Has there ever been a fiercer debate in football – a bigger rivalry amongst players? Friend against friend, sibling against sibling and parent against child. Messi & Ronaldo have set the footballing world ablaze and have achieved heights that few of the greats can compare to. I am not sure if we will ever see anything like them again, and football fans around the world have been spoilt to witness two of, arguably, the greatest to ever do it. Given my love for football and my analytical background, I thought I’d attempt to settle the debate with regards to who, objectively, has been the better forward over their prime 15 years (18-32).
A quick disclaimer – the data derived for each player will be comparing them not according to seasons but rather according to age. Ronaldo is 2 years older, so the reasons for assessing them this way are self-explanatory.
At the end, we have inserted a poll for you to give your opinion on who you think is better. Please, we would love your feedback!
Case for the Greatest Player
You will note how I have specifically made this the case for the greatest forward and not the greatest player – there is a big difference.
For example, in the NBA, you may have a player that averages 50 points per-game but has no rebounds, no assists, no blocks nor steals. This player could be considered the greatest scorer, but not the greatest player. Accordingly, you have the exact same logic with football.
This might upset some people from the onset but there is no point in analysing who is the greater player between Messi & Ronaldo. The reason being, is that the moment you take away forward statistics (i.e. goal scoring and assists), it really becomes a one-horse race. Here are a few examples why:
Dribbling & Chance Creation – Ronaldo has completed 857 dribbles in his career, Messi has completed 2259 dribbles. That’s 2.64x more dribbles achieved in 144 fewer games. If you watch more than highlights, you’d know that Messi is arguably one of the greatest dribblers ever. Messi is also an incredibly effective dribbler – not doing continuous step-overs but rather beating players and completely disrupting defensive structures. I think even the harshest of the Argentine’s critics will concede this.
In direct correlation with his dribbling, is his ability to create attacking opportunities for his team members. He is able to draw players in and therefore out of their positions. Messi creates 2.64 chances for his teammates per 90 minutes, which is 64% higher than Ronaldo’s 1.61 per 90 minutes.
Passing – likewise, Messi dominates this arena. Some pundits have even hailed him as the greatest passer ever. Although debatable, he is in the discussion – the same can’t be said for Ronaldo. As the years have progressed in their respective careers, Messi has played deeper whilst Ronaldo has moved further forward. Since 2014, Messi has contributed to 0.44 key passes per game (Passes that lead to a goal) which is 57% higher than Ronaldo’s 0.28.
A more subjective angle is Man of the Match (MoM) awards and Match Ratings. Ronaldo has won 154 MoM awards whilst Messi has won 265 MoM awards. Ronaldo has an average match rating of 8.07 whilst Messi has one of 8.58. The point of all this is not to detract from Ronaldo, it’s simply just an objective outlook at the overall ability of the players and their added influence on a team.
There are a few things I have ignored for the purposes of a fair comparison, and with good reason. Firstly, are team trophies.
I do believe that this bias can be dangerous, and I’ll explain why. When comparing the greatest player in footballing terms, using team trophies to back your argument is fallible in several regards. An example of this would be that only players who play for certain teams and certain countries could be considered the greatest. For instance, many fans place an emphasis on a World Cup trophy, and to be the best according to this logic, you’d have to win it. But as a result, that automatically excludes players from countries like Swaziland, Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Latvia to name a few. No matter how good a single player may be, in a team sport of 11 players, he cannot drag Swaziland to World Cup glory, sorry to my Swazi friends (My father is actually from there). It becomes entirely opinionated as some fans want this trophy and others want something else – essentially you are comparing a team with a plethora of variables and not the actual player.
I have also purposely excluded individual trophies from this analysis. People often point to Ballon d’Ors, saying Messi has 6 and Ronaldo 5. The Ballon d’Or in itself is a controversial award and isn’t based entirely on individual statistics but gives, in my opinion, too heavy a weighting to team performances and trophies alike. That’s why more often than not, the recipient comes from a Champions League winning side. I have also excluded the European Golden Shoe award in which Messi has 6 and Ronaldo 4. This is because this analysis is more focused on goal contribution to a team, than an absolute value.
To establish who the greatest player is, you need to isolate statistics and try to avoid (as far as possible) having too many variables. You’d also want to remove as much subjectivity as possible, which is why I have not included types of goals either.
