Messi vs Ronaldo? That the argument has raged for more than a decade offers an insight into the astonishing levels of skill, commitment, longevity and, it has to be said, good fortune that has befallen the finest two players of the 2010s.
But who is the best? Is it the Adonis of the soccer field, a man so obsessed with his own physical perfection that he does press ups in the shower? Or is it the little man, who as a boy was so physically small that he needed growth hormones to make the grade as a footballer. Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? The world is divided.
Both remain at the top of their game, but equally each, in his way, knows that his years at the very pinnacle of the soccer world are coming to an end. Neither has succumbed to a really serious injury in their careers; they have been fortunate in that. Each has lightning fast reflexes and extreme speed – both of these will begin to falter as the players enter their mid-thirties.
Ronaldo is now thirty-four years old, Messi thirty-two. It seems a good point to attempt a statistical analysis of their relative brilliance in order to determine, if possible, who is the better player.
Sharing the Top Prize
Where else to begin? After all, winning the Ballon D’Or means being officially named as the best player in the world. Doesn’t it? Well, probably not. Because two other factors seem to carry at least as much weight as soccer brilliance – these being playing as a striker and representing either Real Madrid or Barcelona.
During the last twenty years the title has been won seventeen times by an offensive player; two of the three occasions when it was not, the winners (Modric, 2018; Nedved 2003) were offensive midfielders. And sixteen of the last twenty winners have played for one or other of the Spanish giants.
So, we might conclude that winning the Ballon D’Or gives us only a very narrow view of the best player on the planet. In any case, with five titles each, such a statistic does little to separate the two.
What about goals? Here the figures point towards Messi. The Portuguese striker has netted more often – 698 to 671 as of October 2nd, 2019 (by the time you read this, those stats will almost certainly have changed) but Messi’s frequency is better, with a goal every 100 minutes against Ronaldo’s one every 112 minutes.
But those figures give only an indicator of the player with the better strike rate. Ronaldo played almost three hundred times for Manchester United, where he usually operated as a winger rather than a through the middle striker. His first thirty-one games, as a youngster, were for Sporting De Portugal who were a far less accomplished team than the Barcelona Messi has represented throughout his career.
Then there are the players’ international careers. Although one of the oddities of recent soccer history has been the underperformance of Argentina in major tournaments, overall their relative strength as a nation has generally been higher than that of Portugal.
So, we may conclude that the jury is out when it comes to goal scoring.
Who is the Better Bridesmaid?
While each has an outstanding goal scoring record, there is more to being a great player than just putting the ball into the net. Helping others to do so is seen, these days, as being almost as important.
Here, Ronaldo’s time playing wide might seem to offer him an advantage, but the statistics do not support this. Both players are better at scoring than assisting, but even so, Messi’s record here is almost fifty per cent better when it comes to minutes per assist.
His record in one assist every 241 minutes, against Ronaldo’s one every 357 minutes.
Yet even here, other factors make drawing a conclusion a dangerous business. For many years, Messi operated with some of the world’s best finishers – Suarez and Neymar Jr especially – while Ronaldo’s strike partners were not quite at the same level. Gareth Bale and Benzema are fine players, but most would agree that they are not at the same level as the Barcelona duo. An assist only counts if the ball is subsequently put away. (Ronaldo’s assist level with the other clubs for which he has played, plus Portugal, is actually worse still, averaging around one assist every five games for these teams).
Opening the Door With Key Passes
Now at last we come to a statistic where there is some clear daylight between the players. Sort of. Both Messi and Ronaldo have a high rate of passing accuracy, averaging above 80%. However, a broad figure such as this gives us little insight into the relative effectiveness of each player. It is the incisiveness of passing that tells us of their value to the team.
Here Messi significantly outperforms his rival. His record of nearly 6.5 significant passes per game in the 2018/19 season, along with just under ten passes into the box is not only the best in Europe, but twice the rate of Ronaldo.
When it comes to pure, all out speed, Ronaldo would win a foot race. He has been recorded as travelling at a tad over 24mph, while Messi clocks in at a little more than 20mph.
But as a statistic, that tells us little other than both are pretty quick.
It is running with the ball that gives us a better idea, especially when beating players. Any additional speed Ronaldo has in the sprinting stakes is countered by Messi’s lower centre of gravity. This means he can turn, feint and dodge more adeptly than his taller counterpart.
All Round Effectiveness
Again, differentiating between the two is very difficult. Both are slightly more effective at home than away (each scoring around a third of their goals on their travels). While each has a dominant foot (Messi left, Ronaldo right) it is the Juventus player who is more two footed; Ronaldo is also stronger in the air. A far higher percentage of his goals – 18% against just 3.5% – come from headers.
Both are phenomenal dribblers. However, Ronaldo’s role has developed over time to become more of an old-fashioned centre forward, finishing off moves rather than, with Messi, using his dribbling skills to create them.
Ronaldo is physically much the bigger – being seven inches taller than his Argentinian rival. As a physical presence, that is significant, not least when it comes to defending set pieces.
Both have a good record from free kicks, although Ronaldo is the better penalty taker.
The Scores are Tied; Time for the Penalty Shoot Out
So, ninety minutes of statistical analysis has told us…very little. Even in the single field where one of the players shows a significant advantage over the other – incisive passing – the different roles the players perform accounts in some ways for the difference. These days, Ronaldo is a number nine – a multi-talented one, but one who fits into a comfortable soccer niche.
Messi’s role is more difficult to categorize. Mostly, a deep lying second striker – or part of an interchanging three, he is the player who will suddenly produce something out of nothing. How often have we watched Barcelona play and hear the commentator say of the opposition ‘They’ve kept Messi quiet’ only for the little maestro to go on and bag a brace?
Perhaps it is that which offers a reason for our conclusion that, while we would happily find a place for either in our teams, given a straight choice, most would opt for Lionel Messi.
Because to get the best out of Ronaldo, it helps to have players who will feed him the ball, especially since his move away from the wing. Cut off his supply, and his effectiveness is reduced. Notwithstanding that, he remains a great dribbler, a threat from set pieces and a danger from crosses.
But Messi is different. He is fully capable of finishing any half chance created for him, but even if that supply line is broken, he is just a likely to create, and finish, a chance on his own.
Whatever your opinion, the debate will rage on longer than we live. We’ve been fortunate even to see the two players that are among the best of all time.
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