Why we might be entering the Age of the Midfielder

Despite Lionel Messi’s best efforts, modern soccer will eventually enter a new era. Back in July, I suggested that the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era was officially over. I was right — but only halfway.

Each month, a group of European soccer magazines (known as the European Sports Media) vote on a team of the month. It’s the most consistent record we have of how players in Europe are generally viewed in a given moment. (An anonymous, heroic citizen tracks it all here.) And after the season is over, you can add up the total TOTM appearances to get a sense of who people thought the best players were — in other words, a team of the season. Although not acknowledged as such, it’s like soccer’s version of the All-NBA team or the NFL’s All-Pro squad.

In 16 consecutive seasons, either Messi (14 total) or Ronaldo (9) were in the team of the season. That is, until last season, when neither one made a single team of the month.

Then, of course, this season happened. Ronaldo is cashing checks in Saudi Arabia, but Messi has made all four teams of the week so far. He was the best player at the World Cup, and barring something unforeseen, he’s going to win his eighth Ballon d’Or. I’m going to stop saying that it’s going to end; I will acknowledge that it’s over once he tells us that it’s over.

Whenever it ends, though, what might come next? The easy answer: The era of Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Mbappe, too, has made all four teams of the month, while Haaland has featured in just three — mainly because he didn’t play much in November since Norway weren’t in the World Cup.

Although a decade of dominance from Haaland and Mbappe is the most likely outcome — they’re both way more productive at their current ages than Messi and Ronaldo were at the same stage — there’s still so much that can prevent that from happening. And even if it does happen, there were plenty of secondary eras coming and going and defining phases of the game underneath Messi’s and Ronaldo’s dominance.

What else might happen? We might be about to enter the Age of the Midfielder.

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