Guest Author: Lukas Tank
It wasn’t the most beautiful goal, but it was a historic one. After having missed a penalty only seconds earlier, Lionel Messi headed the ball over the line to level the score against Valencia. What made this goal special is not so much its role in the largely forgettable 2-2 draw that ensued, but the fact that it was Messi’s 643rd goal for FC Barcelona, the same number of goals Pelé scored for the club of his life, Santos FC.
For exactly four days they occupied the joint first place in the all-time ranking of players with most goals scored for a single professional football club. Four days only because, to absolutely no one’s surprise, it took Messi only one further match to pull one goal ahead.
His 644th goal, which came against Real Valladolid, was a bit worthier of historical significance, too: a coolly taken shot into the bottom right corner after some neat link-up play with Frenkie de Jong and young Pedri. If nothing unforeseen happens, Messi will add at least a dozen more before the season ends, thereby putting some distance between him and Pelé. Still, the matched, and now beaten record presents an admirable opportunity to contemplate the two legends and their respective careers.
Messi’s career, dating back to when he was a teenager in the late 2000s, has been set in relation to two other players: Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously, and, as a historical point of comparison, Diego Maradona. There are genuine reasons for choosing these two players.
Ronaldo has often been the second best player in the world during Messi’s reign and even had a shout at being no. 1 on some occasions. And even if Messi wasn’t Argentinian, the Getafe goal alone would justify comparisons to Maradona’s genius. But if we study their whole careers, and if we look at the overall player profile, it can be argued that Pelé is actually the more appropriate point of comparison. In some important regards he is much closer to being a second Messi than Maradona ever was and Cristiano Ronaldo ever will be.
Let’s start with the overall shape of their career. In a recent obituary of Diego Maradona, Jonathan Wilson of Guardian wrote that Maradona “was great for perhaps four seasons”. A bit harsh, but it does raise a point: Maradona did not produce a solid decade or more of top performances. There were significant ups and downs. Pelé, Messi, and Ronaldo are several notches higher than the 1986 World Cup winner when it comes to consistency.
They produced season after season after season of world-class-and-above performances. Yes, Messi dropped a bit during 2013-14 and Pelé had problems in 1966, but by and large, they personified the relentless pursuit for never-ending excellence.
Maradona was also much less of a goal threat. We should keep in mind that 80s Serie A was low-scoring and expanded to 18 teams only in ‘88-’89, but even if we do not forget any of these facts, Maradona’s performance as a goalscorer is a far cry compared to his compatriot.
In short, we can say that is not part of the exclusive club of players who averaged a bizarre goals-to-game ratio of nearly 1 for a longer period of time while playing in a highly competitive context. Let us call this group of players as part of Club 1. In the post-war era, only a handful of players gained access to this club: Ferenc Puskas, Gerd Müller, Cristiano Ronaldo, and, of course, Pelé and Messi.
The thing about Cristiano Ronaldo, however, is that while he basically matches Messi as a goal threat, he lacks behind quite considerably in other regards. He may be nearly as good as a finisher but hardly rocks the boat as a creator. Yes, his assists statistics are impressive, but everyone who has actually followed his career knows that he is not much of a playmaking presence. The No. 7 is a No. 9 but not a No. 10, and certainly not a No. 8. Something similar applies to the other members of Club 1.
Not of all them, though. There is a second goal machine around who was much more than just a centre forward. And by context, it is easy to guess that the man in question is none other than Pele himself. He, too, was a creative presence of the highest order, while outscoring everyone at the same time.
Football history has known two free-scoring, free-assisting, free-creating, relentless performance machines. Their names are Pelé and Messi. Their light shone as bright as we have ever seen and it shone basically forever. Both Pelé and Messi turmoiled an entire decade each under the sun and were the closest things to each other.
The late 50s and early-to-mid 60s Pelé, in particular, is a player that, while obviously being very different from the players of today (his heyday was 60 years ago, football has changed), can for his own time claim to have ascended to the same kind of heights as Messi. That is not to say that they one cannot discuss who was better, Messi or Pelé. But what always feels a bit contrived when said about Messi versus his contemporary rival, that we should just enjoy them both, feels more appropriate when it comes to watching the GOAT and O Rei. They are the two best players of all time. Enjoy them both.
Consistently persistent: The Antoine Griezmann story at Barcelona
Going into yesterday’s game against Sevilla, things were finally starting to look up for the team. After all, before that, they had beaten that same squad 2-0 at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium in La Liga and were raring for revenge in the Copa del Rey as well. Ronald Koeman’s new system was looking like a success, and players like Sergiño Dest and Ousmane Dembélé were coming to their own. At first glance, life for everyone at the Camp Nou was finally going in the right direction. Everyone expect Antoine Griezmann, that is.
The news that he’d be starting the all-important clash against Sevilla on the bench must’ve been tough to hear. After all, that was his third game in a row where he would sit on the sidelines instead of being included in the gala XI. For a player of his calibre, reputation and status, that is almost unfathomable.
