Football’s Last Dance: Messi vs Ronaldo in 2021
With Ronaldo and Messi entering the true twilight years of their careers, Harry Richards discusses the infamous rivals’ chances of success this season.
It is still early days for the two greatest footballers of this generation at their new clubs. Both have already shown their quality: Cristiano Ronaldo has won the Premier League Player of the Month award after scoring three goals in his first four appearances, whilst Lionel Messi’s piece of brilliance was instrumental to PSG overcoming an imposing Manchester City.
But, are we seeing the best of these two just yet? Ronaldo’s limelight has been stolen by Mohamed Salah’s nine goals in nine appearances, the Egyptian’s blistering start to the season culminating in his Messi-like mazy run past Manchester City’s defence. Ronaldo has also been criticised by Gary Neville for his “hasty exit” down the Old Trafford tunnel after United were held at home by Everton.
Messi has also come under fire after failing to score or assist in his first three appearances for PSG in Ligue 1. He is creating less than Kylian Mbappe – 0.23 xA per 90 compared to Mbappe’s 0.3 – and touching the ball less than Neymar. For Barcelona in 2020-21, Messi shot 5.58 times per 90 minutes. At PSG that has nearly halved, to 3.16 per 90.
To the eye, he is touching the ball less. When he does receive the ball, he opts for simple passes more often than dribbling. Yet, his moment of magic against City is a reminder that it is still Messi we are talking about here. In addition, Messi has played just 370 minutes at Paris, which is far too small a sample size to establish the start of his decline.
Some stats – despite being just as flawed sample size-wise – play against this narrative: Messi is actually pressing more at PSG – 12.4 pressures p90 compared to 8.91 last season. What has been exceptional about Messi is that he has been immune to the ‘cycle of finishing’ that hampers nearly every single footballer. He and Ronaldo do not have dry spells. That discussions have already started about Messi’s finishing after 370 minutes says far more about the quality of Messi than any perceived decline. It is simply far too early to judge that.
He is in a new system, location and team dynamic. Neymar is no longer the outlet he was at Barcelona; his playstyle resembles the Messi of 2015 more than the Neymar. It will take good coaching and, more importantly for players of this quality, time to gel the front three. By the time the knockouts of the Champions League begin it is likely these teething issues will be resolved, and PSG’s trident will be just as terrifying on the field as they are on paper.
With these caveats out of the way for Messi, it makes it all the more impressive that Ronaldo has hit the ground running. He is a player more used to change, both geographic through his moves to Madrid and Juventus, and his own playstyle. Gone is the tricky winger of the 2000s and it is now fair to say that the blistering inside forward of the 2010s is also gone. The Ronaldo of 2021 is an out-and-out poacher, but this is not a criticism.
He makes 4 pressures per 90; half that of Mbappe, a third of Messi and a quarter of Salah’s. All of his energy is devoted to the art of goalscoring. He touches the ball just 26 times in the final third per 90, with the likes of Messi, Salah and Neymar all hovering around 36. But, 4 of those 26 touches are shots. 0.91 of those touches are goals.
The same limitations of sample size are relevant here, but this is a picture consistent with the last few years. Tifo IRL recently asked whether Ronaldo was more efficient than Messi, using a stat more familiar to basketball, ‘usage rate’. Messi ‘uses’ the ball – shoots, creates a chance, or loses the ball – around 20% of the time, with Ronaldo lying around 13%. 30% of those usages lead to a ‘positive outcome’, a shot, goal or chance, for Messi but Ronaldo gets up to 35%.
The average player was around 10-20%, showing both of their quality. The scattergraph also displays the differences between the two: Messi’s company here is De Bruyne, Insigne and now teammate Di Maria; Ronaldo’s is Lewandowski, Haaland and Benzema. This reveals another facet of the signing of these two: neither club really needed to sign them.
PSG, profile wise, do not need another attacker who prefers to come short, playmake, and coast when he does not have the ball. United had capable forward options in Cavani and Rashford, and huge shortcomings in midfield. Yet, who can blame either club for taking the opportunity to sign these players?
Players of this calibre lift a dressing room by their presence, improving the standards of their teammates in training and on the pitch. Reports circulated that Manchester United players had stopped eating pudding after they saw Ronaldo choosing against it. Both will probably net an economic profit for their clubs, despite their astronomical wages, due to the size of their individual brands. Messi’s PSG shirt sold out within half an hour when he first signed for the club. However, with these brands comes an immense pressure, and the knowledge that both Messi and Ronaldo are bigger than their respective clubs.
We will not know until June whether it is worth it, especially considering the shift away from players towards managers and systems. No player is bigger than Klopp, Guardiola, Tuchel or Nagelsmann at their clubs. As underrated as Solskjaer continues to be tactically, it is hard to see any board siding with him over Ronaldo if there is disagreement. At PSG, Pocchetino’s man-management skills will be tested more than ever as he wrestles with the same problem.
If correctly harnessed though, none of that should matter. If Messi leads PSG to their first Champions League, will anyone remember that he plays a bit too similarly to Neymar? If Ronaldo secures a trophy at United, will anyone care that United play with 10 men off the ball? Probably not.
But that success is conditional on both players maintaining their superhuman level. However, there is no reason why these two should fall off that level. There is no evidence, other than a foreboding pessimism, that they will not. The Last Dance is coming, but not yet, we hope.