Some people prefer Ronaldo’s 25-yard bangers whilst some people prefer Messi dribbling four players and then chipping the keeper. Both scored, and both from 25 yards out – which is more difficult? I’ll let you decide. At the end of the day, what is comparable is the ball in the back of the net and not necessarily if it got there via head, right or left foot.
We can go back and forth about penalties too. Messi fans say Ronaldo has scored more of his goals from the penalty spot, Ronaldo fans say, ‘if penalties are so easy, why does Messi miss more’? This is a pointless debate and one ends up chasing his own tail.
Case for the Greatest Forward
This is where the rubber meets the road and I have spent much time debating how best to objectively compare these two amazing players. Cristiano Ronaldo holds the record as the highest scorer in Champions League history as well as for Portugal and Real Madrid. Lionel Messi holds the world record for most goals in a calendar year, 91; additionally, he is also Barcelona’s, La Liga’s and Argentina’s all-time leading goal scorer.
We have two freaks of nature on our hands here.
The two important statistics pertaining to a forward are simply goals scored and assists provided – so these will be the two pertinent points of data. At a snapshot level, here are there all time goal & assist statistics.
Now, if one would look at this at a glance, you may work out that Messi could go 104 games without scoring and still have a better goal/game ratio than Ronaldo. But I don’t think this tells a fair story as they haven’t played in the same leagues and international regions for their prime 15 years.
So, for example, many argue that the Premier League is more difficult than La Liga, and I believe there is some (although debatable) statistical weight to this assertion. La Liga’s top teams typically score more goals than the Premier League top teams – generally because the La Liga bottom teams are substantially weaker than the Premier League bottom teams. It’s not uncommon to find Madrid drubbing a bottom team 7-0, whilst in the Premier League it’s not uncommon to find teams fighting relegation beating teams in the top 3.
This is why I have emphasised the importance of contribution of goals as opposed to absolute values. If I could explain it this way. Player A scores 40 goals out of his team’s 110 goals, and player B scores 27 goals out of his team’s 70 goals. Although player A scored 13 more goals in absolute terms, he was actually only a part of 36% of the team’s goals whereas player B was a part of 39% of his team’s goals. Player B is thus contributing more value and is statistically the better goal scorer that season.
Why this methodology is so effective in assessing performances, is it completely nullifies the argument of one league being harder than another, it also nullifies the argument that a player played in a better team. It all boils down to margins and it’s all about value of goals scored & assists provided.
In other words, even if a player is playing in a ‘harder’ league or in a ‘weaker’ team, the players direct contribution to his team’s goals is what matters. A percentage evaluation of a player’s contribution allows them to be compared fairly with someone in an ‘easier’ league or playing for a ‘better’ team.
As a result, my methodology (let’s call it ‘Goal Assist Contribution’ or the ‘GAC Methodology’) computed both Messi and Ronaldo’s goal and assist contribution to the total team’s goals, from the ages 18-32 (15 years).
Critically, I have also adjusted it for their minutes played in a season. So, for example, if Ronaldo only played 80% of the total minutes available that season, his contribution will only be measured up against 80% of the total team’s goals. We are therefore assessing his impact when actually playing on the pitch. This methodology accurately depicts the impact & value of their goals and assists. Using minutes as opposed to appearances voids the effect of coming off the bench.
Let’s dive right in and start with the Champions League!
Champions League (CL)
I don’t need to give any introduction here. These players have terrified teams for so long – Ronaldo & Messi hold the first and second spots, respectively, for goals scored in the Champions League. Ronaldo having amassed 128 goals in 169 games (0.76 p/game) and Messi having scored 114 in 141 games (0.81 p/game). Now let’s statistically compare the two from the ages 18-32:
On average Messi is scoring a higher % (40%) of his team’s Champions League goals than Ronaldo (33%) is whilst both are on the pitch. Messi also contributes proportionately more goals in 9 of the 15 years compared. I have added a 2-period trend line to give you an idea of averages as the years go by.
Now, the next question is – ‘when, are these goals scored?’. For those unfamiliar with the CL format, you have group stages and then subsequent knockout stages. As a team progresses through the knockout rounds, it is fair to assume that it becomes harder to score.
This is a valid question, but importance of games can be a subjective matter; in that you’d need to score in the group stages to actually progress to the knockout stages. For example, Ronaldo performed poorly and only scored 2 (12.5%) of his teams 16 group stage goals in the 2016/2017 Champions League. Madrid went on to win it, and Ronaldo had a fantastic knockout stage performance. But had it not been for his team stepping up in the group stages, Ronaldo would have 14 less knockout phase goals and one less CL trophy.
