For a depressingly large group of actuarial soccer fans, this season's thrilling edition of the duel between temporally and cosmically entwined superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi has mainly served as another set of cudgels to club down the other's reputation and legacy. Go deeper, because if you're worried about one guy in relation to the other, you're missing something very special.
Very early on this season, it looked like Messi would thrive in the transition from scorer to facilitator. Then Ronaldo scored a zillion goals in about four months and won the Ballon d'Or while Messi and Barça struggled. That looked to push the Portuguese forward ahead for good, only for Messi to come storming back after the turn of the calendar while Ronaldo's scoring regressed from superhuman levels to merely great ones. These are quantifiable things. But what's been lost amid the impulse toward arbitrary rankings has been the fact that both of these players—maybe the two best the world has ever seen—have evolved into even purer versions of the players they already were.
The way a player's individual game develops over the course of his career calls to mind the George Orwell quote, that "at 50, everyone has the face he deserves." As a teen, an inchoate player often breaks into his senior team on the strength of one or two attributes that have manifested themselves the earliest. For both Ronaldo and Messi, as is the case for most young wingers, it was their speed, dribbling, and unslakable thirst to run at any and everyone in an opposing jersey. Eventually, as a player matures, he begin to prioritize certain aspects of his game above others. Maybe running top speed becomes less important to him than taking time to survey the field and expressing a newfound eye for the pass. Maybe once he realizes his feet can spin the ball with unpredictable trajectories and consistently find the back of the net, criss-crossing his legs and treating the ball like a yo-yo pulled by imaginary strings on his feet loses some of its thrill. By the time he hits the back end of his prime, his playing style reflects that which he values highest. The Messi and Ronaldo you're seeing now are the players they most want to be.
For Alfredo Di Stéfano—who was early on known primarily for his work as a typical forward—his intelligence, pinpoint passing, and sheer force of will turned him into the purest single-player embodiment of Total Football the sport has ever seen. Juan Román Riquelme always excelled using his unreal technique and fly's-eye vision, but it was upon his return to Boca Juniors after his stint in La Liga when he became the logical conclusion of his gifts—a languid genius parked firmly in the center of the park, pulling every string on the marionettes surrounding him while never approaching anything faster than a brisk trot. When Arsène Wenger—the man who gave Thierry Henry his first senior minutes as a winger at Monaco—told the Frenchman that he'd brought him to Arsenal to be a striker, Henry didn't believe he had what it took to play the position. A few years and a couple hundred goals later, and Henry had solidified himself as one of the world's best center forwards, proving that even in the brawny Premier League, finesse, touch, and guile from a striker could wreak havoc on defenses as much as if not more than brute strength. Each of these players and so many like them started out as one thing, then honed their preferred skills for so long until those skills began to define their entire games.
This season, Messi has finally made the first significant gestures towards becoming the playmaker everyone expected him to eventually grow into. Since Pep Guardiola moved him from the right wing to the central position six years ago, the Argentine has been justly renowned for his scoring. Of course, anyone who actually watched full Barcelona matches and not just highlight compilations knew Messi was much more integral to the team than as a mere finisher. The whole point of the false 9 position was for him to drop deeper into the midfield to aid in the team's possession, to use his eagle vision to find his fellow forwards in on goal with his passing, and to churn apart congested defenses single-footedly by hacking and twisting his way past opponents with his dribbling. But a combination of the modern game's obsession with numbers, the yearly Pichichi race with Ronaldo, often-wasteful teammates, and the dumb fun that is scoring truckloads of pretty goals just because you can, Messi was still seen as and played mostly like a striker.
This season has been different. He now has the team around him to absolutely control a game from the moment the ball comes off the keeper's foot until Barcelona send it into the opposite net. The transition has been remarkably fast, but the seeds were planted when Neymar arrived last season. By bringing in another free-scoring dribble wizard capable of bending defenses to his will before smashing in a goal, Messi no longer had to be the sole provider of the killer touch converting chances into goals.
