Thursday, February 19, 2009

Messi vs. Ronaldo

[One programming note: with football and Signing Day over, the NBA in a bit of a lull, and baseball in the "what does Jeter think of A-Rod!?!" silly season, we're probably going to be a little footie heavy over the next several weeks. With the Champions League about to heat up, this is as good a time as any to starting picking up with soccer. To those of you who are new readers, I recognize that a detailed discussion about Barcelona's options at the defensive midfield spot isn't exactly an Atlanta sports issue. I've completely transitioned from listening to sports talk radio to the World Soccer Daily podcast on my iPod in the 40 minutes or so that I'm commuting to and from work each day, so I have soccer on the brain a lot more than anything else sports related. My apologies to the readers who don't like soccer. I promise the occasional college football, Hawks, and Braves post when a subject strikes my fancy.]

There is some debate as to the best player in the world right now between these two guys:

Here is the debate hashed out last spring when the two players met in the Champions League semifinal. Here is a 76-page thread on the subject at Big Soccer.

You won't be surprised that a Barca supporter like me would come out on the Messi side of the debate. Because we like lists, here are the reasons why:

1. Messi is better at creating goals. When arguing first, one should always start with the positive case for one's proposition. When arguing second, one should negate the opponent's best or most dangerous argument right off the bat. Because I like rebutting, I'll start with the primary argument for Ronaldo: he is bigger and can score with his head. That's a little like saying that a Jeep is better than a Ferrari for driving across the country because the Jeep can go off road. To quote Bob Dylan in "Lay Lady Lay" (the Hard Rain version), who really cares? To quote Dietrich from Raiders of the Lost Ark, only your mission for der Fuhrer matters. Does the player produce goals for his team by scoring them himself, by setting up his teammates, and by attracting defenders to create open space? The means don't matter as long as the end entails the ball in the back of the net. Right foot, left foot, head, knee, hands (if you're Argentine), they all look the same in the dark. Put another way, Maradona couldn't score with his head, but his reputation seems pretty secure.

This season, Messi has 25 goals in 23 starts for Barcelona. In his ballyhooed 2007-08, Ronaldo had 42 goals in 45 starts for Manchester United. Messi is on pace to beat Ronaldo for goals, regardless of the fact that his mop top rarely makes contact with the ball. Messi has 13 assists, which is five more than Ronaldo scored in the entirety of his 2007-08. Leo is a better passer, full stop. So, let's ask this question again: who creates more goals?

2. Messi's skills translate better against top opponents. The rap against Ronaldo that he's not a big game player should have been somewhat dispelled by his goal in the Champions League Final last May, not to mention his fine performance in the road leg against Roma in the quarterfinals. That said, Messi's skills are more useful against a great opponent. Quality defenses will close down the space afforded to attacking players. Messi's primary skill - a ridiculous ability to dribble in tight spaces with the ball attached to his boot - comes in handy in the conditions that a great player will face against a big opponent. Though a fine dribbler, Ronaldo is more noted for galloping into space with the ball. He doesn't have Messi's ability to get around in a phone booth. To Ronaldo's credit, his heading ability does come in handy against good defenses.

3. Messi is more valuable. The gnawing concern that I and most Barca fans have about the current version of the Blaugrana is that they are Messi-dependent. On a number of occasions, Barca have looked mortal without Leo and then dominant as soon as the Flea has come onto the pitch.

Exhibit A: at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, Barca trails 1-0, Messi comes on and scores twice, and Barca wins 2-1.

Exhibit B: home against Basel in the Champions League, Barca cannot break down a poor Basel side until Messi comes on and promptly scores. The game finishes 1-1.

Exhibit C: at Racing Santander in La Liga, Barca trails 1-0, Messi comes on and scores twice, and Barca wins 2-1.

Exhibit D: at Real Betis in La Liga, Barca trails 2-1, Messi comes on and Barca equalizes in a 2-2 draw.

Messi's not only playing for the best team in the world, but he is essential to their success. Barca are full of great players, but one is especially useful. The uncomfortable conclusion for me is that Barca are very vulnerable to a Messi injury. In fairness, it must be said that Ronaldo is bigger and more durable than Messi. On the other hand, Messi is far less likely to miss a game with knob rot. (HT: Gareth Keenan.)

4. Messi is younger. This one is self-explanatory. A 21-year old dominating is a little more impressive than a 23-year old dominating.

5. Ronaldo is a complete prat. Google agrees 75,800 times. Cristiano spent the summer whinging about being a slave and doing all he could to force a transfer to Real Madrid, where he will fit in perfectly. He can be a black hole with the ball. He dives at the drop of a hat and immediately looks to the ref upon contact with the ground. He poses like a fucking model before taking free kicks. If we're comparing Messi and Ronaldo, shouldn't Messi's ability to refrain from being a chemistry-killing ass matter? After the Ronaldinho flame-out, I'm quite conscious of the importance of having unassuming guys who just want to play as opposed to hedonists with too much product in their hair.


Chuck Fist said...

Haven't read this yet, but my initial thought is that you're comparing the wrong players. If you're debating who is the best player in the best form today, both play for Barca: Messi and Alves.

Michael said...

Fair point, but it's hard to compare a right back and a right forward because they do such different things. If I did have to compare them, I'd give Messi the nod based on the fact that Alves doesn't start for Brazil. You can't be the best player in the world if you're the second best right-back for your country. The fact that Brazil's first-choice right-back is the best right-back in the world makes this a very mild insult.

I suppose you could always counter with "Dunga is an idiot" and you would have a fair point.

Chuck Fist said...

Dunga is an idiot.

I agree it's hard to compare the players as their roles on the team are so different. Like comparing Greg Maddox to Chipper Jones.

I'm a Chelsea supporter and it stings to think that Chels passed on Alves for Boswingwa at right back. Had they made the right choice there and completed the Robinho deal, Scolari is still manager. Of course, it'd be hard to screw up with that squad.

Good read. Anything that rips on Ronaldo is worth-while.

Keep up the footy posts. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the match-ups in the first leg of the Champions League next week.

Like Eto'o this summer, I'm out of here.

Michael said...

Chelsea dickered too much over a price for Alves. They forgot a cardinal rule: it's OK to overpay if you're getting great talent. The key is not to pay a good player as if he's great, which is what they've done with Bosingwa. I was mortified by the idea of Alves playing for Mourinho's Chelsea because if there's one coach whose conservatism can stifle a player like Alves, it's Jose. Actually, it's Rafa Benitez, but Jose would be a close second. That said, he has let Maicon do his thing this year. If Jose has a good defensive midfield, as he does at Inter, he's willing to let his wingbacks get forward. It's the new Brazilian style.

I'll write a preview of the round of 16 at some point this weekend. I'll also try to write about Eto'o. I'm fine with him leaving if he wants to go. Villa is going to be sold by Valencia and he's a perfect fit for the system, especially because we know that he plays well with Xavi and Iniesta from his time with the Spanish National Team. Eto'o is a good striker (although not exactly clinical), but if he can't be happy in this side, then he can't be happy. He's replaceable and Barca have the ultimate chip: come play with the best player in the world.

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