Messi is ahead in goals scored during group stages, but the knockout stages tell a very different story. Although Messi is more prolific in round of 16 matches, Ronaldo completely dominates both the quarter final and semifinal stages. He has more than doubled Messi’s goal scoring in absolute terms during these stages and has a significantly higher goal scoring contribution to his team – mind-blowing. When considering the finals, Messi and Ronaldo are deadlocked, both scoring a goal every 135min of play. What both sets of fans refuse to admit, is that when it comes to finals, Messi and Ronaldo are cut from the same cloth – this will also be addressed later.
Messi assists 12% of his team’s total goals on average, whilst Ronaldo averages 11%. Surprisingly for some, Ronaldo has assisted a higher % of his team’s goals in 10 of the 15 years, in comparison to Messi. Once again giving weight to Ronaldo’s Champions League prowess.
Goals + Assists
On average Messi is either scoring or assisting 52% of his team’s CL goals when he is on the pitch, whilst Ronaldo is averaging 45%. Messi is also contributing to a higher % of his teams’ goals in 9 of the 15 compared years.
Just to pause here for a second, this is absolutely outrageous. When Ronaldo was 30, he contributed to 75% of his teams CL goals whilst playing and Real Madrid went on to win the CL that 2015/2016 season. But it is interesting to note that Messi last year (2018/2019), contributed to an astounding 74% of his teams goals (when playing) in the CL and FC Barcelona didn’t win the CL – this shows the fallacy in using team trophies to assess players.
Ronaldo has performed incredibly in the CL in more than one team. I think in conjunction with this, it is important to address a common error asserted by Messi detractors – ‘he can’t do it in the Premier League’. Given that Messi is directly contributing to more than half of his team’s goals when playing and has scored 26 goals against England’s top 6 – it’s hard to take that statement seriously. Although he has never played in the Premier League his 26 goals rank him 3rd since 2011 in goals scored against the top 6 – let that sink in.
In summary, Ronaldo’s domination in the quarterfinals and semifinals has given him the lead in the knockout phases of the Champions League. But overall and on average, Messi is contributing both more assists and goals to his team whilst playing.
League (La Liga & Premier League)
Once again, need I say anything about what these two have done in the leagues they have played in. Also, to reiterate, I am NOT comparing league trophies etc. this is because I am assessing the player and not the team.
Messi has scored 440 league goals in 476 games (0.92 goals/game) whilst Ronaldo has scored 440 goals in 566 games (0.78 goals/games). Messi & Ronaldo have 177 & 136 assists and their direct contribution per game is 1.30 and 1.02 respectively – staggering.
On average Messi is scoring 38% of his teams’ goals where Ronaldo is scoring 34%. Of the 15 years in comparison, Messi has contributed proportionately more goals in 9 of them. It is worth mentioning Messi’s 2011/2012 season where he scored 50 in La Liga for FC Barcelona – a league record. This season is represented by his 52% column at age 25,
Messi is once again outdoing Ronaldo here and quite considerably too – assisting a whopping 16% of his team’s goals scored where Ronaldo comes in at 11%. Messi has outdone Ronaldo in 12 of the 15 years in comparison. It is also worth noting that most of Ronaldo’s years where he outdid Messi, was when he was playing at Manchester United. Some fans felt that Ronaldo was a far more complete player at that time.
Goals + Assists
Messi is directly contributing to a staggering 54% of his team’ goals when he is playing, where Ronaldo proportionately contributes 45%. Messi has outperformed Ronaldo here in 12 of the 15 years compared. It’s hard to fathom the type of impact these players are having.
In summary of their league performances (from ages 18-32), please refer to the table below.
This is a consistent talking point when comparing Ronaldo and Messi. You often hear the argument that Messi needs to win an international trophy (not counting his Olympic gold medal) to be considered the greatest ever. I can see why this means a lot to certain individuals, but I am not sure how much weight it carries. For instance, and again, does this mean a player from Swaziland could never be considered the greatest (Swaziland will never win a World Cup or the AFCON)? There are too many variables at play on the international stage; essentially you are stuck with certain players and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Consider the period where Messi was the only player to score for Argentina in c.19 months (569 days). When someone else finally scored, Messi was the one who assisted them. National teams can be a nightmare to statistically juxtapose with one another.
