Player Comparison: Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo

by Liam Corbett

Liam Corbett takes his Average Opposition Index statistics and compares the goalscoring antics of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, since the Portuguese player’s arrival in La Liga. Who comes out on top, and who tends to score against the so-called stronger opposition? By looking at the average opposition, Liam can tell us exactly who steps up when they’re needed most.

Contenders

Barcelona and Argentina’s Leo Messi, the current World Player of the year vs former World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Portugal. Both play as forwards – whether that be down the middle or from wide, both are generally part of a front three.

How it works

We have a look at the players and weight their goals based on the opposition at the time of playing (or more specifically at the start of that round of fixtures). So you’d expect the average to be 10.5 (20 teams). Anything significantly higher than this would suggest the player thrives or delivers in the big games and in theory could be described as a “big game player”. Anything lower would suggest that maybe they flatter to deceive, or are simply a bit unlucky in the big games. If significantly lower, then the old “flat track bully” line can be rolled out.

Rules

Primarily it’s a comparison based on ranked Opposition. With that in mind, the European Champions League is not analysed as the opposition are not ranked (group stages aside), instead it’ll include La Liga games for the last two completed seasons – 2009-10 and 2010-11. It will also compare their international goal record from an Average Opposition Index perspective.

La Liga

From when Cristiano Ronaldo finally made his long anticipated move to Real Madrid in 2009, all eyes were on the showdown between himself and the existing king of La Liga – Leo Messi. By way of comparison, in the two seasons in question, Messi made 68 appearances in the league compared to Ronaldo’s 63. In those appearances, Messi scored a mind boggling 65 league goals compared to the even more impressive 66 by Ronaldo.  In terms of scoring alone, Ronaldo has a strike rate of 1.05 goals per game, compared to Messi’s 0.96.

La Liga 2009-2010

Surprisingly, Ronaldo wasn’t even Real Madrid’s top league scorer in the 2009-10 season, with Gonzalo Higuain scoring 27 to the new signing’s 26 goals. However, due to an injury ravaged season last year, Higuain’s record doesn’t stand up to comparison. And so on to the Stats:

The 2009-10 season was Ronaldo’s first in a new league. With that in mind, his record of 26 goals from 29 appearances is phenomenal. Unfortunately for him, this is a comparison against Leo Messi. Messi’s 34 goals in just 35 appearances is even more impressive. Based on the Average Opponent per Goal at the time, Messi’s 10.50 is exactly where you’d expect a player to be and shows his high performance against all opposition. This is emphasised by the ranges of opposition he has scored against. Ten goals against the other five teams in the top six excluding his own is a great achievement and inline with the other stats above. This includes a hat trick against 3rd placed Valencia and a double vs Sevilla (5th).

Ronaldo by comparison had an Average Opponent per Goal of 12.38 based on their position at the start of each round. Looking at his ranges, again, there is a good split between Top/Bottom 6 and also the majority in the middle eight is where we’d expect to see this. Where Ronaldo falls behind is that he’s three goals behind Messi against top six opposition, and four of his 26 goals were from the spot, compared to just one of Messi’s. Both scored in a similar number of games where comparing the Average Opposition Index for the final league positions, although Ronaldo’s increases to 11.85, Messi’s is still better despite it decreasing to 11.18. At the time of play and at the end of the season Messi did it against harder opposition, and more often.

Winner: Leo Messi

Unsurprisingly, Messi who had been playing in La Liga for 5 previous seasons won this fight on all fronts.

