Lionel Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo – A Statistical Viewpoint.

“Ronaldinho is better than Cristiano Ronaldo, but neither are as good as Leo Messi.”            Antonio Cassano on Messi, 2009

Football has been spoilt with the dazzling talent that has been on display this season, none more so than in Spain, provided by the two top clubs and the two top players.

Lionel Messi, the prolific Argentinian maestro and Cristiano Ronaldo, the illustrious Portuguese showboater. This rivalry has taken over football, taken over even the most intellectual of pub debates. And the question always boils down to, who is better?

People will always have their opinions on the matter, whether they say things that people want to hear, or say things that they have read in the press. Sadly an opinion is always formed, but usually there isn’t any evidence to back up the stand alone point. The amount of times I have heard a weather report from the Britannia Stadium from a Wednesday night is unbelievable, however people don’t have a way of enhancing this. I have also heard people talk about specific skill sets that these two highly gifted professionals have, again without evidence to really make a claim to the argument. This will hopefully give you the statistical insight into the two spectacular seasons that these highly gifted professionals have endured.

There have been great yet bitter rivalries from the start of sport itself. From Ovett and Coe to McEnroe and Borg and of course Ali vs Frazier. But, for me, there has been no better than Messi vs Ronaldo. A true clash of the titans, a battle of unparalleled genius. A rivalry that may not be matched again. But maybe this is down to the generation I have lived in. A generation where I have seen talents such as Zidane, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho simply come and go, leaving their own unique stamp on footballing history. However, it has to be said, they are only fit for laying the red carpet in front of these two fantastic talents.

Both playing in the Spanish domestic league, Messi and Ronaldo flourish with countless goals and untold skill. La Liga is packed full of talent, players who can score goals, but also stop them and because of this is not the pushover that people make it out to be when comparing it to the Premier League. Yes, the tempo of the game is slower, and the game is built on possession of the ball – but it is by no means easy. People sometimes write Messi off because he has only played in this league, but at 24 he would be anything but wise to leave the football club that provides him with what he needs and has supported him since he was a child. Some other self proclaimed experts also say that players shouldn’t be rated as high as they are until they play in the ‘best league in the world’ (the Premier League) – however, if you look at the last decade of Ballon d’Or winners, we see only 2/10 winners have played in the Premier League. And one of the two players is Andriy Shevchencko in 2004, who as we know, flopped at Chelsea a few seasons after he won the prestigious prize. Other great players of the last ten or so years that haven’t played in the Premier League include: Ronaldo, Nedved, Ronaldinho, Zidane and Kaka. You can certainly be the ‘best player in the world’ if you haven’t played in the Premier League, and even when you have only played in a singular league as European Competitions open you up to the diversity of the modern game around the continent.

Both talents have picked up the world’s most coveted prize, the Ballon d’Or; however Messi has picked it up on 3 consecutive occasions (from 2009), whilst Ronaldo has only won it the solitary time in 2008 when he guided Manchester United to Champions League victory over Chelsea.

‘Not only is he quick, determined, and extremely intelligent on the ball, but his movement off the ball is just as fantastic’  –  Carlos Tevez on Messi

Ronaldo is often seen to be more physically dominant in comparison to the Argentinian, therefore lots of critics label Messi as a weak player who struggles to get the better of an opponent or score headed goals, however this is strictly not true. Ronaldo is a much greater physical presence, standing well over six inches taller and weighing 13kgs heavier, obviously Cristiano is going to be a player to hassle the defenders as he is physically more of a dominant figure. However writing Messi off completely in these fields is stupid as there are plenty of examples where he shows he has ability in this field, but his physicality obviously limits his development of this part of his game. His second goal, of a soon to be hat-trick, on the 21st of March 2010 against Real Zaragoza was one to really treasure, as he out muscled a player on the half way line and continued to finish in true Messi style (Messi vs Real Zaragoza: ).

The heading stats also lean towards the Real Madrid star, however you would expect this due to the height advantage he holds over his rival. Then again Ronaldo has only scored seven headed attempts this season but Messi has managed three, again proving that even with his supposed weak ability in the air, he can still score goals. Nevertheless, Ronaldo is obviously the player who, as a defender, you would be more worried about marking from a corner as his physicality adds to the already imminent threat of goals.

“Everyone went crazy over Wayne Rooney, but I get more excited by Cristiano Ronaldo”  George Best

Lets look at some of the goal stats. The information we are all interested in. As everyone knows, in all competitions this season, Messi scored an incredible 73 goals for Barcelona. This broke Gerd Muller’s thirty-nine year record of 67 goals in a single season. The sad thing for Cristiano Ronaldo is that in any other season, the feat he achieved, 60 goals, would have been miraculous. Maybe it is just bad luck for him, he was born three years earlier than Lionel Messi, was allowed to establish his career, grow his reputation. Then along came Little Lionel, out of the shadows, to pounce and steal ‘top spot’. Ronaldo’s ego does not like to be overtaken, or far worse, beaten. This ‘beating’ therefore, I would imagine, hurts Ronaldo. This could show itself in two ways, a strop, or more miracles. For football’s sake, I hope it is the latter.

