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Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have occupied the marquee positions in two distinct ways of thinking about football. The answer to the question about who the better player is, is trivial. Perhaps the players are the creations of their systems more than we appreciate.

There is more of a rivalry between the fans of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi than there is between the players themselves!   -  Philipp Schmidli

When Cristiano Ronaldo moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, he was 24 years old. Lionel Messi was 22. Each had won three league titles and a Champions League title. Ronaldo had won the Ballon D’Or in 2008. Lionel Messi was about to win it in 2009. Both were extraordinary, even by the standards of elite football. Ronaldo attracted a world record transfer fee. Messi acquired unprecedented contracts from his club, Barcelona, to prevent him from being tempted to leave. Both had been exceptionally rated teenagers, much like Kylian Mbappe is today. In 2009 Ronaldo was entering his prime, while Messi was perhaps departing from his wunderkind phase.

On June 30, 2018, Argentina and Portugal were eliminated from the World Cup within hours of each other. Messi and Ronaldo were expected to lead their sides deep into the tournament. Messi, especially, has been dogged by the view that if he wishes to be regarded on a par with Maradona or Pele, he would have to add a major international title to his brilliant club career record. On July 10, Cristiano Ronaldo, aged 33, completed a hundred million pound transfer from Real Madrid to the great Italian club Juventus.

Each is a global phenomenon. Over the years, a rivalry has emerged between the supporters of Lionel Messi and the supporters of Cristiano Ronaldo over the question of who is better. It is the rivalry in football. It transcends the importance of the actual footballing rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona. What is striking about this extremely popular rivalry, is how impoverished the role of football itself is in it. I’ve found the question of who is better to be trivial. Trivial, because the answer is both obvious and unimportant.

The Ronaldo-Messi rivalry embodies larger, far more interesting questions about football. It is a rivalry about styles, systems, even ideologies. In some significant ways, it has its roots in a larger ideological rivalry between the English and Spanish game. What follows is an essentialist account of a larger argument in football which forms the canvas on which this personal rivalry has come about. There are exceptions to the essential distinctions which have been drawn below (for instance, Manuel Pellegrini’s approach in Ronaldo’s first year at Real Madrid), but these are sufficiently marginal and do not significantly disfigure the picture presented below. This is an essentialist account of systems. By system, I do not refer to a formation (such as 4-3-3 or 3-5-2), but to a systematic way of thinking about how football teams should be organised to play.

If you listen carefully you will hear two distinct types of descriptions in football. In most football discussions, especially in English football discussions, you hear the defence and attack being considered as though they are independent parts of the game. The role of the midfield is to enable transitions — to break up the opposition attack and move the ball towards the forwards. The defenders, you will hear, “should be able to defend”. And the goalkeeper should be a shot stopper first and foremost.

Another type of football has persistently hovered on the margins. This is centered around the idea of control. It began its life as ‘total’ football in the 1960s and 70s. Defending begins with the forwards, and attacking begins with the defence. In the utopian fantasy version of this ideology, all eleven players in the side are midfielders and play each position interchangeably. This was a positional understanding of football rather than a formational one.

The point in the other system was to have different specialists in different areas of the field (defence, attack, midfield, wings). These specialists did their own thing. Wingers harassed full-backs, strikers occupied centre-backs. Midfielders broke up attacks and turned the ball around. Occasionally, you’d find a really gifted player who could turn inside and be used as an attacking midfielder as opposed to a central midfielder. This was a territorial system.

The ‘total’ system was concerned with keeping the ball, moving it quickly, finding areas of the pitch where your team could enjoy a man advantage (called an ‘overload’ in football literature). Formation and territory were less important than control of the ball. The ‘total’ system, as it depended on moving the ball quickly, was especially suited to players who didn’t dribble a lot, with the exception of the Laudrups of this world who, as Johan Cruyff said, would “do his thing.” It was based on heavy drills which would prepare any player to be aware of where he might expect team-mates to be, so that it would be easier to complete the quick pass correctly. The ‘total’ system depended on the basic idea that no matter how fast players might be, the ball can always be moved significantly faster than the player.

These are different ways of thinking about football. Over the decades, there have been a number of variants, depending on the players available to a manager or the propensities of opponents. These are not the only two ways of thinking about football, but for our current purposes, they remain the two most significant.

Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson were the dominant team of their era. In the 90s, this dominance was limited to the English game. But beginning in the late 1990s until the early 2010s, Ferguson’s United were always at the top table of European club football. They reached four Champions League finals in 13 seasons from 1998-99 to 2010-11, and won two. They also won the league in England eight times in these 13 seasons. Cristiano Ronaldo played for United for six seasons from 2003-04 to 2008-09. He played as a winger and has used the number 7 (the number traditionally assigned to the right-sided midfielder or winger) ever since.

