Football is the greatest show on earth. These two, its greatest players. There are many topics that invite passionate and divided opinions from the masses such as PC vs Mac, Federer vs Nadal, Democrat vs Republican, Left vs Right, Marvel vs DC. But this rivalry tops it all. Some people try to be nice and politically correct. They say, “These are two very different players. Let’s just enjoy them instead of comparing them unnecessarily.” But deep down, everyone has a favourite (including me). But I will try to keep my favouritism aside for a while and try to look into certain details of each of these legends, details which people normally miss because a majority of the people chose their favourite icons not because of their work but because of their physique, behaviour and personalities (which is absolutely fine). For example, many girls like Ronaldo because he has an incredible physique and is quite hot. While many prefer Messi because he comes out as a nicer and soft-spoken person in his interviews. You can’t blame either of the choices and reasons. But when you want to talk about their football, you have to discuss the details. And the devil is always in the details.
Football is by far the most popular sport on the planet. Being the most popular sport also means it comes with the tag of the most competitive. And with time, a lot of teams are becoming stronger and players are getting more fit and athletic. Defending and tactics have improved a lot compared to say the times of Maradona, Pele. If you go by the performance, consistency and trophies over a long period, Ronaldo and Messi for me are the two greatest footballers of all time. So who is the better of the two? This question is quite difficult to answer. Better in terms of what and when? 2008, Ronaldo was the best in creating and finishing chances. 2011, it was Messi. Ronaldo has a better weaker foot, Messi has a better long ball. There are so many details on where these players differ a lot. I will explore these details in upcoming sections and draw my conclusion at the end.
Football is a physical game. You have to have a certain level of fitness if you want to play for 90 minutes week in week out. Both these players are incredibly fit. They hardly get injured and if they do, they recover quite well both in terms of their fitness and form. That being said, there are contrasting differences between their physicality which gives each of the players different kinds and degrees of advantages.
Let’s talk about Messi first. Messi is 5’7”. He is below average in height in terms of attacking footballers. That isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. In fact, due to his low height, Messi has quite a low centre of gravity (like an F1 car). This enables him incredibly sharp and short turns and twists. Combining this with his perfect touches, and its a nightmare for defenders to take the ball off his feet.
Messi is no slouch in terms of quickness. Although he is not a speedster but with the ball at his feet, he is very sharp and quick. Of course, he is very agile too.
Ronaldo is altogether a different animal when it comes to his physique, not just in football but in the world of sports.
Ronaldo is insanely hard working. His lifestyle, eating habits are highly controlled and disciplined. Not only has he developed his stamina and speed, but he has also developed his core and leg strength to incredible levels. All this physicality means he is very sharp, quick, agile despite being 6’2”. His incredible leap can be attributed to his physique. Plus, he’s still performing at the top level even though he’s 33 now. When he was younger, he was fast, very very fast. To give you a perspective, he has beaten national level sprinters in a zig-zag race. He could run 100m in under 12sec. Strength, endurance, speed, jump, longevity Ronaldo tops almost in all these categories of fitness and hence for me is the winner in this category of comparison.
A big part of football is passing. Even though both these players are attacking players and you would want them to be at the end of chances, they are also involved in buildup play a lot of times.
Let’s talk about Ronaldo first. Ronaldo attracts defenders where-ever he goes. Suppose he comes deep to receive the ball, one or two defenders would always be on his toes. Ronaldo normally does give and go in such a situation or he would simply pass to a midfielder and make a run. Ronaldo’s passes are mostly grounded short passes. The place where Ronaldo is dangerous is in the final third and on the wings. Ronaldo has got incredible crossing ability from either foot. Especially during his Man Utd’s days, he used to deliver a lot of quality crosses. In crossing ability, he’s better than Messi.