Messi has scored 50 goals from 194 shots in La Liga this season which gives him a 25% conversion rate , while Ronaldo has scored 45 goals from 247 shots which works out at 18%. Both great conversion rates, but to have a forward who converts one-in-four chances is just phenomenal, especially at the level that he plays at. With this 25% conversion rate, Messi managed to score 50 goals in La Liga this season, which in turn is a new record – beating Ronaldo’s previous record of 40 by ten goals. Both players this season managed to surpass this record, as the race for the Pichichi trophy hotted up, however Ronaldo could only muster 46 goals to Messi’s 50.

Another interesting fact is that only six La Liga teams scored more goals than Messi this season: Real Madrid who scored 117, Valencia (59), Malaga (53), Bilbao (52), Rayo (52) and Levante (51). On the other hand Ronaldo is the first player to ever score against all nineteen teams in La Liga in one season. Messi ‘only’ managed to score against eighteen of the nineteen teams he played.

Messi scored 8 hat-tricks this season in the league, breaking yet another Ronaldo record of 7 hat-tricks in a season which he accomplished in the  2010/11 season. This is a staggering 24 goals coming in 8 matches that Messi played. If you think of that as a statistic, 48% of Messi’s goals in the league this season were part of a hat-trick.

Ronaldo also seems to dominate heavily when it comes to free kicks over Messi, but only by public opinion. Ronaldo managed to score four free kicks this season. For a ‘normal’ player, a great achievement, but for Ronaldo: poor. Messi, a considerably less publicised set piece specialist, scored three free kicks. Ronaldo is also ahead when it comes to penalties scored this season, as he managed to score twelve spot kicks, in comparison to Messi’s 10. Alongside this, Ronaldo’s conversion rate from the spot is far higher. So, why do people still say that Messi needs penalties as to bump up his goal tally? You will be shocked to hear that 82.2% Messi’s goals were from open play this season, compared to  73.3% of Cristiano’s.

Some argue that Ronaldo scores fewer goals because he plays towards the left of the main striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation at Real Madrid, where Higuain or Benzema are preferred as front men. But what people who don’t watch Spanish football seem to realise is that the front four of Real Madrid is very interchangeable, and therefore Ronaldo find’s himself central a lot of the time. But also counter to the positional argument, even though Messi plays centrally in a seemingly simple 4-3-3, he actually plays the ‘False 9’ role. This means that he plays right the way across the front and even drops deep, almost acting as a decoy for the other forward thinking players. He, in theory, plays a deeper role than Ronaldo. So as I said from the off, people say stuff without understanding the full context.

Definition of a False 9: “Similar to a more advanced attacking midfielder/playmaker role, is an unconventional lone striker or centre-forward, who drops deep into midfield. The purpose of this is that it creates a problem for opposing centre backs who follow him, leaving space behind them for onrushing midfielders, forwards or wingers to exploit.”

“For me, the best in the world is Messi because of the way he plays, moves with the ball and changes matches, Messi has incredible ability and I love the way that he plays.”                Fernando Gago, team mate of Cristiano Ronaldo

Unlike Messi however, Ronaldo won La Liga this season. A huge achievement at the height of Barcelona’s dominance, and therefore some argue that it is him that has really shown that he can win trophies this season. But people must not forget that Messi has also won trophies this season. He has won three trophies this season: Spanish Super Copa, Copa Del Rey and the World Club Cup, scoring in each of the respective finals. But this will not, of course, soften the blow that Barcelona have lost their reign on both Spain and Europe this season.

Another myth that I would like to ‘bust’ before the end of this piece is this: ‘Messi relies upon Xavi and Iniesta for him to score the amount of goals that he does.’ This is utter nonsense. Messi broke every goal scoring record he could this season, yet Xavi and Iniesta, combined, only assisted 9 of his 73 goals, a staggeringly low 12.3%.

“I’m constantly around great players like Cristiano and Rooney, but this guy is just a step up above every other great footballer”                                                                                                                 Tevez on Messi whilst Tevez was at Manchester United

If you look at the overall picture from this season it is apparent that there is very little to separate the two players. However, Messi makes himself hard to ignore with the impressive 73 goals he scored for Barcelona this season. Ronaldo’s grasp of the league however pulls him into contention. But it must be said, and even I find it hard to give into, both these players are unbelievable talents, both deserve all the accolades that you can throw at them, because their skill and determination to be the best cannot be surpassed by any other. I would like to think that FIFA honour Messi with his fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or this year, allowing him to be one of a kind. But who knows with FIFA. Anything could happen –  the same thought that goes through my head when one of these tremendous talents gets the ball on the football pitch.


