After losing the Player of the Year award (Ballon d’Or) to Lionel Messi for four consecutive years Cristiano Ronaldo won the accolade in 2013. This and the great start Ronaldo has made in the new season have livened up an old debate as to whether he is a better player than Messi.
The discussion has focused on a particular set of statistics, namely, goals. To the extent that the data can help us to hazard an educated guess about player performance, Messi is the better of the two at club and international levels.
However if goals are used as the criteria to compare players it is not sufficient to look only at the number of goals scored. You also have to break down the conversion rate into such things as whether the shots are from inside or outside the area, the goal expectation i.e. whether an average player would score given the chance presented and the quality of the opponents.
The findings of a recent mathematical study were published in the Washington Post which showed that in 2009 to 2013 Messi’s average chance quality (i.e. quality of chances created) was higher than Ronaldo’s. Ronaldo had more shots but were mostly from long distance and he only scored 30 goals from 587 such shots whereas Messi scored 28 goals from his 287 long distance shots. Messi was more efficient because a higher percentage of his shots were converted i.e. 9.75 % to 5.11%.
The study found that Messi is better at getting into goal-scoring positions since he had 29 danger zone shots (from inside the area) to Ronaldo’s 20.
Messi is also a better finisher. In the period 2009/10 through 2013/14 Messi averaged 40% more goals than expected goals compared to Ronaldo’s 20% (see WASHINGTON POST – Despite great season, Cristiano Ronaldo is not better than Lionel Messi; by Michael Caley, November 7, 2014).
Last season Ronaldo broke the norm and outscored Messi. This propelled him to win the Ballon d’Or in 2013. But this has to be looked at in light of the fact that Messi missed a part of the year through injury and when he resumed playing he almost caught up with Ronaldo’s tally of 31 by scoring 28 by the end of the 2013/14 season.
Also, in the current season Ronaldo has made a great start by scoring 12 non-penalty goals to Messi’s 7. A plausible explanation for this is not that Ronaldo is now a better player but it is attributed to the changing roles of both players at their respective clubs.
With the addition of Neymar and Luis Suarez on the flanks of Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation Messi now plays a deep-lying playmaking role which has led to his goals trending down while his assists are going up. His goals per game fell from little under 1.50 in the season 2012/13 to 0.86 in 2014/15 while his assists in 2013/14 was little under 0.50 and rose to 0.86 in the current season.
At Real Madrid the trend was the opposite. With the recent addition of Gareth Bale and James Rodriques in the midfield Ronaldo is now more of a striker and less focused on distribution. He now takes more shots from inside the penalty area and in the current season his 12 non-penalty goals except for 2 were from inside the box. His goals per game rose from 1.00 in 2013/14 to 2.20 in 2014/15 while his assists in the same period fell from 0.25 to 0.17 (ESPN FC GLOBAL- Realigning Stars: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo face changing roles; by Michael Cox, October 23, 2014).
Messi has a better strike rate than Ronaldo. The all time stats for all competitions show that Messi has 44 goals from 95 caps (0.46 goals per game) whereas Ronaldo has 51 from 116 caps (0.43 goals per game) (INTERNATIONAL STATS – November 8, 2014).
World Cup – Messi also surpasses Ronaldo with 5 goals from 15 caps (0.33 goals per game) to Ronaldo’s 3 goals from 13 caps (0.23 goals per game) (INTERNATIONAL STATS etc.).
Messi’s record is very impressive. In 2014 he led Argentina to the final, was voted Man of the Match in 4 games (the most of any player in the competition) and won the Golden Boot as the best player of the tournament.
Contrary to what some critics say he was the most deserving of the latter award. He had the most impact on the competition as Argentina would not have progressed to the final without him. He was the joint highest goal scorer with 4 goals and assists, created the most chances, had the most successful dribbling runs, made the most deliveries into the box and produced the most through balls of any player.
In contrast, Ronaldo has a sorry record. He has only scored thrice and against weak opposition, namely, a penalty against Iran (2006), the sixth goal in a 7-0 win against North Korea in 2010 and a late goal against Ghana in 2014. In the last tournament his only real contribution was an assist against the USA.
QUALITY OF OPPONENTS
Messi has more career goals for club and country. He has a total of 420 goals in 564 games (or 0.74 goals per game) while Ronaldo has 449 goals in 702 games (or 0.63 goals per game).
The important difference is that the Argentine has more game changing goals and against stronger opposition. His goals are directly associated with winning titles in La Liga, Champions League victories, Olympic gold medal matches and Youth and Club World Cups.
For example, as at March 24, 2014 for Barcelona he has scored against the best teams namely, 21 against Real Madrid (Barcelona’s fiercest rival), 20 against league champion Atletico Madrid and 18 against Sevilla (most successful club in Andalusia). In the Champions League he has 12 against German teams, 8 against English teams and 5 against Italian teams. And in the World Cup 2014 he scored 4 match winning goals.
Ronaldo on the other hand has failed to score in decisive matches and succeeded in scoring multiple goals against weak teams not only with his club but with his country. For example, in the English Premier League for Manchester United he only scored 2 goals in 9 games against Liverpool (United’s fiercest rival) and scored 1 goal in 15 games against stalwart Chelsea.
In the Champions League for United he failed to net in his first 26 games and although he scored in the final in 2014 for Real Madrid he had little impact in the other final in which he played in 2009 in a 2-0 loss to Barcelona.
In Spain in his first 9 games against Barcelona (Real Madrid’s main rival) he scored just 3 goals.
In the World Cup he has a sorry record which was discussed above and in the European Championship he has 6 goals against minnows Greece, the Czech Republic and a weak Holland team and underperforms against strong teams like Germany and Spain.
All in all the stats show that Messi is the better player because he is better at getting into goal scoring positions, is a better finisher and is a more efficient goal scorer. Messi has an age advantage because he is 27 and Ronaldo is 29 and though it is likely that both will still be playing for a few more years the Argentine will have more time than Ronaldo to extend his record of achievements. In the meantime the debate goes on.
Victor A. Dixon
November 20, 2014