La Liga 2010-2011

So with a season of La Liga experience behind him, Ronaldo and his team mates targeted Messi and the Barca boys, and this time they had Jose Mourinho calling the shots. Despite his reputation for defensive football, Mourinho’s teams have often been record breakers in goals scored and points collected. Ronaldo especially thrived under his stewardship, along with two important other factors – he was now the main man at the Bernabeu after Raul’s exit, and he was also being supplied by Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil. For Messi, he also had a change in his forward partners with Ibrahimovic and Henry leaving, replaced by Villa and youth product Pedro. And so onto the stats once more:

First and foremost, in a similar number of appearances, Ronaldo outscored Messi by a whopping nine goals – take out each players penalties and there’s still five goals in it. In terms of the Average Opposition, both were close enough to the expected 10.5 mark. However, where Ronaldo really shines is in the top six goals category. Of his 40 league goals (41 if you read Marca – the Madrid based and in no way biased sports paper), a massive 16 were against other members of the top six including four away at Sevilla, and a hat trick at home against Villarreal – one of six hat tricks scored in the season. It was against other members of the top six that splits the two players – although Messi does come out on top in the number of games scored in.

However, what the stats don’t tell is that 3rd-6th were a long way behind the big two. Valencia, who finished in 3rd, were 21 points behind 2nd placed Madrid, whilst 4th placed Villarreal were 30 points behind. Towards the end of the season when it was clear that Barca were going to win the league, the Madrid players were going out of their way to provide for Ronaldo – he scored 11 in his last 4 games. In that same period, Barcelona had one eye on the Champions League final and Messi didn’t score one goal. Upto that point in the season, Messi was actually ahead of Ronaldo in the scoring charts.

Though we should give credit where it’s due – 11 goals in four games in itself is an incredible achievement. Boosted by his late flourish, Ronaldo beats Messi in all but the number of games scored in.

Winner: Cristiano Ronaldo

La Liga 2009-2011

So looking at their league performances in the two full seasons they’ve played in the same competition:

There’s one goal in it in Ronaldo’s favour, though he has scored seven penalties more than his rival. Messi is ahead in games scored in and has an Average Opposition per goal of 10.63 compared to Ronaldo’s 11.38. Ronaldo is ahead on goals against the top six whereas Messi trumps him in the other ranges. With the closeness in the goal scoring stakes, when looking for a winner and without wanting to sit on the fence it’s worth looking at some further factors.

With the rest of the opposition so far behind Real Madrid and Barcelona, a better indicator than just looking at the top six goals is the goals in the head to head games. In the four league games played, Messi has two goals compared to Ronaldo’s one. Something that continues to be levelled at Ronaldo is that he rarely performs well in the el Clasico’s. Even in this season’s game, he missed two good chances, and also neglected to pass to team mates in better positions. In the games last season, both scored a penalty in a 1-1 draw in Madrid, whilst in the first game in Barcelona, Messi was outstanding, laying on rather than scoring goals for his team mates in a 5-0 win. And it’s Messi’s ability to create that gives him the edge. Last season saw Messi top the assist league table with 18 compared to Ronaldo’s 10. Going back to 2009-10 season and it was a similar story – Messi leading Ronaldo.

So with that in mind, the winner is Leo Messi.

Internationals

For their countries, it’s a similar story – albeit the gaps are wider. Whilst Ronaldo has scored 32 goals in 87 appearances for Portugal (0.37 goals per game), Messi has scored 19 in 66 (0.29 goals per game). However, when comparing the Average Opposition per goal there’s little room for debate. Messi has scored on two occasions against #1 Spain, and also against Argentina’s fierce rivals Brazil. The worst opposition he’s scored against as per the FIFA Rankings at the time of play is Algeria #67. Interestingly, when the two nations faced each other in February of this year, both scored in a 2-1 win for Argentina but crucially, Messi also got an assist.

Both failed to impose themselves on the 2010 World Cup – one of the few criticisms that can be levelled at them. Messi’s solitary World Cup goal came in the 6-0 win over Serbia & Montenegro, a game more well known for Cambiasso’s extraordinary team goal back in 2006. Ronaldo scored in 2010, but it was against North Korea – ranked 105th in the World. This was in addition to his 2006 World Cup goal against Iran. For Ronaldo’s two goals in the European Championships (2004) see Messi’s two goals for Argentina in the 2007 Copa America.

The Battle Continues – La Liga 2011-2012 So Far

As La Liga closed for it’s annual Christmas break, both players had made 16 appearances in the Spanish League. As usual, they both have Playstation (or perhaps an early Championship Manager) statistics. Messi has over a goal a game with 17 league goals whereas Ronaldo continues the story of last season with an even more impressive 20 league goals. Both players have scored in nine of their 16 games, and Ronaldo leads Messi in hat tricks by five to three.

