Styles of Play

by Philemon Kiptoo

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Who’s the better of these two is a question that has divided soccer fans globally. If you ask Real Madrid fans and Barcelona fans, the answer is obvious: Ronaldo is best, and Messi is best respectively. Indeed these judgements are purely based on team loyalties. When a young Messi scored a hat trick at the Bernabeu against Madrid over a decade ago, it meant that his hatred from Madrid was sealed. On the other hand, Barcelona fans have always despised Ronaldo after he transferred from Manchester United. With each of the players having won the Ballon D’or a record five times each, even neutral fans find it hard to decisively choose one side of the debate. As a neutral fan, let’s try pour some objective insight into the debate.

In terms of style of play and role on the pitch, the two players are actually different fundamentally.

Messi is a predominantly left-footed player whose dribbling ability is simply insane; probably best of all time. With an exceptional passing ability and vision to find teammates in space with his precision passes, he likes to play with the ball and dictate the tempo of the game – he’s a play maker.

Ronaldo on the other hand is a versatile goal scorer who likes to cut in from the left wing and shoot with his favorite right foot. Ronaldo’s heading ability is beyond what most players can achieve. It’s also important to note that Ronaldo’s weaker foot is better than Messi’s weaker foot; however the things Messi’s stronger foot (the left one) can do makes one question if he really needs the other one.

When it comes to taking free kicks and spot kicks: Messi has mastered the former. With just the right amount of pace and strength, Messi can accurately curve the ball over the wall into a top corner of the net. Ronaldo’s ability is also exceptional in taking free kicks, but over the years Messi’s technique has gotten better. When it comes to taking penalties however, Ronaldo has proved to be more superior; always calmer and more composed to score even in the most demanding times from the spot kick.

Over the years, these players have also changed their styles of play to adapt to new teams and connect better with new teammates. For example, At Manchester United, Ronaldo wasn’t primarily a goal scorer as he’s in Real Madrid now. At United, Ronaldo was an all-around player who frequently dropped to his own half to pick up the ball and orchestrate an attack. He often mesmerized us by his breathtaking long range shots from outside the box. His dribbling skills were almost at bar as he tried find his way through packed spaces in the mid-field. In fact some strong fans of the Portuguese international still prefer ‘The Ronaldo at Manchester United.’

At Real Madrid, Ronaldo’s role has gradually been reduced over time to goal scoring. As such, scoring goals has been a major way for Ronaldo to prove his credibility in the current game, and fairly enough, his resiliency has made him blossom in this role. The number of goals he has scored since switching to Real Madrid speak for themselves.

Messi, on the other hand, has cemented his role as a playmaker capable of scoring many goals. The young Messi started as a winger, then switched to play as a false nine for a few years and now has a number 10 (behind the striker). This role perfectly fits the Argentine, and brings out the best of him. He’s free to roam into the center of the pack and initiate attack. His dribbling and passing ability make him one of the most effective and creative play makers. The fact that he can succeed as a playmaker (evidently by having more assists both direct and indirect), and lead the scoring chart as well just shows how good the Barcelona forward is.

Another key difference between these two great players is how they rose to prominence. Much like most other players, Ronaldo gradually rose to the level where he’s today. At United, he didn’t awe the crowd from the start. He slowly rose in stature and his last two seasons in Manchester were his best there. I believe this makes Ronaldo’s story more relatable to most of us. Messi on the other hand seems to have been destined to play soccer. From his times in the La Masia Academy to his debut matches for Barcelona and Argentina, Messi has showed that he was destined for greatness. To put this in context, at 19 years of age, he scored a memorable hat trick against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu playing for a Barcelona team that featured great players like Ronaldinho and Eto’o. In the same year, Messi also scored one of the best (if not the best) goals of the century against Getafe in La Liga: 

                                                            A young Messi in action Vs Getafe in 2007

Since then, Messi has never stopped to mesmerize with his style of play. He has been compared to only two other players in history: Pele and Maradona.

However, Messi, as Ronaldo, misses one crucial achievement in his career – he has not lifted the World Cup trophy. He came close in 2014 by reaching the final. This summer presents great a opportunity to see the biggest personalities in the sport battle it out in Russia. I believe that the debate of who’s the better between these two will be settled if one of them lifts the trophy in July. Until then, I will believe that Messi is the better; even as a play maker, he still scores as many goals as his Portuguese rival.

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[1] “Messi Vs Ronaldo Play Styles – Quora” April 28, 2018.

[2] “Messi Vs Ronaldo Play styles – The Perspective” April 28, 2018.

How to cite this page:

“Messi vs. Ronaldo – The Final Showdown?” Written by Philemon Kiptoo and Vinay Kshirsagar (2018). World Cup 2018 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, (accessed on [date]).