An Apparently Golden Era?

Lionel Messi is an incredible player.  His touch, his reflexes, his vision: he truly has the magical mix of having the ability to react, the talent to execute and vitally, the mind to know how to react and what to execute.

He scores goals for fun.  He makes the greatest defenders look inept.  His statistics, records, awards and trophies speak for themselves.  It is little wonder that many consider him to be among the very best players that ever lived.

Then there’s Cristiano Ronaldo.  Similarly gifted and similarly devastating, there has long been a debate about whether Ronaldo might actually be the better player.  This argument stokes a high-profile rivalry between the two.

Regardless of whether Ronaldo is better or not, it has to be acknowledged: if Messi is indeed among the very best to ever have played, then Ronaldo is close enough to his level to at least be among that same reckoning.

Then there’s Luis Suarez.  Having already shown immense talent with Ajax and Liverpool, he has become a sensation alongside Messi at Barcelona.  At the time of writing he stands at the top of the La Liga goalscoring table, boasting still more assists than either Ronny or Messi.  There is certainly an argument that at this precise moment in time, he too belongs in the conversation with the other two…

Okay, hang on a minute… three of the best players all time, playing in the same era?

I can certainly buy that a player of Messi’s talent is among the best ever.  When Ronaldo performed comparably, my simple thought was that we were perhaps in the fantastically fortunate situation of having two of the best players of all time coincidentally emerging in the same era.

I’ve even argued (partially through my bias towards Ronny as a Manchester United legend) that Ronaldo might be the better player.  My rationale for this is that Messi, for all his achievements and talents (and don’t get me wrong, they’re nothing short of tremendous), he’s only had to do it for one club: a club that he’s been with his entire teenage and adult career.  Furthermore, it’s a club that boasted the components of a true Barcelona Golden era.  As we saw when the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol (among other Barca players) dominated with Spain, this collection of players are “classic lineup” material for club and country in their own right, regardless of Messi’s presence.

That’s not to say that Messi wouldn’t be great wherever he played.  It’s simply the one arena in which he hasn’t actually been tested.  Ronaldo has.

He broke through as the sensation that we’ve known over the last decade, during his Man United stint.  He was already a phenomenon when – after years of reciprocated flirtations from Real Madrid – United reluctantly agreed to the transfer.  When he arrived, he hit the ground running, immediately vying with Messi in the scoring charts.  Madrid as a whole didn’t fare so well, resulting in the coach’s sacking and a single year into his move, Ronaldo saw the team rebuilt.

Regardless, despite playing under a third coach and set of teammates in as many years, he didn’t not miss a beat.  That’s the one area where I think he’s edged Messi and in fairness to the diminutive Argentine, it’s more that we don’t know how well Messi would perform in the situation, versus knowing Ronny would handle it better.

But back to Suarez putting up comparable numbers, having incredible abilities of his own and being just as phenomenal for the elite clubs of Spain as the other two.

Two “world’s greatest ever” candidates in one era is unlikely; especially when you consider that Messi is being directly held up alongside the most accepted pair of “best ever” candidates in Maradona and Pele.  In assessing Lionel’s level, many are typically transcending the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, George Best and Johann Cruyff in their comparisons.

By that measure, he should be untouchable by any active player today.  But Ronaldo is certainly in the discussion.  Suarez has actually been more productive for Barca than Messi over the last eighteen months.

So we’re witnessing three of the best players of all time?

We’re now stretching beyond “unlikely” into “unthinkable”, unless this is in fact, a platinum era of football.

So just how good are these players and why is it that they’re breaking records at the rate of a Norris McWhirter stalker?

The stats are certainly compelling.  Between the 1986-87 season and Ronaldo’s arrival, Real Madrid broke 100 goals in a season once (in 1989-90).  Since his arrival, they’ve broken it every season.  In fact, they’ve broken 110 twice and 120 once.

Barcelona had also only broken 100 once between 1986-87 and Messi’s breakout (1996-97).  Of course, Leo was a Barcelona youth product, so his production rate was more gradual.  From his first team league debut in 2004-05, he didn’t break 10 goals in a season until 2006-07 and didn’t score 20 in a year until 2008-09.

Though of course, some of this was down to Messi having injury problems in his earlier seasons in the first squad.

Since hitting 20 though, he hasn’t failed to hit that mark since.  Barca hit 105 goals that season, followed by 98 and 95 in the next two seasons, before an unbroken run of 100+, breaking 110 four out of the last five seasons.  Prior to that 2008-09 season, they’d scored 80 La Liga goals just twice in the 21st Century.

Both players have had multiple seasons where their goals-to-game ratios are greater then 1.  Some of the best strikers of all time have never reached that average in a single season.  They also both routinely register double figures in assists.

It’s not that La Liga is especially leaky in terms of defenses.  The Premier League defenses aren’t much stingier.  Both leagues have roughly five or six teams shipping more than 60 goals a season.

Other forwards, even on their teams, tend to score at more human rates, with the third and fourth place Pichichi contender typically in the 20-odd goals range, while our duo are frequently 1st and 2nd with 10+ goals more than the chasing pack.

There can be no doubt that rivals are two exceptional players by any measure.

Is that all there is to it though?  The Luis Suarez factor is a nag.

Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s an ex-Liverpool player, who had an allegedly racist run-in with Man United’s Patrice Evra, alongside his penchant for nibbling on opponents and acting like a victim when he gets punished for his various indiscretions.

I’ll admit that I’d expected to find that we were in an era of awful defending.  But then everyone would have elevated stats and that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I think it’s a combo of things.

I do believe (like most people) that Messi and Ronaldo are legends-in-the-making, if they aren’t already.  I wouldn’t rule out Suarez – who actually has a better resume at the international level than both men – becoming a “great” in his own right by the time the dust settles on his career.

However, I also think we’re seeing the results of two dominant teams applying certain modern strategies.

Leo Messi is a “false 9”, playing in a possession-based 4-3-3.  As both a creative link-up player and the focal point of the attack, rarely in recent decades has a system seen so much of the offence channeled through one player.

Notice that since Suarez has settled in, he’s shared more of the load with Messi than recent partners and in fact, the production of the former has offset that of the latter to a degree.

Likewise, Cristiano Ronaldo has evolved first from a winger to a wing-forward with a narrow-minded, stubborn focus for getting goals and in recent years, has converted to a slightly less dynamic – but no less productive – dedicated striker.

Couple this with two teams that tend to run roughshod over most opponents and it makes sense that they’re racking up numbers.

You’re dedicating the job of scoring to two guys who are outstanding at it, for two teams that are generating plenty of chances.

I therefore stand by my earlier assessment that we are in fact lucky enough to be seeing two future “greats” tussling in an incredible rivalry, who just happen to be doing so in ideal conditions for them to succeed.

The age itself may not be especially golden, but we’ve witnessed two players who certainly are.

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