Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Footballing Intellects: Messi vs. Ronaldo

I have an embarrassing secret, a dirty little obsession which I need to own up to...

I spend a lot of time reading the user comment sections on ESPN

Now, you might think that I'm hungry for intelligent discourse about football tactics or transfer possibilities, but if that were the case I wouldn't be ashamed.  The sort of discussion I'm looking for is much more "Jersey Shore" than "60 Minutes."  Every time that site churns out another article, I'm scrolling through the comments seeking the most radically biased fan(atic)s and listening to their latest rants.

The commenter might be cataloging every bad decision made by the referee, or perhaps spewing profanities about the actions or words of a rival team's supporters.  Maybe they've just realized the perfect combination of transfers to complete their dream team (never mind that the total cost must be written in scientific notation to fit on one page).  Often they go so far as to recount long-past glories or predict ambitious results for next season.

But more likely, they are feverishly explaining why Lionel Messi is better than Cristiano Ronaldo, or vice versa.

The Stalemate

If the article concerns La Liga football, it is a virtual certainty that "Messi vs Ronaldo" is broached.  The two sides will then start to chime in against one another even though the banter is so tired that it resembles two grandmasters playing out the opening to a chess game.  The moves are memorized; the counterattacks automatic; the threats, bluffs, and defenses rehearsed to precision.

After a good performance by Messi, a Cristiano supporter will attribute all of his success to the service he receives from Xavi and Iniesta.  After a bullet freekick from Cristiano, a Barcelona fan will point out the 'dive' that he used to earn that freekick.  A fan glowing about the blazing form of Lionel with Barcelona will immediately be informed of his comparatively cool form for Argentina.  Either player will be called selfish by their respective detractors, even after single-handedly winning a game for their team.  Quotes from Sir Alex Ferguson,  Johan Cruyff, Arsene Wenger, even Messi and Cristiano, will be tossed back and forth, and then explained to be outdated, biased, inexpert, mistranslated, or taken out of context.

Even the statistics are twisted by each side.  If Cristiano has scored more goals in the league, then Messi will be shown to have a higher scoring rate (per minute played, or per shot, whichever is more skewed towards Leo).  If Messi has more assists, then Cristiano will be shown to set up more chances, but have poorer finishers on his team.  With the introduction of the new statistics concerning pass completion, balls recovered or lost, or even the dubious Castrol ranking, the permutations of statistical evidence at the fingertips of a fan allows virtually any argument to become mathematical.  It's only a matter of time before the distance traveled by Leo or Cristiano during a game will be somehow used to argue for one's superiority over the other.

These shouting matches beautifully demonstrate the psychology of some of the crazier football fans.  But in terms of the chess analogy from above, these battles invariably end in a stalemate.  Never is one side conclusively shown to be right or wrong, and (of course) never does a member of one side admit defeat and switch allegiances.  Instead, the two sides are eternally stuck in the trenches they have dug to defend their choice of the world's best player.  Let's quickly analyze each side's 'trench position' in this stalemate, which I'm defining as the argument they fall back to because it most conclusively supports their side.

For Lionel Messi, the strongest evidence is his back-to-back Ballon d'Or wins (okay, if you want to be pedantic, his Ballon d'Or and FIFA WPOTY awards in 2009 and his FIFA Ballon d'Or in 2010).  Voting among team captains, coaches, and sports journalists determines the winner of these awards.  Since the top players are judged by a jury of their peers, winning carries with it the highest honor.  Also, Messi's scoring and assisting form with Barcelona usually tops Ronaldo's with Real Madrid, though not by so much.  Finally, the current dominance of Barcelona both in the league and in Europe can be reliably called upon to reinforce its flagship player as the best in the world.

