Since Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, he has made 372 appearances in all competitions and has racked up an astonishing tally of 383 goals, as well as over a century of assists (105). During the same period Lionel Messi has played 396 games and notched up 401 goals and set up his teammates for a further 149 strikes.
The prolific output for the duo has remained fairly consistent over the years. Only counting the last two plus the ongoing season, Ronaldo has amassed 131 goals from 126 appearances, three more than Messi who has played seven more games. Even as Ronaldo has moved past the age of 30 and Messi will cross the personal landmark in three months’ time, when it comes to scoring goals the two have shown absolutely no sign of slowing down.
Despite their goalscoring feats and the general dominance on the football pitch, the playing style of the two has always been very different. While Messi has relied more on deft touches, close control and incredible dribbling, Ronaldo’s hallmarks have been step-overs, powerful running and precision shooting. However, as the two grow older, the contrast in their playing styles has become starker than ever.
Messi, the playmaker
In Barcelona’s last league game against Eibar, there was a beautiful dink over the opposition defence for Luis Suarez in the 20th minute; then, there was mazy lateral run across the entire defensive line before a defence-splitting pass for Neymar in the 33rd minute. Nine minutes later, a run from deep in midfield followed a deo with Suarez before Neymar was released once more. A minute from half-time, an exquisite cross while cutting infield from the right wing fell beautifully for Arda Turan; and then there was another sumptuous one-touch dink in the 72nd minute for the Uruguayan.
No, Andres Iniesta wasn’t the instigator for any of these moves. Though they all seem routine for a seasoned playmaker, they were all handiwork of Messi. None of the aforementioned chances led to a goal but they clearly showed how much more there is to the Argentine’s game than just the tangible currency of goals.
Back in 2004, when Messi made the grade and became part of the Barcelona first team, he was just 18, and although he was always billed for greatness, in his early days Ronaldinho was the chief orchestrator of the Catalan outfit’s attack. Messi, then, was deployed on the right wing by manager Frank Rijkaard. As the Argentine’s stature in the team grew and it became clear that he would be fulfilling all of his potential and then some, Rijkaard’s successor Pep Guardiola made him the fulcrum of his attack, deploying him as a false nine – an old but out-of-fashion position that was meant to get the best out of Messi’s ability.
Barcelona under Guardiola remained almost untouchable for the next four years, but then the opposition figured that an easy counter for the false nine would be to load the central defensive area with not just the two defenders but also defensive midfielders and force the Catalans out wide. Messi struggled and so did Barcelona. The following two seasons under Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino were not the same successes as the Guardiola years, and worse, the team looked bereft of ideas when their primary mode of attack – the one through Messi – was stifled.
Decisive change in role
A decisive change in the forward’s role came in January 2015 when he moved to the position where he started his first team career: right wing. Suarez had arrived in the previous summer and it was clear to all that he wasn’t very effective on the wing. The Messi intervention meant that Uruguayan was now free to play through the centre – his preferred position.
And consequently, it also meant that Messi could now play with less attention from the opposition centre-backs. There is little doubt that the Argentine’s switch was enabled by the presence of quality forwards in Neymar and Suarez, who were a big upgrade on the likes of Pedro Rodriguez, Christian Tello, Isaac Ceunca and even Alexis Sanchez et al from the previous years.
The switch clicked as the treble of the league title, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey that Barcelona collected at the end of the 2014-’15 campaign very well illustrated. Another domestic double followed a year later and, now, right flank has become Messi’s default position. When he couldn’t influence the game through the centre, a switch to the wing has seen him find another way to flummox the opposition.
Messi is undoubtedly one of the greatest forwards to have played the game, but it would be no exaggeration to call him one of the greatest playmakers as well. Indeed, there are very few players in the modern game who have the vision and the passing range that the diminutive Argentine possesses.
The fact that he is happier setting up chances for his teammates than necessarily finishing them himself – illustrated also by his willingness to let his teammates take the spot kicks – has meant that he has evolved into an even bigger threat.
Ronaldo, the forward
After Ronaldo made his switch from Sporting Lisbon in favour of Manchester United as a teenager in 2003, he returned a modest 18 goals in 95 appearances in his first three seasons at Old Trafford. Back then, his game was more about running on the left flank, evading his marker and setting up chances for his striker teammates.
It was only during his later seasons in the Premier League that his goalscoring prowess became more evident. He notched up a tally of 31 league goals in the 2007-’08 campaign – a Manchester United record in a 38-game season. He signed for Real Madrid a year later and, of course, at the Santiago Bernabeu he has broken a plethora of longstanding records with his phenomenal output.
He struck terror in the heart of opposition defences with his marauding runs, side-stepping and powerful shooting. The Portuguese also possesses a mean free-kick. At Real Madrid, managers built their sides around Ronaldo to get the best out of his skills and gave him the full freedom to cut inside from his nominal position on the left wing and finish chances.
As the Portuguese grew into his role at Real Madrid, he became deadlier in front of the goal, scoring then-La Liga record 41 goals in the 2010-’11 season to take home the Pichichi award. He surpassed that mark in the 2014-’15 season with 48 goals.
And it wasn’t only about the goals. It was his position wide on the left that stretched defences and kept them guessing as to whether he would move inside or take on his marker. And his peripheral position created space for other attacking players to move into.
Becoming a poacher
However, over the past couple of seasons or so, the trademark dribbles and step-overs have decreased in their effectiveness. The defenders have been able to read his moves and snuff out any danger. It has clearly reduced the 31-year-old’s effectiveness on the left flank.
The lack of surging runs can be attributed to a loss of pace for a player in his early 30s. For someone whose game relied so heavily on his ability to outrun the defenders, the loss of pace can be a lethal blow.
But Ronaldo has also evolved, too. He has shown a typical poacher’s skills in positioning himself perfectly in the box to grab goalscoring chances.
Although he is put on the left wing on the team sheet, Ronaldo has become a centre-forward in all but the name. And his superb positioning, movement and shooting skills – both with the feet and his head – have seen him still dominate the scoring charts.
If anything, Messi and Ronaldo have shown another quality that separates the good from the great: adaptability. While the former has evolved from a striker to a playmaker the latter is now a centre-forward more than a winger.