Messi, however, is a more complete passer of the ball. Messi has got short passes, through balls and the trademark long lobbing passes in his arsenal. What Messi does very well is he comes a bit deep centrally. Normally this attracts a few defenders and creates a bit of space in the final third. This space is attacked by fullbacks such as Alba, Alves. Messi delivers defence piercing lobbing passes creating quality chances in such situations. His vision is quite good too and isn’t too far off the great midfielders such as Modric or Iniesta. Hence, he takes away this category.
This category is very close. These players have very different techniques for shooting. Messi normally takes soft and short touches with the ball and by taking 2,3 of these short touches, suddenly will shoot with incredible precision. Ronaldo is constantly moving in and around the box always looking for opportunities to shoot. Whenever he gets the ball, he positions himself as soon as possible in the shooting position, many times even without taking a touch. Ronaldo shoots with incredible power but also with lethal accuracy. His ankle twists and turns a lot and he generates dip and swirls in his shots compared to Messi’s curl. He manages to generate incredible power in his shots in even very tiny spaces. Messi goes a lot of times for curlers, Ronaldo goes a lot of times for low drive bolters. However, both players can shoot either way. When it comes to long-distance shooting, Messi would normally take shots at max from 2-3 metres from outside the box. Ronaldo, well, he doesn’t care about the distance. He would attempt shots from even 10-12 and at times even 15-18 meters from outside the box! Ronaldo’s goal vs Porto. For these reasons, these days defenders hardly give breathing spaces to both these players in and around the boxes.
Finishing of both of them is out of this world. Messi would chip a goalkeeper for fun, Ronaldo would run around the keeper and pass the ball into the goal even at impossibly near zero degree angles. There is, however, one more notable difference. Ronaldo manages a lot of shots in a game. This is because of his another incredible (off the ball movement) ability which I will discuss later. Messi shoots less. However, Messi converts more of his shots. This difference can be looked into many different ways. You can say Messi is a better shooter but then, Ronaldo is taking a lot of difficult shots and is always a goal threat. But one thing is certain, you give time and space to either and they will punish you hard. In deciding the winner, I have to give only a slight edge to Ronaldo because of incredible power in his shots. You’ll be surprised to know that Ronaldo has scored over a dozen goals in his career where he just blasted the shot at keeper and the keeper couldn’t keep the shot out just because of the power, movement and dip in his shot. (Recently David De Gea in the world cup).
Again, the difference in their physique plays a big part in the difference in styles of their dribbling. Messi has very short, sharp touches. So, he drops his shoulders and turns and twists around defenders for fun. When he was younger, he used his short touches with his speed and was almost undefendable at times. He would go past 3,4,5 players with ease. Ronaldo has adopted different techniques at different times in his career for dribbling. Earlier, he used to dazzle defenders with his skills. His dribbling used to be like a dance performance. Combining it with speed, he used to leave defenders for good. He was uncatchable and normally would be stopped by a foul. Both of these players earn a lot of fouls and penalties. Ronaldo earns more penalties mainly because he is more tricky and invites tackles. Messi, on the other hand, isn’t tricky. He is just too quick with his touches. What Messi does with his dribbling is well known to defenders. But they can’t do much to stop him. He is very similar to Robben in this regard. Ronaldo in the last 3-4 years has considerably decreased his dribbling output. He has mainly turned himself into in and around the box player. While Messi’s dribbling output has also dropped quite a bit, it hasn’t dropped as much as that of Ronaldo. Also, while Ronaldo’s dribbling in his best years was very pleasing and scintillating to watch, Messi’s dribbling was more effective in going past players and creating chances. Messi’s dribbling
This category isn’t much of a competition. Messi has a decent weak right foot. I mean he finishes a lot of his chances with right foot also. But Ronaldo’s weaker left foot is insanely good. I mean he has scored long distance goals from outside the box with his left foot! He has scored volleys, top corner blasters with his left foot. In my opinion, power in Ronaldo’s left footed shot is more than that of even Messi’s left footed shot! That’s how good, Ronaldo’s weaker foot is. It’s apt to say that Ronaldo doesn’t have a weaker foot. He has a strong foot and a lesser strong foot. Cristiano Ronaldo ● Unstoppable Left Foot Goals
This category also isn’t much of a competition. Ronaldo is a beast when it comes to his leaps and headers. His leaps are even higher than that of an average NBA basketball player. He is head and shoulders above everyone, both literally and figuratively.
