Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. These are perhaps the two most famous names in world sport. They are certainly the most renowned soccer players of our generation. They are considered by many to be the two greatest players of any generation.
However, greatness and dominance must always come to an end in sport. And so, in this article, I am going to decide whether we are seeing the decline of the greatest double act soccer has ever seen.
There is no ignoring the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are aged 36 and 33 respectively. For a soccer player, the retirement age for the average player is somewhere around 35. This would suggest that CR7 is coming towards the end of his playing days whilst Messi may have only a couple of years left. As such, you would expect the average player to be deep into their decline by this age.
Having said this, they are no average players and you wouldn’t be surprised to see them play at a high standard into their late thirties. I believe their ages and when they retire have to be taken with a pinch of salt. There was no predicting what these two would achieve in their careers. As such, it would be silly to predict when and at what age they will hang up their boots.
If we dive into the stats it paints an intriguing picture. I’m going to look at goal involvements per 90 over the last three seasons. This should give an insight into the attacking returns of the two over the last three years.
Ronaldo’s goal involvements:
2018-19: 0.70 goals per 90, 0.27 assists per 90
2019-20: 0.96 goals per 90, 0.15 assists per 90
2020-21: 0.99 goals per 90, 0.10 assists per 90
What’s interesting here is that Ronaldo is actually increasing his goal returns year on year. This is quite remarkable for a 36-year-old who plays such a physical game. However, his assists have decreased rapidly over the three seasons. This suggests that Ronaldo is now playing a more attacking role and looking to finish the playoff, rather than be part of the extensive build-up.
This is a more conservative way to play and is a smart move if he wants to prolong his career for a few more years. Based on these numbers, there is no way you can say that Cristiano is declining.
Messi’s goal involvements:
2018-19: 1.20 goals per 90, 0.43 assists per 90
2019-20: 0.78 goals per 90, 0.66 assists per 90
2020-21: 0.88 goals per 90, 0.19 assists per 90
Lionel Messi’s numbers are less consistent than Ronaldo’s. His goals scored have been fairly consistent over the last three seasons apart from his quite ridiculous 2018-19 season. 1.20 goals per game are almost unachievable for anyone other than this pair.
However, his assists per 90 have dropped off dramatically this season to only 0.19 per 90. Lionel Messi’s game is based on his creativity and so the fact his assists have dropped so much is a concern.
Having said this, 0.88 goals per 90 is still incredibly high and so it would be premature to say we are seeing a decline based on these stats.
Young Talents Taking The Spotlight
One sign which suggests that the soccer world is moving on from Ronaldo and Messi is the buzz surrounding the potential of some of the most talented youngsters. This was most evident over the last few weeks during the first legs of the Champions League last 16.
During PSG’s dismantling of Barcelona, Kylian Mbappe completely outshone Messi as he scored a wonderful hat trick. It was a symbolic performance that highlighted the ability of perhaps the most exciting young player in world soccer. Mbappe’s ability is clear, over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons he scored more goals per 90 than Ronaldo and Messi. The fact that someone is surpassing the two in this manner suggests that we are seeing a decline in the two superstars.
The other superstar in waiting appears to be Norwegian powerhouse, Erling Haaland. The Dortmund youngster has been scoring goals for fun and like Mbappe has been scoring more goals per 90 than Ronaldo and Messi over the previous two seasons.
I believe that Mbappe and Haaland are exceptional talents and their rise is coinciding with the decline of Ronaldo and Messi. In a season or two, these talented youngsters have the opportunity to capitalize. They can stake a claim to be soccer’s next superstars.