In Cristiano Ronaldo's camp, the established territory revolves around his successful transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid.  A year after his dominating 42-goal 08/09 season with United in the physically demanding Premiership, Cristiano switched to the more technical, quick-passing Spanish Liga, and continued in his hot goalscoring vein.  All the while Messi has stayed at Barcelona, his footballing home since he was thirteen years old.  This train of thought supports the claim that Ronaldo is a more 'complete' player than his Argentine rival.  To strengthen this claim to well-roundedness, fans of Cristiano often rank the two players according to selected categories, to see which player comes out on top.  For example,

Shooting - C. Ronaldo
Free Kicks - C. Ronaldo
Speed - C. Ronaldo
Heading - C. Ronaldo
Weaker Foot - C. Ronaldo
Crossing - C. Ronaldo
Passing - Tie
Open Field Dribbling - C. Ronaldo
Dribbling in Tight Spaces - Messi

Seeing their man as the winner in seven of nine categories, they proclaim Cristiano the more 'complete,' and thus better, player.  Marca, the Madrid-b(i)ased sports magazine, adopted this strategy in its December 23rd, 2009 issue, by providing an 'X-ray' of the two top talents according to similar categories to the ones above.  Now, let's assume these ratings are basically correct, for the sake of the following argument.  It's plain to see that Cristiano is taller and a better header of the ball than Messi, he is probably faster off the ball, and his free kick and shooting skills are fearsome, to say the least.

Taking these two positions at face value, we would seem to have a bit of a contradiction.  If Messi really only bests Cristiano with his maneuverability in crowds, how could he be voted the best player in the world in a World Cup year, when he failed to score in all five of his World Cup matches?  If Ronaldo can really do nearly everything in football so much better, why hasn't he led Madrid to the La Liga title in either of his two seasons?

'Complete,' More Completely

The only resolution to this seeming paradox is in the semantics; 'completeness,' as defined by the above categories, must not be what the voters for the Ballon d'Or look for in their choice for best player.  Sid Lowe wrote an interesting article about 'complete' being the new buzzword for Ronaldo fans on December 3rd of 2010, lambasting the Marca article from the year before.  But I think he only scratched the surface when dealing with the qualities of a footballer ignored by this definition of 'complete.'

In fact, the categories above are chosen so naively that I think a professional football player would find them insulting.  Every single category is something physical that the player can do, mostly involving the manipulation of the ball.  This 'completely' discredits the mental side of the game.  Why should we concern ourselves with how well the football players are thinking?  Well, the other two FIFA Ballon d'Or finalists in 2010 were World Cup winners Xavi and Iniesta.  These two players are known much more for their understanding of the game than for their physical powers.  So it seems that the voters for the award also put quite a bit of stock in the intellectual side of the game.

So let's add to the comparison a few categories which respect the fact that football players need intelligence to play their best.  For example, consider the category "Decision Making."  I believe that this measure of a footballer trumps every physical aspect discussed above.  If a player can dribble, pass, and shoot brilliantly, he still needs to decide which to do at any given moment in a game.  Any tactical situation can develop in a number of ways; a player needs to use the information available to him to compute what his team (and thus he himself) should do to optimize their chance of winning the game.  Every football fan can appreciate moments when their team failed in their decision making duties, usually he or she was barking at the television, "Just shoot (or pass or clear or tackle) the damn ball!!!"  Current players with top marks in this category would be Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, and Wesley Sneider.

A second intellectual quality of a player is his awareness of the current game state.  I'll label this new category "Vision," since this is the commonly used term in football (as well as most other team sports).   Having good vision is linked strongly with making good decisions, since the better the information you have, the easier it is to come to the proper conclusion about your role in the game situation.  In my opinion, current players with a fantastic vision for the game would be the three named above, along with Sergio Busquets, Villarreal's Giuseppe Rossi, and Manchester City's Yaya Toure.