With United, English football finally had a team which could dominate Europe the way Liverpool had in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Off-field concerns and tactical renewals in Italy and Holland meant that English dominance in Europe abated through the second half of the 80s and the 90s. United’s win in Barcelona in 1999, was the lone bright spot. Starting in 2004-05, there were signs of a renewal of English dominance. Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and United all made the Champions League final between 2005 and 2012.

It seemed that the territorial conception of football was dominant. Power superseded technique. Speaking in 2011 after having led Pep Guardiola’s Cruyff inspired revolution at Barcelona, Xavi Hernandez, the Spanish midfield wizard observed, “The philosophy can’t be lost. Our fans wouldn’t understand a team that sat back and played on the break. Sadly, people only look at teams through success. Now, success has validated our approach. I’m happy because, from a selfish point of view, six years ago I was extinct; footballers like me were in danger of dying out. It was all: two metres tall, powerful, in the middle, knockdowns, second balls, rebounds.”

It was Luis Aragones who first saw the potential of a technical, nimble midfield for the Spanish national team’s campaign for the 2008 European Championships. Today it is difficult to see just how radical this was in late 2006 and 2007 when European midfields were dominated by power. Aragones picked Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and David Silva in his midfield to go with three powerful midfielders — Marcos Senna, Ruben de la Red and Xabi Alonso. Of the three, only Senna started in the first choice team.

Perhaps it was an exceptional generation of talented midfielders which prompted a revival of Cruyff’s ‘total’ football. Perhaps it was the fact that after Rijkaard, the top Barcelona job went to Pep Guardiola, Cruyff’s pivot who conducted his system from the centre-circle. Perhaps it was because Guardiola found Sergio Busquets when he was managing Barcelona B the year before. Due to a combination of playing personnel and manager, the positional understanding of football found a home in elite football in Guardiola’s Barcelona. The results were spectacular. They had to do, in large part, with Lionel Messi playing Michael Laudrup’s part in Cruyff’s system.

Guardiola has, from time to time, played down his own role as a tactical innovator. He says that at Barcelona he had terrific players and a well-formed way of thinking already prevalent deep in the club’s system. All he did, in his words, was to apply “a new coat of paint” to the cathedral Cruyff had built.

In Guardiola’s first year as manager, Barcelona won every title they competed for. They won the Champions League beating Chelsea in the semifinal and Ferguson’s United in the final. Ronaldo played for United, Messi for Barcelona. The previous year, Ferguson’s United had stifled Rijkaard’s Barcelona to win 1-0 over two legs of the semifinal. United’s French left-back Patrice Evra had managed Messi expertly. But this was a different Barcelona. Previews of the 2008-09 final foresaw a classic final. Barcelona won 2-0. Two years later, they won again, 3-1. In both games, United were outclassed by Barcelona’s demonstration of their system. It is hard to argue that in a Champions League final one side has decisively superior players to the other. Ferguson’s United were the best team in England. The extent of Barcelona’s superiority had to be down to something other than mere personnel.

After Barcelona won everything in Guardiola’s first year, their great Spanish rivals at Real Madrid responded by reaching deep into their pockets and acquiring the previous two Ballon D’Or winners — the Brazilian midfielder Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo had excelled as a winger in Ferguson’s United. At Real Madrid he would transform himself into, arguably, the greatest centre-forward of all time.

These transfers set the stage for a golden age in the greatest club rivalry in all of football. In terms of results, Barcelona have had the better of this rivalry in the Messi-Ronaldo age. But this is perhaps a mere symptom of the fact that Barcelona have generally been the better team overall. Since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid, Barcelona have won the Spanish league title six times and the Spanish Cup five times in nine years. Real Madrid have won two of each. Barcelona have won the Champions League twice with Messi at the forefront of the campaign, while Real Madrid have won it four times, with Ronaldo at the forefront each time.

The Cruyffian view of football is not unchallenged at Barcelona. Since Guardiola returned it to its pedestal, successive managers have chipped away around its edges, remaking it. But the central spine of the XI, and therefore, the system, has remained the same. It begins at centre-half where Gerard Pique has been a constant, and moves up via Sergio Busquets, and Andres Iniesta (and Xavi when he was available), to Lionel Messi. With Iniesta’s departure this season the possibility of Barcelona departing from its Guardiola-era stance in the argument between total control and specialised power, between position and territory, is greater than ever. It will be interesting to see what they do.

The question of who is better between Ronaldo and Messi is unimportant, because of the roles they have performed at their current clubs. Ronaldo has developed into a classical centre-forward — a specialist role at which he excels. Messi has mastered the withdrawn role in the Cruyffian system which was once occupied by Michael Laudrup. This is evident from their statistics. These are sourced from www.whoscored.com.

Ronaldo plays 35 passes per 90 minutes to Messi’s 60. For comparison, Iniesta averages 81, while Busquets averages 82 passes per 90 minutes. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Real Madrid’s midfield maestros average 66 and 72 passes per 90 minutes. Due to his more flexible, withdrawn position, Messi has had a greater playmaking role compared to Ronaldo.

