Two prod­ucts, one pur­pose!


Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Lionel Messi have oc­cu­pied the mar­quee po­si­tions in two dis­tinct ways of think­ing about foot­ball. The an­swer to the ques­tion about who the bet­ter player is is triv­ial. Per­haps the play­ers are the cre­ations of their sys­tems more than we ap­pre­ci­ate.

When Cris­tiano Ron­aldo moved from Manch­ester United to Real Madrid in the sum­mer of 2009, he was 24 years old. Lionel Messi was 22. Each had won three league ti­tles and a Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle. Ron­aldo had won the Bal­lon D’OR in 200■. Lionel Messi was about to win it in 2009. Both were ex­tra­or­di­nary, even by the stan­dards of elite foot­ball. Ron­aldo at­tracted a world record trans­fer fee. Messi ac­quired un­prece­dented con­tracts from his club, Barcelona, to pre­vent him from be­ing tempted to leave. Both had been ex­cep­tion­ally rated teenagers, much like Kylian Mbappe is to­day. In 2009 Ron­aldo was en­ter­ing his prime, while Messi was per­haps de­part­ing from his wun­derkind phase.

On June 30, 201■, Ar­gentina and Por­tu­gal were elim­i­nated from the World Cup within hours of each other. Messi and Ron­aldo were ex­pected to lead their sides deep into the tour­na­ment. Messi, es­pe­cially, has been dogged by the view that if he wishes to be re­garded on a par with Maradona or Pele, he would have to add a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ti­tle to his bril­liant club ca­reer record. On July 10, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, aged 33, com­pleted a hun­dred mil­lion pound trans­fer from Real Madrid to the great Ital­ian club Ju­ven­tus.

Each is a global phe­nom­e­non. Over the years, a ri­valry has emerged be­tween the sup­port­ers of Lionel Messi and the sup­port­ers of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo over the ques­tion of who is bet­ter. It is the ri­valry in foot­ball. It tran­scends the im­por­tance of the ac­tual foot­balling ri­valry be­tween Real Madrid and Barcelona. What is strik­ing about this ex­tremely pop­u­lar ri­valry, is how im­pov­er­ished the role of foot­ball it­self is in it. I’ve found the ques­tion of who is bet­ter to be triv­ial. Triv­ial, be­cause the an­swer is both ob­vi­ous and unim­por­tant.

The Ron­aldo­messi ri­valry em­bod­ies larger, far more in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about foot­ball. It is a ri­valry about styles, sys­tems, even ide­olo­gies. In some sig­nif­i­cant ways, it has its roots in a larger ide­o­log­i­cal ri­valry be­tween the English and Span­ish game. What fol­lows is an es­sen­tial­ist ac­count of a larger ar­gu­ment in foot­ball which forms the can­vas on which this per­sonal ri­valry has come about. There are ex­cep­tions to the es­sen­tial dis­tinc­tions which have been drawn be­low (for in­stance, Manuel Pel­le­grini’s ap­proach in Ron­aldo’s first year at Real Madrid), but th­ese are suf­fi­ciently mar­ginal and do not sig­nif­i­cantly dis­fig­ure the pic­ture pre­sented be­low. This is an es­sen­tial­ist ac­count of sys­tems. By sys­tem, I do not re­fer to a for­ma­tion (such as 4­3­3 or 3­5­2), but to a sys­tem­atic way of think­ing about how foot­ball teams should be or­gan­ised to play.

If you lis­ten care­fully you will hear two dis­tinct types of de­scrip­tions in foot­ball. In most foot­ball dis­cus­sions, es­pe­cially in English foot­ball dis­cus­sions, you hear the de­fence and at­tack be­ing con­sid­ered as though

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