The final category I'll add to the above choices will be "Creativity," a player's ability to think outside the box, to invent something new in the spur of the moment.  This category is more celebrated, since the results of the most creative players are so plain to see in the highlight reels of games.  The most obvious example of a player with 10 out of 10 for creativity was Ronaldinho in his prime years at Barcelona.  His amazing style wasn't just "outside the box," he had completely abandoned the typical confinements of what a footballer should do, to incredible effect.  Other current players possessing impressive ingenuity are Andres Iniesta and Nasri, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an example of a very creative player with less than stellar decision making.

A New Comparison

Lionel Messi surpasses Cristiano Ronaldo in all three of these new categories, and by some distance.  First, let's consider decision making.  Messi plays several distinct roles for Barcelona, and each involves a different set choices to distinguish.  During the 08/09 season he mastered the right side of the attack, and the subsequent season he learned how to play in the center of the attack, and also how and when to shift from the center into a false nine role.  He can play on the break, knowing when to force the play and when to slow it down.  He is able to spring the offside trap, and rarely gets called offside.  And lately, he's been getting plenty of practice (and having plenty of success) slowly building the attack to break down stalwart defenses.  Lionel Messi's one failing in his decision making may be that he doesn't always make the pass when dribbling is available.  But his prodigious dribbling talent usually makes up for these misjudgments.

Meanwhile, it would be hard to argue that C. Ronaldo approaches the game with an equal amount of understanding.  He plays expertly on the break, when his speed can be used to its full effectiveness, but his gradual build up play and quick combinations leave a bit to be desired.  His practiced stepovers and other tricks are flashy, but certainly waste energy and time, and this wastefulness indicates poor decision making.

In terms of vision, the fact that Messi has nearly twice the number of assists that Cristiano has (15 to 8) upon this writing argues for superiority in this category.  However, Messi more often takes up a position on the field that precipitates assists when he drops deeper on the field into his "false nine" role, so this isn't as conclusive as it may seem.  I think the best evidence for Messi involves his defensive duties.  Messi tends to recover possession much more frequently than the typical striker, often in dangerous areas.  When he does so, it's usually the result of a sudden burst of speed to intercept a pass between defenders or to catch a defender in possession.  Upon seeing a single instance of this, one might believe Messi just sprints around like a mad dog all game, but he doesn't.  Instead, he filters out the moments when such an action would be a waste of energy, preserving his strength for those moments he can exploit.

Finally, there are very few players as creative as Lionel Messi currently playing at the highest level.  After putting four past Almunia last year, the goalkeeper for Arsenal admitted that the most difficult part of trying to defend Messi is his capability of doing anything at any time.  Messi reinforced that observation when the two teams met on March 8th this year by scoring the first goal with a mind-boggling chip to himself over the onrushing Almunia.

Where does such a gulf between the footballing intelligences of Messi and Ronaldo come from?  Messi has his many years in La Masia to thank for his quick thinking on the field.  The one-touch and half-touch football practiced at Barcelona's cantero hones the minds of the pupils until correct decisions aren't choices but instincts.  The proper movements, with or without the ball, become the natural ones.  Watching Messi, his movements are very minimal but extremely effective; the polar opposite of Ronaldo's energetic skills.  Cristiano Ronaldo became the footballer he is today thanks to his time at Manchester United.  The dynamic, end-to-end style of the premiership taught him how to use his speed on the break effectively, but because the game doesn't value possession as highly, he didn't sharpen his intricate combination play as much.  His power game was so dominant that he didn't need to expand his skill set beyond it.

The question then becomes, can Cristiano improve his footballing brain to reclaim the title of the world's greatest footballer?  He's in the right league to do so; La Liga stresses combination play and awareness as much as any other league in Europe.  But it is difficult to change your instincts, especially when they have brought you so much success in the past.  Ronaldo needs to continue being a student of the game, to accept that he can become more effective by further appreciating the mental side of the game.  He seems well aware of its importance: as Portugal's captain, he earned a voting ballot for the 2010 award, and his first choice was Xavi Hernandez, the creative visionary of Barcelona and Spain.

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