Often compared by their goals and titles, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both have exceptional playmaking qualities. But whose are better?
Everyone knows the goalscoring side of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite their many other virtues, it’s their consistency in front of the net was has made them break records regularly and be crowned as some of the best attackers to ever kick a ball. Three days ago we analysed how the goalscoring ratio of both had evolved with age, and their curves actually followed a similar pattern – in spite of Messi always being ahead. That said, as mentioned earlier, goals are by no means their only asset in their wide set of skills. What’s more: perhaps goals aren’t even their main asset. At least for Leo, who moves all around the pitch to act as a creator, midfielder, striker and quarterback, all in one. But how have his playmaking abilities been throughout his career compared to Cristiano’s?
As seen in the following box plot, which shows the average club assists per player per season, starting from the 2009/10 campaign, Messi’s figures are significantly higher to Ronaldo’s. Including the league, cup and Champions League, the Argentinian’s highest assisting record is of 28 assists, which came in MSN’s and Luis Enrique’s treble-winning 2014/15 course. The Portuguese’s record is of 22 assists in, curiously, the same 14/15 season.
Average club assists per season, starting from the 2009/10 | Graph by @Maluem_
Messi’s mean (green triangle) and median (yellow line) are both higher than Ronaldo’s. Regarding the interquartile range, which measures the difference between the 75th and 25th percentiles, Leo has a greater dispersion, also due to the fact that his numbers are higher and, therefore, there’s more upper and lower margin.
Meanwhile, when taking a look at their assists evolution, Cristiano Ronaldo appears ahead of Messi until the age of 22. By that time CR7 was still in England, recording in the 2006/07 term his maximum with Manchester United of 21 assists: 15 in the Premier League, 5 in the Champions League and 1 in the FA Cup. However, while until that time Ronaldo had a higher number of assists in Sporting CP and United combined, Leo’s ratio was starting to be higher.
Messi and Ronaldo’s assists evolution by age | Figures for club and country, by @Maluem_
The slope of the graph from Barcelona’s number 10 is substantially higher to the one from the Real Madrid legend. Messi, assisting at an outstanding rate between ages 22 and 24, currently has 261 assists for Barça in 718 fixtures in all competitions – 0.364 assists per game. By contrast, and despite being two and a half years older, Cristiano has lower career stats: 215 assists in 836 matches for Sporting, United and Madrid – 0.257 assists per game.
In conclusion, while Cristiano Ronaldo’s assisting record is by no means low, and may even be a bit overlooked at times, it is clear that Leo is a more complete and regular playmaker. Throughout their careers, including club and country, Messi has provided an assist every 238 minutes on average, compared to Ronaldo needing 365 minutes. An important difference but, nonetheless, two tremendously good records.
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The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.