Another category which is dominated by one player this time by Messi. Ronaldo was the creator of chances during his Man United days. He used to stretch defences, delivering pinpoint crosses. Then, he started transforming himself into a deadly goalscorer. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t create many chances. He also does create and assists a number of chances. However, Messi creates chances consistently on a regular basis. He comes deep at times, playing through balls and with his passing and dribbling abilities assisting a lot of goals. He clearly edges Ronaldo in terms of creating and assisting chances over the course of his career.
Incredible Messi assists
Off the ball movements
Football is as much a game of passing, dribbling, shooting as it is a game of spaces. Formations, tactics are deployed by managers mainly to attack and defend spaces. There are various ways to attack and create spaces for oneself and other players on the team. The most underrated and underappreciated technique of creating spaces is off the ball running and movements. It’s important, very very important in football. Without selfless runners in attacks such as Alexis, Suarez, Pedro, Benzema, Bale, Higuaín; Ronaldo and Messi wouldn’t have scored as many goals as they did in their careers. But what about their off the ball movements? Messi has a very static approach to his off the ball movements and gameplay. He at times stand still when he doesn’t have the ball at his feet. However, he’s always calculating and sensing when the chance could fall off his way. He suddenly becomes alive. Ronaldo is very dynamic in his off the ball movements. He’s always moving, sometimes at the shoulders of the last defender. Ronaldo makes a lot of off the ball runs and movements into the channels. There is a reason why he has more shots per game compared to any attacker in the world. It is because of his off the ball movements. It’s like he’s always playing hide and seek with the defenders. He makes defender believes that he will attack the far post and suddenly would come to the near post to finish off the chance. He truly is a fox in the box. And by far the best in the world in his off the ball movements. Cristiano Ronaldo Off the Ball Movement Analysis – One of His Most Unnoticed Qualities (A must watch video if want to appreciate off the ball movements and game of spaces).
Messi has scored 38 freekicks in his career as of now. Ronaldo has scored 52 as of now (recently against David De Gea in the world cup). Obviously, Ronaldo has more attempts on freekicks mainly because he attempts even when it might appear to be too far off the box. Ronaldo was an exceptional freekick taker especially in his late United days to his early Real Madrid days. For a few years from 2013-2016, his freekick output dropped a bit while Messi’s output increased during that period. However, Ronaldo has improved on his freekicks since then. But still, he hasn’t reached his freekick form of 2008-2012. Neither Messi nor Ronaldo are as good as Beckham or Juninho. But they are still a potent threat from freekicks. While at the moment, Messi might be slightly more dangerous in freekicks, over the course of their entire careers, it is Ronaldo who has been more feared from freekicks by the goalkeepers. I would give this one to Ronaldo though not by much.
One of the absurd weakness in the gameplay of Messi is his penalty conversion rate, especially in the big games. Who can forget when Messi was in tears after missing penalty against Chile in Copa America finals. His other notable miss was against Peter Chech in Champions League semi-final. While he has scored some crucial penalties, he has missed quite a lot. Ronaldo is no God in penalty taking either. He also misses penalties. However, his misses have been mostly against lesser teams and occasions (except for CL final miss against Chelsea). His conversion rate is much better than Messi. Also, he has scored a lot more crucial penalties in his career. Especially the final penalty of Champions League final against Athletico Madrid.
Both these players are quite disciplined. Ronaldo, however, has a more passionate and hyper personality. He’s very competitive and will argue with refs, players more compared to Messi. He also tackles more compared to Messi. As a result, Ronaldo has earned more yellow and red cards in his career. You can say that Messi is a more disciplined player of the two.
This is one category which has lately been more in discussion especially after Portugal’s Euro win where an injured Ronaldo acted as a cheerleader throughout the final match. Both players are extremely passionate and have burst into tears on multiple occasions on losing crucial matches.