The process was accelerated this summer when the club bought Luis Suárez from Liverpool—a versatile attacking weapon in his own right, but one most comfortable in the central position Messi had so famously and jealously claimed for himself. To function at its best, an attack this packed with talent could no longer subsume itself entirely to the Argentine's whims, especially when the veterans that had been able to and still find success were rapidly aging. Something would have to give.
Even while Suárez sat at home doing time for his latest bout of cannibalism, you could see Messi's positioning change. Alongside Neymar and either Pedro or young Munir El Haddadi up front, Messi often played an even more reserved role than usual, looking more like the number 10 in a 4-4-2 diamond than even the false 9 in a 4-3-3. A little over a month into the season, he had managed more assists (7) than goals (5).
Things changed drastically when his new Uruguayan teammate became available, though. Instead of retaining his central position between and behind two more central forwards, Messi was shunted back out to the right wing he began his career on to accommodate Suárez's natural position. First-year Barça manager Luis Enrique's decision to move his best player out wide was a source of contention at least to outsiders looking in, since it's long been understood that Messi disliked playing out there. Still, Messi was accepting of the move at least outwardly. It took some time and some growing pains (like that little club crisis that lead the club's existing leadership to promise to resign at the end of the season, a locker room mutiny that was whiskers away from getting the new manager fired a few months into the job, and had Messi as close to a Barcelona exit as ever before) to get everything to click, but now that it has, Messi has never been as complete.
Many would've expected a move away from the center to cut into the goals Messi is best known for. But as Cristiano has demonstrated for years now, there are plenty of opportunities to find the back of the net for a winger dedicated to getting into scoring positions. Since Suárez made his debut, Messi has scored 34 goals in 29 games. That puts him at an astounding 43 goals in 40 appearances on the season, more than anyone else in Europe.
Again, though, it's less about the number of goals he's scoring than how he's now playing. Not only is he still the world's premier goal threat, he's quite possibly been the most creative playmaker on the planet at the same time. It's why we have this 10 minute video ode to what he's been able to do with his feet besides the obvious goals and dribbles.
Returning to the right wing has been revelatory for Messi. Out there he's afforded the kind of time and space on the ball he hasn't seen since before the entire sport came to the conclusion that, rather than withstanding the inevitable death-by-combine-harvester that is playing Barça in their pomp straight up, they should cram as many bodies in and around the little pocket at the top of their own penalty box to gum up the tractor's engine. Out there on the flank, he's free to size up the defense, notice only two men and acres of pitch between him and goal, chuckle a little to himself, then grind them up in the whirring blades that are his legs. Out there, should he eye more than two opponents marking him or a teammate in a more favorable position, he can measure out the through balls he alone seems able to both see and execute. And now he's got two unrivaled options to go to at any time.
This season, we've been repeatedly treated to Messi's newest trademark move: La diagonal de Messi, as El País put it. Flying down the right, keeping defenders at arms length, Messi will chop back inside, lift his head, then float a ball that looks almost controller-guided the way it spins over and between any number of players on its way to the feet of Neymar or Suárez or Ivan Rakitić or Jordi Alba or whomever. He pulls this off multiple times each match, and almost every time it frees a teammate into wide open space right in front of the keeper.
His continued dominance in this new form was on display again just yesterday in Barcelona's 1-0 win over Manchester City in the Champions League. He attempted the most shots, completed the most passes, created the most chances, completed the most dribbles (more than City's entire team, in fact), and even had the second-most ball recoveries. Without scoring, he was in complete control of the match and the only person on the pitch that demanded watching at all times. It was a career performance.
If Messi's game this season has been an expansion of what he's always done, Ronaldo's has been a refinement. Once criticized for his penchant for aimless runs full of tricks but short on end product, the Ronaldo of today looks at every touch as an opportunity to advance him a step closer to his one objective: scoring. Whereas Messi is a glitch in the Matrix, a bit of anarchic code capable of rearranging the field into one of a million different possibilities all ending in a goal, Ronaldo imposes order on the surrounding chaos with his single-minded charges aimed straight at the goal. Over the years, he has meticulously whittled down his superfluous movement in order to become the most decisive player in the world.