In terms of the Average Opposition per goal, both have improved their rating from the last two seasons. Messi is above the expected average of 10.5 with a rating of 9.82. Ronaldo once again trumps his Barca rival with an Average Opponent per goal of 8.85.

The real difference is how they’ve performed against the range of opponents. The majority of Messi’s goals have been against the middle 8 ranked teams (from 7th to 14th). Ronaldo on the other hand has a league high of seven goals against the other top six teams, thanks to trebles away at Malaga (then 6th) and most recently 5th placed Sevilla.

However, as mentioned above, Ronaldo has failed again to do it against Barcelona. Add to the fact that seven of his 20 goals have been from the penalty spot compared to Messi’s one, and all of a sudden there’s very little to choose between the two Superstars.

In Conclusion

Looking at just the stats, it’s difficult to separate the two players in the comparisons available. What can be agreed is that both players still need to do more at international level – especially in a World Cup, but as both are in their Mid-20s and with a World Cup less than 3 years away, they should both have the chance to do so.

Taking into account the goals against each other and the assists that Messi provides, the argument up until now falls in Messi’s favour. Both are outstanding players, but you can use the recent Real Madrid v Barcelona game as a microcosm of their rivalry. Take away Ronaldo’s goals and there’s not much else on offer, whereas Messi created the first goal after picking up the ball from his centre back, beating four men, and playing a perfect pass through for Sanchez to score. It was a similar story in the 5-0 win last season – Messi didn’t score but was man of the match.

Ronaldo is a modern great – a former World Player of the year, a scorer in a Champions League final, and the winner of the Golden boot in two strong leagues and in the Champions League.

But he’s not Messi.

Both can count themselves unlucky that they’re playing at the same time as another 50+ goal a season forward (in all competitions), but it’s great for the neutral. Messi is ahead due to his all round game, but it’s far from over.

We’ll revisit this at the end of the season and no doubt into the future seasons. Coming into this, there was an expectation of a clear win for Messi, but the fact that it was assists that separates them says a lot for the rivalry.

5 Responses

  1. Fishzn says:

    Nice article with some interesting results! Its amazing just how tight things are between these two and the amount of goals that they’ve been scoring!

    One thing I would’ve liked to have seen included in the comparison is assist totals and chances created for each of the players. I think that is another important marker that will help us compare these two – it will give the indicator as to who is the more complete player between the two.

    Outside of that – still amazing stats for two amazing players. Personally on an entertainment level, I would like to see Messi attempting more tricks and CRon attempting more short pass one twos!

  2. Liam Corbett Liam Corbett says:

    Cheers Fishzn. I was certainly surprised at just how close it was in the end. I thought Messi would be ahead comfortably.

    With regards to the assists, it’s something that would definitely add value, especially when looking at midfielders as well as strikers. Unfortunately it’s not something that’s easily available per game like goal scorer is.

    Hoping to add some more player comparisons soon. Cheers, Liam

  3. Tasos says:

    Two of the most dominant players of today. Spanish league is the perfect place for their talent and achievements. I’d give slight advantage to Messi since he has won more important trophies so far (UEFA Champion League, national league titles). Both players need some major international success with their countries to become a true legends of the sport.

  4. david nganga says:

    By looking at the statistics Cristiano ronaldo is by far much ahead of Lionel messi who is also a god player.Ronaldo has only played two seasons in Spain and has already scored 126 goals in 127 matches.

  5. Indie says:

    I the season where Ronaldo outscores Messi (due to the other Madrid players being instructed to help him to the top scorer trophy) he was also the first choice main goal scorer, being provided by Di Maria (an out and out winger) and Ozil (a midfielder). For Messi, whilst Pedro and Villa were playing in the wing positions, they (especially Villa) are pretty pure goalscorers. Starting wide to stretch the play but cutting inside by instinct.

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