22 thoughts on “Lionel Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo – A Statistical Viewpoint.

  1. Excellent piece backing up many arguments I have been making over the past couple of years. My biggest hate is the ‘but he plays with Xavi and Iniesta’ Brigade, – why should that matter when comparing him to Ronaldo? Great stat to back up the fact that Xavi and Iniesta don’t actual create that much for him.

      • I think if a superstar footballer’s ability is derided for playing in a team full of other superstars, then I think it officially makes Matt Le Tissier the greatest player of all-time 🙂

    • I am slightly biased, but have managed to reel that in and manage the statistics fairly and in balance. Still hard to be balanced when there are so many stats that favour Messi.

  2. Really nice article. Messi simply genius not only talent. I’m watching football since Maradona time and never thought that one day a player come with such genius and footy brain like Messi.

  3. As a Messi fan I would say this guy is biased towards Ronaldo.. He just talks about Ronaldo scoring better in different ways (headers, free kicks), whilst in skill Messi owns Ronaldo, All he is saying is Ronaldo can score with his head, free kick, hes bigger, blah blah blah. I dont care that Ronaldo can score with his head, hes not even close skill-wise as Messi.

    This article is Biased because he shows Ronaldo is close to Messi, when in reality he isnt.

    • i like your argument saying that i am drawing the too closer together than they already are.

      However, you mistake me for a Ronaldo fan, where infact you will find that i am a HUGE Messi fan boy. I am glad i managed to, in your eyes, shield that from you.


  4. Good article, but you couldn’t help being a bit more biased towards Lionel Messi, even when you named a Ronaldo ‘strength’ and Messi ‘weakness’ you were always trying to make out as if that weakness is not far from Ronaldos strength when they clearly are. Example, strenght&headering Ronaldo is far superior but yet you made out as if he’s a tiny bit better than Messi when he isn’t as he’s far better.
    Also it would of been nice if you mentioned Ronaldo’s hatrick’s this season instead of his 2010/2011 season since your talking about hatrick’s as its a statistical viewpoint on both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and not just Messi.
    Its clear that you like Lionel Messi more and you edged a lot in favour of him more in this article. Also Ronaldo could ”ONLY” muster 46 goals to Messi’s 50 is not by a big margain, making out as if 46 is nowhere near Messi’s 50. Making Messi’s strength in this category far more superior to Ronaldo’s when in other parts of the article you made out as if Messi’s weakness is just a bit behind Ronaldo’s ‘strength when they wernt.
    As well Xavi&Iniesta do make Messi the player he is today, you added a lot of professional quotes such as Carlos Tevez etc, but why not get Johan Cruyff’s quote up where he stated ‘Messi doesn’t play well for Argentina because he doesn’t have Xavi&Iniesta around him’…once again you wouldn’t get any quote that would be in the opposite direction of your view. Messi deluded article. But well written.

    • Josh,

      I am a huge Messi fan.. There is no doubting that. However i have tried to make this as balanced as the stats can support it. You are obviously slightly biased on the other side, which i cannot blame you for.

      The bit ‘Ronaldo could only muster 46goals’ is a tongue in cheek phrasing. And therefore i put ‘only’ in quotation marks.

      Xavi and Iniesta obviously influence the style in which Messi plays, but any player in that team, especially Dani Alves, who assisted the majority of Messi’s goals, helps to raise the goal tally of the forward. But the stat that i calculated, shows that Messi is not as reliant on those players for direct assists as lots make out. To again comment on your point, i did not come across that Cruyff quotation, and this makes it hard for me to include it.

      It was more of an article to squash myths and open people’s eyes to the argument that dominates all of football.

      Thank you for the feedback however, it is greatly appreciated. And i am especially happy that you find this piece well written.


  5. What a great piece, lot of people hate me because I have always stated these facts during arguments. This piece will be filed for future refence.

  6. Mmmm!!! I like, I must say both players are incredible in the pitch and both play with too much confidence but one must be better than another. Messi does it for me

  7. Great article mate, well balanced opinion, imo ronaldo is a great player, however a player like messi comes around once in a generation……. Will go down as one of the greatest players of all time

  8. Fairr article mate, layed out very well especially when you have set the opinions out nicely. I agree with Ayo Ayedun Messi is a class player and he will be remembered forever.

    Almost like Pele. You ask any football player from the age of like 12+ and most of them will know who he is and it will go the same way with Messi when he grows old.

    Ronaldo on the other hand is a great and tallented footballer and a well known guy now… But not in the next 15 or 20 years though.

    But above all a fantastic article mate 😀

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