Key psychological aspects which greatly affect games are handling pressure, leadership qualities, stubbornness, and single-minded winning mentality. Both these players have winning mentalities. They hate to lose as you can deduce from the above image. However, Ronaldo for me edges Messi when it comes to handling pressure and leadership qualities. One thing you might have observed throughout the career of Ronaldo is, his performances get better when he is criticized by someone or booed in a stadium. This happens again and again and again. Messi is also criticized a lot mostly in Argentinian media for his poor performances for Argentina. Such criticisms seem to affect Messi in a negative way. Contrasting to this, Ronaldo thrives on criticism and pressure situations. Ronaldo also is very vocal, has an alpha personality and motivates his teammates a lot with his team talks and shouting on and off the pitch. This quality is highly appreciated by legends and other footballers.
Both players have won every trophy possible except for their national sides. Ronaldo has at least won the prestigious Euro cup which makes his international career better than Messi’s despite Messi playing for a superior Argentinian side. Though I would blame most of the failures of Argentina on their poor choice of managers. Messi can’t be blamed completely for his failures in Argentinian shirt. He at least managed to get into the world cup finals. Off the field, these players couldn’t be any more different. Messi as I already mentioned is more soft-spoken while Ronaldo is confident, blunt and speaks his mind. Ronaldo also has created a huge brand around himself. He has his underwear brands, museum, statue. He does a lot of charity. It is clear that Ronaldo doesn’t mind being the centre of attraction. Messi, on the other hand, is the media’s darling. There are two reasons for this. Again, the confident and blunt personality of Ronaldo is something not everyone likes and many feels threatened and insecure because of how good Ronaldo is. The other big reason is Ronaldo has played for the best part of his career at Manchester United and Real Madrid. Both these clubs are immensely popular and juggernaut clubs. However, these are the two clubs, fans of other clubs love to hate. Compared this to Barcelona, their success period is more of a post-2006 phenomenon. So, it hasn’t had as many haters.
Talking about their teams. Football is a team game. No matter how good you’re, ultimately the trophies you win is largely decided by how your team plays. Messi’s glorious years were during Guardiola reign, Ronaldo’s during Ferguson and lately under Zidane’s reign. Barcelona’s Guardiola side had two great midfielders Xavi and Iniesta at the peak of their careers. Ferguson’s United had the legendary Scholes and Ronaldo’s telepathic partner Rooney. Zidane’s side was filled with exceptional players such as Modric, Marcelo (Maradona playing at left back). Without these players and their contributions, both these players struggled with their national sides.
Another aspect is the different teams for which they have played. While Messi has stayed at Barcelona, Ronaldo moved from Sporting to United to Real Madrid to now Juventus. Ronaldo has adapted, thrived and proven himself in different leagues. I am not saying Messi can’t do that. Messi can definitely do that but hasn’t done that. I would love to see Messi playing for Manchester United in the Premier League. I can understand that Barcelona has developed Messi and Messi is loyal to his club. However, he is once in a lifetime talent. A talent which we want to see in different leagues and taking on different kinds of challenges.
You might have guessed who is my favourite of the two. It’s Cristiano Ronaldo. The reason is I appreciate different aspects of his game such as heading, off the ball movements, weak foot shots, etc. which many people seem to ignore. I appreciate goalkeeping, athleticism, the game of spaces in football as much as I appreciate dribbling, assisting goals. I can also see why many players love and prefer Messi. He’s out of this world when it comes to dribbling, creating chances. His goalscoring abilities are also very close to Ronaldo’s. Plus his soft-spoken personality makes him a likeable person. But to call Ronaldo arrogant because of his confidence and looks are just pure jealousy on the parts of media persons. On the contrary, to common football fans, Ronaldo is very supportive and genuine. I just wished Messi changes his club and league (preferably to the Premier League and Manchester United). I like Messi. I like Ronaldo more.