Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo. What seemed to be a never-ending discussion, for some it never even started. This isn’t about Manchester United, Real Madrid or FC Barcelona fans. Most objective analysts since 2008 are quite sure who they see as the better of the two. For some it’s not even worth a debate, for most it’s just a short one. Messi just edges it in most aspects.

We won’t discuss statistics here, but it’s a shame that some confuse statistical analysis with randomly talking about numbers. An example for a great statistical analysis (about Lionel Messi) could be this piece by the brilliant Benjamin Morris, for instance.

Instead I will talk more about tactical analysis and an opinion on the “Big Two” of world football.

What you see and what you don’t see

When analyzing, especially at the top level, you need more than basic competence. Knowledge about certain limitations of the brain is necessary. Let’s focus on the consequences that can hinder a proper evaluation and are relevant in judging players, especially Messi and Ronaldo:

1) Shooting too soon and/or from bad locations tends to be forgotten and/or wrongly evaluated. Most football fans or media representatives attribute far too much value to crosses and long shots, and less to short passing that is done far from the goal, the kind of passing that opens spaces and facilitates combination play. Cristiano excels in the first two, Messi in the latter.

2) Often weaknesses and strengths will be attributed to the player rather than the situation. This is especially a problem because modern football is about individuals changing a situation. Also people tend to assess a player on how he looks. If you read the book “Moneyball” you will know what I mean. Ronaldo just looks more like a football player: He’s big, built like a machine and seems superior to any opposition player.

But football is not played as a game of 1 vs 1, pure athleticism or eleven 1 vs 1’s. Football nowadays is about marking space (and not the man). It’s about creating overloads, opening space and balancing positional structures. How a player influences these situations is much more important than whether he looks or behaves like a footballer. Sometimes even players with decent technical skills become excellent due to their movement, which often helps them have more space which in turn makes them look better technically. Messi is not only technically one of the best ever, but also tactically. With Ronaldo you couldn’t really say any of these two – although he does look like a footballer.

3) Judging players stems from various emotional narratives which are not only personal opinions on the players and their perceived personalities, but also because of misjudgement of the characteristics of the modern game. It causes a bandwagon effect referenced above; nowadays you don’t try to beat your man, you and your teammates try to beat the situation. How you interact with your teammates in terms of positional structure, creating space and dynamics is becoming increasingly more important than physicality. So some underrated abilities that are often not visible to someone who is not tactically analyzing the game are becoming more and more important. If a specific action opens space or balances the positional structure, most won’t see it. Messi does this much more than Ronaldo. Put another way, 40 years ago, the discussion about Messi and Ronaldo would have been different.

You could say that if mainstream opinion rates Messi slightly above Cristiano, even taking into account the things they don’t see, how big must the difference for a tactical analyst be?

4) There is a strange focus on isolating single aspects of a complex sport. Because of that, nowadays people will try to evaluate a single skill as a way of comparing the two players. Again they not only judge players wrongly at times, but also misjudge what a skill in football is.

The more complete argument

It’s often said that Cristiano Ronaldo is more complete, because some people define physical aspects as a singular skill rather than in a football-specific way. For his style of play, Messi is perfectly built. Heading might be a skill and height might be useful, but Messi’s style doesn't need it. On the other hand Messi does possess tactical and strategic gifts that Ronaldo doesn’t, attributes that are never added into a proper analysis of these two. In reality I’d personally say Messi is much more complete; Ronaldo could even be called a rather limited player who has some great abilities which he uses to a never-before-seen extent. This doesn’t take anything from him. It’s just a different perspective.

The above points also apply to “being proven in a different setup” and “Messi could not cut it in the Premier League.” The latter argument is simply incorrect because even though the English league might have the most money and best marketing, but footballing-wise for a player like Messi, and most good players in general, they would be able to shine there. Their performances wouldn't be different, but would look different, mostly because of the lack of pressing and more complex offensive tactics from teams in the middle and bottom of the table.

And the different setup argument is in fact counterintuitive. Messi plays for what the team needs, or what the manager wants him to play. Ronaldo mostly performs the same, and there are claims Mourinho was not a fan of this particular aspect. This is also the reason why Cristiano’s teams can start to show imbalance in specific zones and situations with him in the team. And while Messi is not perfect – no one is – he is much more success stable and strategically valuable because of the way he changes his way of playing, even if it makes him look worse to the layman in some games.

Beyond player skills

Finally, I want to add that this piece really goes beyond what most would call player skills. Yes, it's obvious that for those with dedicated knowledge that Messi is the better passer, has more vision, is the better playmaker, more gifted, more suited to the modern game, a better shooter and a much better dribbler.

But that’s beside the point. In football it’s not about possessing things an outsider can isolate and describe easily. Two things are relevant:

How can I utilize what I have?

How can I help my team with what I can do?

Two players can drop deep as center forwards, change positions across the front line or do a shoulder feint when they get the ball. But there still might be a difference between the two. This is about group, team and individual tactical aspects.

Messi is not only a technician with great vision and brilliant acceleration, he picks his moments better than any other player, too. He will look at his marker or the nearest opposition player and analyze at which moment the opposition looks at him, and when he turns his head, using that split second to move away. He will analyze the body posture of an opponent and will go past him in a way he can put his body between the opposition and himself in a way that gives him the ability to have a wider field of vision, more controlled possession of the ball and open more space for his teammates as opponents move to attack him.

Messi will not only look at the body posture of the first opposing player, but also the distances to the other players before choosing his next action. He varies his speed, direction and decision almost perfectly even in high-tempo situations. Occasionally he will drop deeper when the opposition is either compact and passive to overload, when the structure of his own team is lacking connections or when the opposition is losing compactness, which lets him attack the ensuing gaps.

Messi knows when to stand in front of his opposing players, when to move diagonally behind them, when to lure them deeper and when he’ll just charge horizontally past his marker, into another zone. As a Bayern Munich fan, I must admit that Messi destroyed the man who is arguably the most tactically wise coach on the planet twice – not only as player, but how he played as right winger in the first 15 minutes and then moved immediately to the center to change with Suárez when Guardiola changed to a back four.

Even his defensive positioning, which is often lethargic and passive, is mostly exceptional. He just cuts the first pass towards the zone he doesn’t want to defend, lures the opposition away and if they don’t do either, he either supports a teammate or prepares a good position for fast counterattacks. And again, he knows which one to do, and when.

This is the difference between he and Ronaldo and, quite frankly, anyone else. The truly impressive thing about Messi is not that he is a great technician, etc. It’s that he combines all that talent with a brain that right now can only be compared to a handful of underrated players such as Philipp Lahm, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Thomas Müller or Luka Modric.

Anything wrong? Send your correction.