournament—and Benzema was powering their charge.

2020 Benzema is the best we've seen since 2014, but he doesn't quite compare with the man who quietly allowed Ronaldo and Bale to blossom.

       

Mohamed Salah

Spring 2018, for Liverpool

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 24: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool scores his side's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final First Leg match between Liverpool and A.S. Roma at Anfield on April 24, 2018 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chris
Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

Salah's best-ever season—and there have been a fair few good ones!—was his first for Liverpool, where he scored 44 goals in all competitions (32 in the Premier League) and tacked on 16 assists.

He spent nine months slaying defences and proving doubters wrong, helping transform the Reds into one of Europe's fiercest attacking units.

The latter stages of that campaign saw him hit his peak. His two-goal, two-assist performance at home to Roma in the Champions League was probably his best-ever game, though just over a month before that he put four past Watford.

His calm finishing, lightning-quick darts in behind the full-back and raking, curled distance shots put the Giallorossi (and others) to the sword.

It all made his early injury in the Champions League final so tough to take. He was pushing the Messi-Ronaldo bracket at the time and we were deprived of a 90-minute showdown between him and the latter.

      

Sadio Mane

Spring 2019, for Liverpool

MUNICH, GERMANY - MARCH 13: goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Bayern Muenchen and Sadio Mane of Liverpool battle for the ball during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Liverpool at Allianz Arena on March 13, 201
TF-Images/Getty Images

We're in the midst of Mane's best-ever season. He's been so good in 2019-20, legitimate questions as to whether he's actually the best of Liverpool's front three have been asked.

But his best-ever patch came a year before, around spring 2019, as he hit a vein of form unparalleled.

He propelled Liverpool to a nine-game win streak as they sought to keep the pressure on Manchester City during an epic title chase, hauling them over the line himself in some games, and he produced one particular performance in the Champions League that changed the way people perceived him.

It came against Bayern Munich, away from home. 

After deftly controlling a Virgil van Dijk pass over the top, he swivelled, knocked it past Manuel Neuer and chipped it into an empty net. It was a jaw-dropping goal. He later added a second, nodding home to seal victory and progression.

It was an "I'm the man" performance from the Senegalese—something we'd typically associated with Mohamed Salah in red up until that point—but in Munich last March, something changed.

     

Kylian Mbappe

World Cup 2018, for France

TOPSHOT - France's forward Kylian Mbappe celebrates after scoring their third goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between France and Argentina at the Kazan Arena in Kazan on June 30, 2018. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) / RESTRI
FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

In all likelihood, Mbappe is yet to peak.

He's played a lot of football for a 21-year-old, so his age is slightly deceptive—a la Wayne Rooney and Romelu Lukaku—but he's still got plenty of years left at the top level. There's no limit to what he could achieve.

Picking a peak moment for him so far, though, produces two contenders: Spring 2019, when he scored in seven straight Ligue 1 games and just toyed with defences, and the World Cup 2018, where he truly burst into the worldwide consciousness.

As devastating as that patch of form in Ligue 1 was, it's Mbappe's feats in Russia that must be considered his zenith so far. As France found their groove, he began to truly shine, and by the knockout stages, he was simply a class above most.

Instinctive heel-flicks, outside-of-the-boot passes and devastating accelerations made him easy on the eye; rapier-like speed and confident one-on-one finishing made him a menace to opponents.

In the space of one month, Mbappe went from elite prospect to elite player.

    

Luis Suarez

Autumn 2013, for Liverpool

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 4:   Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates setting up the fifth goal for team mate Raheem Sterling during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Norwich City at Anfield on December 4, 2013 in Liverpool, England
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

There's a reason Barcelona saw fit to pay big money to land Luis Suarez in the summer of 2014: the individual season he'd just finished with Liverpool was truly epic, filled with utterly sensational goals.

That, undoubtedly, was his peak. Barcelona fans may (understandably) point to his 2015-16 season at the Camp Nou—he scored 40 La Liga goals, becoming the first player since 2009 not named Ronaldo or Messi to win the Pichichi (top goalscorer) Award—but this is a matter of quality over quantity.

The type and range of goals Suarez scored in 2013-14 was beyond anything the Premier League had seen in some time. In a three-month patch before Christmas, he scored an 18-yard header, a 40-yard, dipping half-volley, a dribbling finish that involved a nutmeg, and a 25-yard free-kick—in addition to a standard set of penalty box finishes, of course.

He finished the campaign on 31 league goals, having missed five games through suspension, and added 17 assists. He was relentless, a marvel, and the truly amazing thing was he engineered so many of the opportunities for himself.

      

Robert Lewandowski

2020, for Bayern Munich

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25: Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Munchen celebrates the first goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Chelsea FC and FC Bayern Muenchen at Stamford Bridge on February 25, 2020 in London, Unit
Visionhaus/Getty Images

Lewandowski has never looked better. Picking out a peak point for him was difficult (a common theme, we know!) as he's been consistently excellent for the last decade.

