Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo : Numbers don't lie

Posted by: Jake W

The discussion and decision about who should be awarded the Ballon d’Or for 2012 has been going on for far too long and, to be honest, it is a very simple matter.

Lots of talk about Ronaldo getting it this year because Messi has won it enough…give someone else a chance…But should they really present an award based on making its status equitable to all the deserving players?  You either qualify as the best candidate, or someone else is better than you...  Is the Ballon d’Or a popularity contest or maybe about who carries their presence this way or that on the pitch?  

I am an American across the pond looking on from afar as a lifelong fan of the game.  Having played, coached, and ref’d soccer over the last 40 years or so I think I can contribute a viewpoint here that might help.

There is belief that Ronaldo has every bit the pedigree that Messi has and that its time to balance the ledger.  I certainly have an opinion on this, as does everyone else on this blog, in Spain, in Europe, across the globe.   And that’s the trouble….. everyone has a perspective, a belief, an assertion about this topic.  Debates that place in the arena of verbal joust, twitter feed, training ground speech, or post-game podium quote have no solution.  The only way to compare artistry and brilliance is to achieve a common understanding of the results; and that requires something we here in the States have taken to a sometimes absurd level:  statistics.

Numbers and a baseline set of criteria will see us through to a winner, so what do we go?  
We can agree that numbers are numbers and in most cases can be considered undisputed.  I have used the stats available from ESPN and have cut off updating them as of 11/19/2012:  
To advocate for an award winner we must know what the presenters think.  In the case of FIFA, they are noticeably vague on the subject, only saying that it goes to the player who has performed the best in the previous season.  So let’s discuss this point.  

In the States, we spend a lifetime arguing about our own sports awards.  We endlessly debate the topic of who is the best player at a given sport, and we call that player the MVP, or most valuable player.  In the end, it’s about who provides the most complete package as a player.  Who brings the widest array of talents to the table?  For the Ballon d’Or argument, I say we can use five criteria:  Scoring, Assisting, Durability, Accuracy/efficiency, and Team success.  

Scoring is obvious.  We base our estimate of worth on how much of something a player produces.  The most tangible, highest-valued product a footballer can give us is goals.

Assists are where we thin the herd.  Making your teammates better players is embedded in the MVP talk in America.  If you boost everyone around you, surely you are the best player.  Who has vision on the field? who has the ability to create opportunities for their teammates to succeed?

Durability is staying power.  Score 7 goals in a one game, but play only 5 matches all year, and you cannot be in a best player conversation.  You must prove it day in/ day out. 

Accuracy / efficiency.  Can you count on a player, if given the moment, to succeed?  Is that player deserving of the chance his teammate has created for him.   Someone who blasts 35 shots in a game but forces only 3 saves it not skilled as a shooter.  Aim where you want to hit, and hit what you aim at…
Team success.  Surely the best player in the world cannot be on the last place team in a league.  We already said an MVP helps others succeed.  Thus, by default, a winning team should be the location for the best player.

Now we can look at the data and see what we see.  Using the site mentioned, I pulled data on Messi, Ronaldo, and Falcao and simply applied filters to show relationships.  Those 3 players are the hot tickets in this debate.  Obviously the finalists have been announced and Falcao is no longer in the running, but at the time I started this, he was still a viable candidate.

The amount of analysis possible is beyond the limits of this blog, but to summarize, over the course of the 2012 season through mid-November, Messi had scored 33% more goals than Ronaldo, had made 200% more assists than Ronaldo, had scored his goals using 31% fewer shots on goal than Ronaldo, and had produced his results in 11% fewer games than Ronaldo.

On a per-game basis, Messi has scored 56% more goals per game than Ronaldo, made 239% more assists per game than Ronaldo, scored his goals using 22% fewer shots on goal than Ronaldo, and was 26% more accurate with his shots than Ronaldo.

Clearly, Messi deserves the Ballon d’Or for 2012:  

Messi has outscored Ronaldo, though Ronaldo is having a very impressive scoring year as well.
Messi has excelled as a setup man.  He has a 3-to-1 ratio of assists to Ronaldo and a 5-to-1 ratio to Falcao.  In only 1 year has Ronaldo had more assists, and that was 2006 when Messi played in 50% fewer games than Ronaldo.

Messi and Ronaldo are equally durable and have played almost all their team’s  matches.
Messi is much more dangerous with the ball.  Messi puts the ball on net 57% of time he shoots.  Ronaldo’s on target 45% of the time.  Out of all those shots on goal, Messi scored 56% more goals every game than Ronaldo.  

Messi and Ronaldo are on teams that are at the top of the league or world standings.  But the 2012 season has seen an unbeaten Barcelona side, a world #1 club ranking, and a consistent parade of its players to the podium for league, continent, and world football awards.

Some argue that Messi has an easier time of it at his false 9 position.  This ignores what we see every game with Messi. He is rarely marked just one-on-one inside the 30, he roams sideline to sideline when needed to use space, recover possession, or take throw-ins/corners. There is also one stat not kept that would be a very thorny point for Ronaldo to contest:  the “don’t go down” factor. 

If we watched every minute of every match Messi has played this year, how many “got hit and should of/could of fallen down but kept going and scored/assisted” plays have there been. Messi has the kind of reputation now that some legendary baseball players had in America where they were known to have such a good command of what was a ball and what was a strike while batting that when they mentioned something casually to the umpire about a call being wrong, the umpire seriously considered it. For Messi, when he finally does go down, everyone in the stadium knows it must have been a real foul.

I believe this data and my analysis had some grounding in reason.  Numbers don’t lie, and as a way to evaluate the quality of something in an unbiased way, I believe using boring, unhyped, plain old numbers is the only way to succeed!