Examining the Styles and Skills of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Which soccer star is better?

Messi & Ronaldo
(L) Clive Rose/Getty Images Sport (R) Paul Gilham/Getty Images Sport

Whenever Barcelona has played against Real Madrid in professional soccer matches, the biggest subplot has usually been the battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. They are two of the highest paid soccer players in the world. Ronaldo was signed by Real Madrid for $131 million in 2009 and earns nearly $50 million a year, as of April 2018. Prior to that, he had been signed by Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon as an 18-year-old.

Messi has Ronaldo beat—slightly—in the salary department. In 2017, Barcelona signed the soccer star to a multiyear contract with a whopping $835 million buyout clause, according to "Forbes." He received a signing bonus of $59 million and makes $50 million a year in salary and bonus money.

Each player has won the World Player of the Year award and has scored in a Champions League final. Ronaldo says comparing Messi to him is like comparing a "Ferrari with a Porsche" (though he says he's better). Their style of play and statistics provide hints about their similarities and differences.

Feet vs. Head

Soccer players can score with their head or feet, and Messi and Ronaldo have distinct differences in this area.

Messi is left-footed and finishes most of his scoring chances on that side. He generally occupied the position on the right side of attack after Josep Guardiola took over as Barcelona coach in 2008 but has featured more centrally as time has gone on. (Barcelona's coach as April 2018 is Ernesto Valverde.) Messi is outstanding in one-on-ones, capable of the subtle dink over an advancing goalkeeper, a curled effort into the corner or a piledriver. So many chances come his way in a team that dominates most games that he will miss a few, but it is hard to find fault in Messi’s finishing.

Where Messi generally favors finesse when facing the whites of the goalposts, Ronaldo more often opts for sheer power. Unlike Messi, the Portuguese star is right footed but is also adept at finishing on his weaker side. Ronaldo's goals record speaks for itself, but in terms of foot power, Messi has a slight edge.

Ronaldo scores far more goals with his head than Messi, and he is not afraid to go in where it hurts. Standing 6 feet tall, Ronaldo is always going to be more effective in the air than Messi, who is a more diminutive 5-feet-4-inches tall. Ronaldo manages to apply great power to his headers and scores higher in this category.

Free Kicks

Messi is capable of producing exquisite set pieces that bend past opposing goalkeepers. His free kicks are more about finesse than brute force. However, he lacks the variation of Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s swerving free kicks, by contrast, are a thing of beauty. When playing for Manchester United, he revealed that he uses the technique of striking the ball on the valve to get more power and movement. He is also capable of the classic curling free kick. He has the slight edge here.

Dribbling and Control

Messi is a great dribbler, and there is no one better in the world at taking on and beating players. Messi's strength is not just his pacing that takes him past defenders but his technique, quick feet, and balance. He is not the strongest or quickest player but relies on his natural ability to take him past his defenders.

Few players can perform a stepover like Ronaldo, and it is such skill that helps him beat opponents repeatedly. Ronaldo's control is generally excellent, but he relies more on his pace to take him past players than his Argentinean counterpart. Messi has a slight edge in this area.

Skill and Technique

Such is Messi’s skill that the ball can appear glued to his feet as he maneuvers himself out of tight situations and finds teammates when it seems he is surrounded. Messi, like Ronaldo, can use the backheel to great effect and also has a penchant for looping the ball over a defender and collecting it on the other side.

Ronaldo is more of a showman than Messi and can take the breath away with his array of stepovers and flicks. But in some matches, when the stepovers are taking him nowhere and he is attempting backheels that are not finding teammates, Ronaldo sometimes opts for style over substance. He is blessed with tremendous natural ability and when on point, he is a joy to watch, but he has more ineffectual matches than Messi.

Other Factors

One of the reasons Messi has been more successful at the club level is that he dovetails so beautifully with his Barcelona teammates, who generally say he works hard and combines well with other squad members.

Ronaldo is a player almost beyond reproach but one of the gripes that some teammates have had about him—and certainly some Real Madrid fans—is that he can be selfish and too obsessed with making the difference on his own. Ronaldo has been known to shoot from poor angles and distances when teammates are better placed, and he will often try to score when there is a superior option to his left or right. He also has a tendency to show his frustration and petulance toward teammates. Messi takes the edge here also.

Conclusion

Messi is not a big man and can be knocked off the ball by more imposing opponents. However, he is also capable of holding his own in one-on-ones and often it takes a foul for a defender to knock him off the ball. Ronaldo, by contrast, is more physically imposing with unquestionable fitness and professionalism in looking after himself.

Messi exerts more influence over more games, while Ronaldo has been accused of being a bit of a bully in the past—and effective in the lesser matches but disappointing when it really matters. Messi has produced more great performances in the biggest games, but Ronaldo has scored slightly more goals during his professional soccer career—394 vs. 386, as of April 2018. That might be the best litmus test of overall effectiveness, through the difference is so slight, it may be impossible to say which player is truly better.