You may point to his five goals in nine minutes against Wolfsburg in 2015 as an obvious peak, and that's probably fair, but it would be a disservice to select such a small passage of time—especially when he's been world-class for seven straight months in 2019-20.

He's always been in the conversation for world's best centre-forward, but there have been good cases for the likes of Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and more over the years. In 2020, though, Lewandowski is the clear pick; he's the scariest, most consistent No. 9 in the world and has stepped things up another level.

In terms of fear factor, he's never felt so ominous.

Thirty-nine goals this season speaks to how effective he's been, and like the good all-round forward he is, he's sprinkled in five assists, too.

He kept Bayern Munich afloat during the Niko Kovac period at the beginning of the season and has helped turn them into a monster under Hansi Flick now the rest of the team is functioning well.

        

Neymar

La Remontada, for Barcelona

Barcelona's Brazilian forward Neymar celebrates at the end of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match FC Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain FC at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on March 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE        (Ph
LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Each of Neymar's four seasons at Barcelona were a success, with the 2014-15 La Liga and Champions League-winning campaign the most fruitful overall spell.

But his true moment, his ascension, came right at the end of his time in Spain, in 2017: La Remontada, Barcelona 6-1 Paris Saint-Germain, a.k.a. The Neymar Show.

That night, he transformed into something else, something superhuman; he's never looked better, and probably never will, than he did on that night—against the club that would spend €222 million on him five months later.

He won the penalty to make it 3-0, zipping around Thomas Meunier so deftly the defender fell over and took him out in the process; he scored a sneaky free-kick in the 88th minute to breathe hope back into the tie; he converted the penalty to make it 5-1; and, finally, he chipped a beautiful ball in for Sergi Roberto to finish the job in the 95th minute.

Neymar's sky-high performance levels at Barcelona didn't set tongues wagging as frequently as he wanted them to—a product, perhaps, of playing alongside Lionel Messi—but on that night, it certainly was all about him.

      

Cristiano Ronaldo

Spring 2012, for Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 13:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF passes the ball during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and RCD Mallorca at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Ronaldo has peaked several times in different ways as he has changed his game over the years. 

You could point to his irrepressible nature during Real Madrid's 2017 Champions League win, or to his frankly unbelievable hat-trick performance for Portugal against Spain at the 2018 World Cup, or scroll back to his 42-goal campaign for Manchester United in 2007-08 and label them his peak moments.

There were qualities attached to each period: In 2017, his inevitability; in 2018, him putting a team on his back; in 2008, a dribbling, physical, free-kick-scoring marvel.

But there's another point in time in which all of those qualities collided: 2012, as Real Madrid marched to a historic 100-point La Liga title.

He undoubtedly hit his physical peak then, combining speed and strength in rare fashion, beating players one-on-one at will and finishing unerringly. The numbers back it up, too: He scored 60 goals that season of all different kinds, finding a truly spectacular groove during the final stretch.

From La Liga Matchday 23 (February 12) through to 38, he scored in every game bar two and netted 22 in total. Included in that haul was a 10-yard backheel against Rayo Vallecano and a 40-yard scorcher of a free-kick against Atletico Madrid—the latter of which was part of a tremendous hat-trick that gave Madrid the momentum they needed to win the title.

It may seem odd to pick a peak period for Ronaldo where he didn't win the Champions League (given he's done it so frequently), but this was, truly, the best we've ever seen him, combining all of the separate qualities he's shown over the years into one frightful patch of form.

     

Lionel Messi

Early 2012, for Barcelona

FC Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (C), Barcelona's midfielder Andres Iniesta (L) and Barcelona's forward Pedro Rodriguez (R) celebrate after scoring a goal during the UEFA Champions League football match, round of 16 second leg, FC Barcelona
LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Messi scored 91 goals in the calendar year of 2012—a flabbergastingly brilliant achievement, beating the long-held record (85) set by Gerd Muller in 1972.

Given how creative, dynamic and overwhelmingly game-changing Messi can be even without scoring, it's not fair to measure him solely by output of goals, but when you score that many...it's tough to look anywhere else.

The 2011-12 campaign saw him net 73 goals and add 31 assists. That's over 100 direct goal contributions split between right wing and the false-nine role he popularised at the time. 

The entire year was like a highlights reel, so nailing a specific period is tough, but early 2012 (January to March) is a strong shout.

It was during this period he scored five against Bayer Leverkusen, four against Valencia and three against Malaga. This was perhaps his physical peak, where he looked his niftiest, quickest, most agile—and the goals flowed as a result.

Mercifully, he slowed down a little after that—but not by much, as you well know.

Listen to Sam every Wednesday on the B/R Football Ranks podcast. Subscribe here. 

      

Follow @stighefootball

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All statistics via Transfermarkt.com

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