Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lionel Messi - The Greatest Ever?

Lionel Messi is poised to break nearly all scoring records if he carries on scoring at anything close to the rate he currently is. Quite clearly he is one of the most astonishing talents that the world has ever seen, the question is, is he the best ever?

The case for
Quite simply, his scoring rate is without parallel. He may break the Barcelona all time scoring record before his twenty-fifth birthday, when you consider the players they have had over the years that is an incredible statistic.

Messi is also a fantastic team player, his goals do not come at the expense of others and nor is he simply a penalty box poacher like so many of the strikers with huge tallies such as Romario, Ian Rush or even Pippo Inzaghi. Messi creates havoc all over the pitch with his skill, speed, dribbling and vision and he creates many many chances also for his teammates. He is a true 'No10' with a scoring rate to surpass that of even the greatest 'No9'.

Many players have been able to excel in their domestic leagues but have failed to replicate that form in Europe - Eric Cantona springs to mind - but Messi's record in the Champions League is again tremendous and his trophy haul of domestic and European honours even at his still relatively young age is fantastic.

People will say that Messi hasn't done anything in a World Cup yet but there is an arguement now that the World Cup isn't the pinnacle it once was and that the Champions League is the top level of football now, if that is the case then Messi is truly at the peak.

Messi is without doubt one of the finest players to have ever played the game and should he stay injury free he should go on to break almost every record that has ever been set.

The case against
There isn't really 'a case against Messi' as such and it is almost impossible to compare players from different eras. There are however several points that need to be factored in when comparing Messi to the previous greats.

The conventional wisdom is that the two greatest players that ever lived were Pele and Maradona. There are then a list below those two usually consisting of the likes of Cruyff, Di Stefano, Beckenbauer, Puskas and possibly George Best (not really considered from anyone outside of the British Isles). Since then, probably only Zinedine Zidane and (the real) Ronaldo before his injuries have come close despite the excellence of players such as Platini, Baresi, Maldini, Van Basten, Gullit, Baggio, Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

To be able to compare Messi to Pele or Maradona, we would have to establish that he is a better player therefore than say Zidane or Cruyff, Zidane being an easier comparison due to the time proximity of their careers.

Zidane won everything there is to win and played with an elegance (except for the headbutts) that was hard to match. Nearly every single one of his assorted teammates for France, Juve or Real said that he was on a completely different level.

Zidane cannot compare in terms of goals with Messi and this was probably the area that held Zidane back from further compare with the greats. Zidane didn't have Messi's speed either but he was still an incredible dribbler with close control as good as anyone's.

Where Zidane bettered Messi however was the ability to dictate the pace of a game much in the way that Xavi does for Barcelona, he was a supreme conductor of the orchestra. On balance however Messi's brilliance seems to be the greater.

The writer of this blog has always held Maradona as the greatest player to ever play the game and in terms of stature and skill the two players are very similar. Maradona's goal scoring feats bear no comparison leave him trailing in Messi's wake. Again like Zidane however, Maradona typically played a little deeper and was able to run a game and dictate the pace almost at will.

Maradona never played in a team as good as the current Barcelona side. Indeed Maradona was regularly a unique inspiration to both his National team and to highly unfashionable Napoli side, this made his achievements all the more incredible. Maradona won the 1986 World Cup as singlehandedly as is possible in a true team sport.

Messi when in a less than spectacular Argentina side has struggled to make any real impact and was a peripheral figure at the World Cup. The Barcelona team is incredible with him in but it would still probably be the best team in the world without him, such is the brilliance of Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and co.

Football today is very very different from when Maradona played the game with tackling now almost outlawed. Maradona was regularly kicked off the pitch during his career, with the protection offered from referees to attack minded players nowadays one suspects that Maradona would have run riot also.

The fact that there is another player in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo scoring goals at almost the same rate as Messi also highlights that the Spanish league has very little strength in depth. The trend of the big clubs buying up all the best players and keeping them in huge squads has led to little strength in depth in European football especially outside of the top leagues.

So is he the greatest?
There will be many people that think he unquestionably is and in many ways it very hard to argue with the statistics. Messi does have a huge advantage in that every single fantastic thing he ever does is recorded from every conceivable angle and replayed hundreds of timeswhereas in previous eras much was only described by word of mouth.

Depending on how you look at it that can also work against Messi in romanticising the past feats of others however. The writer of this blog has lost count of the amount of times he's been told 'you must see this goal, he went around the half their team' only to find the player played a one-two and beat one more player who had already fallen over before fooling the keeper with a scuffed shot.

For this blog however, Maradona remains the yardstick even if only for the 1986 World Cup which remains a complete one off. We do however expect Messi to keep providing a compelling arguement to challenge that view and with the 2014 World Cup sure to be expecting Messi at his peak, the stage will be set for him to take the crown once and for all - No Nonsense.