Perhaps the most interesting point in the numbers is that while Messi matches Ronaldo as far as goal scoring is concerned, he does so from significantly fewer attempts at goal. Ronaldo averages 6.90 shots on goal per 90 minutes, from which he scores 1.05 goals. Compared to the average elite striker, these are Bradmanesque numbers. Messi manages 1.08 goals per game from 5.26 chances.

The simple conclusion from this is that Messi is more efficient than Ronaldo. But this is perhaps not the full story. The territorial system Ronaldo plays in is more speculative than Barcelona’s obsessive control oriented approach. This difference is evident elsewhere too. Messi converts 9% of his chances from outside the box, while Ronaldo converts 5% of them. However, Ronaldo shoots more frequently from outside the box than Messi does. Messi is marginally better at converting chances within the penalty area (25% to Ronaldo’s 23% conversion), and matches Ronaldo in the six-yard box (46% for each).

Cristiano Ronaldo is a master of the speculative style which is essential from centre-forwards in the territorial approach (in the parlance of this essay). It is very difficult to anticipate well enough and get into positions to have 7 shots per 90 minutes of football. Zlatan Ibrahimovic averaged 4.5 shots per 90 minutes. Harry Kane averages 4.4 shots per 90 minutes.

Ronaldo is often described as the “complete” striker. In the territorial approach, he is exactly this. He is tall, powerful, fast, has excellent ball control, and can score expertly with head and feet. Messi on the other hand is the shortest player on the pitch in most games he plays. Given this, it is remarkable that Messi is as efficient as Ronaldo is in the six-yard box.

This difference in height is also evident elsewhere. Ronaldo is decisively superior in the air and evidently participates more in defending set plays. He has made 235 clearances in his career. Messi has made a mere five. Messi’s larger role in open play is evident from his marginally greater contribution in interceptions compared to Ronaldo.

Messi tries to dribble past players more often than Ronaldo, and does it marginally better than Ronaldo (succeeds in 60% of attempts to Ronaldo’s 52%). This is not surprising given Messi’s greater playmaking responsibilities.

 

The history of their respective league seasons for Real Madrid and Barcelona since 2010 crystallises the difference between the role played by Ronaldo for Real Madrid and the one played by Messi for Barcelona. As Ronaldo has gotten older, his participation has become defined ever more sharply in the centre-forward position.

 

This was illustrated brilliantly in the first leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League tie against Paris St. Germain in the 2017-18 season, in which Ronaldo had 30 touches of the ball, of which 10 were shots on goal! Messi’s performance is marked by how stable it has been over nearly a decade. The form of his contribution, in terms of playmaking and goal scoring has hardly changed.

 

As a share of their respective team’s efforts, Messi’s worst season was 2013-14. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was also the only season in which Barcelona did not win any of the three major titles available each season. His record in all the other seasons is perhaps the reason why Barcelona won six out of nine league titles, while Real Madrid won two. The numbers are similar in the Champions League. Real Madrid have won four of these, to Barcelona’s two. (note: the data on assists on who scored is incomplete for some of the Champions League campaigns in question).

 

Nothing illustrates the difference between the roles of Messi and Ronaldo for their clubs than the recruitment at both places after Messi and Ronaldo became fixtures there. Barcelona have acquired an array of forwards. In Guardiola’s first year, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o were at Barcelona. They were succeeded by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Suarez and Villa have arguably been most successful at partnering Messi. Neymar played as a winger on the left-side.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, have not acquired a single marquee striker since 2009-10 when they acquired Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. The acquisition of Gareth Bale, who ended up playing, like Neymar, as a winger is the closest they’ve come to acquiring a centre-forward.

The Cruyffian approach to football is brave due to its near monomaniacal focus on controlling the ball. If the ball is lost, the players positions are such that the only real defence is to win the ball back. And as Jose Mourinho, formerly manager at Real Madrid and the arch-nemesis of the Cruyffian approach wrote, “Whoever has the ball, has fear.”

Occasionally, opponents have managed to stifle the possession based approach by calling its bluff and conceding possession altogether, sitting back, and hoping to score from the occasional runaway counterattack. This approach fails most of the time. But when it succeeds, it makes for memorable games. When its practitioners are not at their best, and the ball is not moving quickly enough, as was the case with Germany and Spain during the 2018 World Cup, the possession game can fail, and worse, look boring. Most of the boredom is created by opponents who sit back and wait for a mistake, causing the struggling possession playing team to also sit back and wait for a mistake in the opposition half.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have occupied the marquee positions in two distinct ways of thinking about football. Ronaldo is the greatest specialist of the mainstream territorial approach. Lionel Messi on the other hand, is unique. He matches Ronaldo as far as goal-scoring contributions go, while also being one of the greatest playmakers of the age. He is, if you like, Laudrup and Romario rolled into one. Amazingly, like Ronaldo, he has been this good for a decade now!

This is why I think the answer to the question about who the better player is, is trivial. But perhaps the players are the creations of their systems more than we appreciate.