The rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has riveted football pundits and primary schoolchildren alike, fuelling endless debates over who is the greatest player of modern times – or ever.
The forwards are almost neck and neck on goals scored, Ballon d’Or and Golden Shoe awards, but according to Dr Ian Graham, the outgoing director of research at Liverpool FC, a deeper look at the data reveals a clearcut winner.
“It’s Messi,” Graham told an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival this week.
The Argentine and Portuguese strikers are the only two in history to have scored more than 800 goals, have won 76 major trophies between them, and each have a plausible claim to being the greatest of all time (GOAT).
The debate over who is best span out over the nine seasons they spent at rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid and reached a climax at last year’s World Cup.
However, Graham said, when the pair were ranked using sophisticated models to evaluate their broader contribution to their team’s success, Messi, 35, who announced on Wednesday he was joining the Major League Soccer side Inter Miami, was clearly superior.
“The difference is that Messi is also a world-class attacking midfielder,” he said. “The chances he creates for his teammates are an order of magnitude greater than Ronaldo. Messi does two jobs brilliantly. Ronaldo does one job brilliantly. That’s the difference.”
Graham, who did a PhD in theoretical physics at Cambridge before his move to Anfield, described being at the forefront of a revolution in football data over the past decade or so.
In the mid-2000s, analysts had only basic data on goals, shots, corners and yellow cards. Today, Liverpool tracks skeletal movement data throughout Champions League games allowing them to assess the value each player is adding – even while not on the ball.
“We get 29 x-y-z positions for each player at 25 frames per second,” Graham said. “Each position is one of your joints. Two of the positions are the eyes, so you can see which direction the players are looking.”
As a result, analysts were increasingly influential in shaping training and player recruitment, where the focus is often value for money, he said.
“Any statistical model will tell you that Kylian Mbappé is the best player in Europe at the moment,” he said. “But unfortunately, financially, he’s out of Liverpool’s league. We’re looking for the best performing players per pound.”
The models are not infallible, though, sometimes proposing players belonging to what Graham called an “island of misfit toys” category – those who, in theory, are “really good and really cheap” but are unsuitable due to “weird playing styles” or other factors.
Asked which club ought to buy Harry Kane, England’s all-time record goal scorer whose contract at Tottenham expires at the end of the season, Graham said that despite Kane’s impressive record, it would be “a club that doesn’t care about value for money”.
“He’s 29. It’s going to be a high transfer fee for three years of performance that might start declining,” Graham said.