First, there was the game against Elche. Barcelona managed to win that one comfortably, putting away three goals to snatch all three points on the night. Griezmann, however, would participate only for 14 minutes before the final whistle with no real contribution to his name. That change came on the back of the necessity to rest the Frenchman. Next was the first of the two victories over Sevilla, and that one was even worse.
Griezmann found himself on the bench for the whole duration of the game, not even getting the chance to play in what was a glorious day for the Catalans. With everyone happy for the result, the performance and camaraderie, we completely forgot about Griezmann, our €120 million signing. And that was the main issue. How can you forget about him when he’s supposed to be a key player in this squad?
Then came the third game as Barcelona welcomed Sevilla to the Camp Nou for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. And Griezmann? Well, sadly he was on the sidelines again as Koeman seemingly couldn’t find a way to squeeze him into his new and refined system. But this time around, with Barcelona needing one more goal to force extra-time, the Dutchman was somewhat forced to call upon his World Cup-winning bench-warmer just before the 70th-minute mark.
The ‘Griezou-signal’ was lit, and the former Atlético Madrid superstar sprung into action, making his presence felt almost immediately. Of course, the highlight of his evening was sending Diego Carlos back to Andalusia with that excellent dummy and assisting the goal, but for the most part, the work he did won’t show up in stats.
This is the crux of the problem too. Griezmann does so much for the team, and yet, all of it is so difficult to put into something palpable. Yes, he’s also scoring goals, but when he’s not, he’s often getting attacked for not doing enough. This, needless to say, is harsh and sometimes even unfair.
But it’s also not exactly that simple either. A striker will always be judged by his performance in front of goal. Roberto Firmino of Liverpool is maybe the greatest example. There are not many others of his elk in the footballing world, but despite all the incredible things he makes possible for the Reds, the Brazilian was still harshly criticised once his output had gone down. The same may be happening to Griezmann.
He’s an unbelievable utility guy — a player whose movement both creates and exploits space while also offering an outlet in tight spaces and in transitions. The problem is that despite all of that, the unmeasurable will never outweigh the measurable in the eyes of the fans.
Of course, that’s unfair, but it’s also expected. Not everyone is an expert, and we often take things at face value, which is not ideal but rather the path of least resistance. So it’s always easier to write him off because the stats tell you to do so. Even the eye-test might not initially present you with a palpable contribution worthy of a €120M signing. But it is there, hidden underneath.
And the best part? It’s finally starting to show in the stats too. Let’s take his 57 minutes played against Sevilla as an example. Had it not been for that excellent assist, many wouldn’t have bothered to even look at him twice, but it was very much an incredible display.
According to SofaScore, Griezmann recorded 36 touches on the night, deploying three key passes, one of which was the crucial assist to Gerard Piqué, completed both of his dribbles, maintained excellent accuracy with 23/25 passes and won five out of his six ground duels.
Not to mention, he continued to display his incredible work-rate off the ball, filling in for the limping Pique as a false-centre back. We have come full circle, yes, but the World Cup winner made an incredible inside the box against a pass that was well on its way to an unmarked Youssef En-Nesyri.
So in that single be-all, end-all performance against a tough opponent, the Frenchman has managed to participate in all phases of Barcelona’s play. Now that is what you call a palpable contribution if there ever was one.
But even if you wanted to make an argument that this is not happening consistently enough, stats beg to differ. Griezmann may be struggling but even so, his output is getting better and better with each passing game. Again, consulting SofaScore for all of our stats, it’s fascinating to see him grow over time.
In his first season at the Camp Nou in 2019, Griezmann was only able to register 12 goal contributions (eight goals, four assists) in 23 games. The next year, that figured rose to 14 goal contributions (12 goals, two assists) in 44 games in 2020. And now in 2021? He’s only 17 games in but already at 16 goal contributions (seven goals, nine assists), eclipsing both of his previous two tallies. Quite impressive, to say the least.
Griezmann for Barcelona so far:— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) March 4, 2021
2019: 12 goal contributions (8 goals, 4 assists) in 23 games.
2020: 14 goal contributions (12 goals, 2 assists) in 44 games.
2021: 16 goal contributions (7 goals, 9 assists) in 17 games.
— @SofaScoreINT pic.twitter.com/oE8ETbuZXT
But that is not all. With a total of 27 goals, he is already the third-best French goalscorer in the history of the club, equal with Dembélé and 22 behind the legendary Thierry Henry. His nine assists across all competitions for the Blaugrana, however, mean that he’s recorded more than any other La Liga player in 2021 so far.
So however you turn and however you choose to look at it, Griezmann is still performing admirably. Maybe more is expected from him but that’s only because we know that he is world-class.
However, it still remains to be seen whether Koeman truly believes there’s a place for him in his new system. If so, who would he be replacing anyway? It’s a tough question that’s very difficult to answer and despite his obvious improvement, nothing in life or football is guaranteed.
Griezmann, just like everyone else, will have to fight for his spot in the team. Whether he emerges victorious or not won’t depend entirely on him, though. As for us, we can only wait and hope for what’s best for the club, whatever that may be in the long-term.