It is worth noting that neither Ronaldo nor Messi have scored in an international final. Two examples to note: 2016 Euro, Ronaldo had a fantastic tournament but was then injured in the 25th minute and had to leave the pitch. Eder then scored and Portugal won. Ronaldo was praised. On the other hand, Messi led a fairly poor Argentinian side to a World Cup final – Higuain missed a sitter and Germany (which was a better team) won.
Hypothetically let’s say Eder didn’t score and France had won, and Higuain did score and Argentina had won. Would we then be criticizing Ronaldo even though he had a great tournament? I don’t think that would be fair at all – neither do I think it’s fair criticism of Messi.
Furthermore, both players have won a staggering 6 Man of the Match awards at World Cups. Ronaldo has won 6 Man of the Match awards at the Euros, where Messi has won 10 Man of the Match awards at the Copa America. Additionally, Messi has won both the coveted Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup (4 goals, 1 assist, 46 dribbles, 16 chances created, 3.3 key passes per game and an average rating of 8.52) and the MVP at the Copa America, something Ronaldo hasn’t achieved in either. So, based on individual performances and awards do we now say that Messi is better? It becomes a slippery slope.
The point I am trying to make is that it is best to remove as many subjective points (i.e. team trophies, MVP’s, etc.) as possible and rather isolate the individual (as far as possible) and then compare.
Goal + Assists
For the sake of brevity, I have added goal and assist statistics together and we will analyse matters from there. Data is also quite difficult to unearth (i.e. minutes played at each age etc.), additionally, and please note that international fixtures are rather sporadic, making this arena the hardest to analytically assess.
There are no seasons, friendly games are at random and tournaments come around every few years. As a result, they have been different ages at different tournaments, for example Ronaldo has been at the age of 21, 25, 29 and 33 at a World Cups, whereas Messi has been 19, 23, 27 and 31. If I do it by age, I would miss out Ronaldo’s 2018 World Cup, which would hurt his statistics but if I included his last two years of age, his club statistics would then be negatively affected.
Age assessment, in my opinion, is not comparing apples with apples. Consequently, I have assessed this on an all-time basis as I believe it is the most equitable way to do so.
An often-quoted statistic is that Ronaldo scores far more of his goals (83%) in official games as opposed to what Messi does (51%). This is true but it is also important to analyse these data points in context, and the only way to do that is to compare the opposition they play against. Just like we have accounted for the rebuttal – “Ronaldo has done it in the Premier League, against harder teams”, in our previous statistics, we should likewise account for it here.
Here we can see that Messi performs better in friendly matches whilst Ronaldo performs better in official matches. But what is important to note is the level of opposition. On average, Messi’s team have a FIFA ranking of 38 & 34 for friendlies and official games respectively, whilst Ronaldo’s opposition has an average FIFA ranking of 53 & 52.
Examining this further, in official international matches only 25% of the teams Messi has played against rank outside the top 50. Whereas for Ronaldo 57% of teams he plays against in international games are rank outside the top 50.
Furthermore, it is also important to note who are the teams these players are scoring against in official games. This helps determine the value & significance of the goals. Below I have constructed 2 tables listing the top 5 teams Messi and Ronaldo have scored against respectively.
Taking it a step further, let’s take a look at how often these two are directly contributing to a goal in either the Copa America/Euro or the World Cup.
Messi edges it here, he is also doing it against more difficult opposition.
Having said that, most people know Messi for not scoring against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final, so I thought it might be relevant to see some of the top teams each player has yet to score against, as well as the number of matches they have played against them.
Obviously, there are certain statistics that may be more pertinent to one individual as opposed to another. Nonetheless, it is good to look at all the data and look at it in its rightful context.
One thing is for certain, and thats that neither of these players have been as consistent & effective with country as they have with club (Messi 2018 & Ronaldo 2014 are two prime examples).
Club Cup Competitions (Copa del Rey, FA CUP, League Cup)
As far as the Messi & Ronaldo debate goes, these are probably the least spoken of statistics. Local cups generally don’t carry as much weight as League and Champions League trophies do but nonetheless are important trophies. As a result, I have opted to give a snapshot of their statistics and let you be the judge of how important they may be.
In conclusion, I won’t be voicing my conclusion 😉
Instead, I will pass this over to you, the fan. As mentioned, we have left a poll below – please, have your say and thank you for reading!
*Disclaimer: Certain websites offer slightly differing statistics. This data was compiled on 24/06/2020.