Ronaldo's 2014 portion of this season was a run the likes of which we may never see again. From Real Madrid's first La Liga match, the Portuguese star went only two matches in the big competitions without scoring. That 20-match span included a 12-match scoring streak, three hat tricks, one four-goal outburst, and a mind-numbing 30 total goals. It was one of the rare opening halves of a season that was so dominant, it pretty much sealed the Ballon d'Or by itself.
Again as in contrast with Messi, Ronaldo has drifted away from his regular position on the wing, slowly becoming more of an out-and-out striker—albeit one with complete freedom to roam. This too is a reflection of the team assembled around him. Transfers and injuries have at times led manager Carlo Ancelotti to favor a 4-4-2 setup rather than his preferred 4-3-3. This allows Gareth Bale to roam the flanks with more of the space he needs the thrive in, gets Toni Kroos, Isco, and James Rodríguez all on the pitch together with one of the latter two playing opposite Bale, and puts Ronaldo closer to goal, eliminating much of the need for him to do anything else than bring the ball into his feet and stroke it towards goal.
Once the face of reckless individualism, the more goal-driven Ronaldo is actually more selfless than before. He's shooting less than he ever has in Real's white shirt, and is already just one assist shy of his highest full-season mark in La Liga. Even those assists are a reflection of his prowess as a goal threat, though. The typical playmaker racks up assists by sliding teammates in on goal with through balls, crosses, intricate one-twos, and other sorts of incisive passes. Ronaldo is able to amass so many assists by putting himself with the ball in great position, only to lay it off to a teammate even more wide open than he is. Where he would once have gone for goal himself from outside of the box or another position with a fairly low chance of getting by the keeper, he now recognizes that setting up Benzema or Bale is often a better way to realize his other overriding drive for victory. Or he'll just shoot it in himself off of Gareth Bale's foot.
Still, for CR7, it's all about scoring. Ronaldo is often somewhat erroneously described as the most complete player in the world; what he is is the most complete scorer. He scores from outside the box, from inside, with bendy golazos, with tap-ins off rebounds and deflections that seem magnetized to his feet, with his right foot, with his left foot, with his head. What's so striking about this newer version is how he economical every movement has been. There was a stat making its way around the internet around the time Ronaldo was set to run away with his third Ballon d'Or, that something like 70 percent of his goals for Real Madrid were taken with one touch. As if that were some blight on his record, the smoking gun for why Messi, who often carries the ball some 40 yards with him before sending it between the goal posts, is really the better player.
This is of course stupid. The entire point of the sport is to put the ball into the opponents' goal more times than the opponent can put it into yours, and the best players achieve this by doing in one touch what it takes lesser players two or more. If you can score by hitting the ball first time, why on earth would you try to do anything else? More touches mean more chances for thing to go wrong. Secondly—and this gets back to the fundamental point that threatens to go missing this season—is that different players play differently.
Lionel Messi does not do and could not do what Cristiano Ronaldo does, and vice-versa. Pretending this isn't true, or concentrating on which player's choice of game is "better" than the other's has no bearing on how they actually play. Believing Ronaldo is better than Messi won't make a center back caught in Leo's web of dribbles accurately predict where the ball will go next and prevent him from scoring. Thinking Messi is better than Ronaldo won't gift goalkeepers the sight to read which direction one of Cristiano's knuckling free kicks will swerve to next. Despite the very human impulse to compare and rank, each man's game is completely independent of the other's, and in no way suffers from being appreciated on its own considerable merits.
If you need to compare something, compare today's Messi and Ronaldo to where they each were five years ago. True greatness is in being as great as they were, and consistently getting better. They are what they were always destined to become, singularly explosive fireworks screaming further and further apart, each as mesmerizing as they are unique. Is Messi better than Ronaldo? Is red better than blue? Messi has become even more Messi-like, as Ronaldo approaches peak Ronaldo. That we get to witness to both firework shows at the same time is all that really matters, and it's more than enough for these eyes.
Top image via AP. Others via Getty.