"But," the Barcelona manager exclaimed Monday, craning his head forward and looking straight at his inquisitor with an incredulous look etched across his face, "who is more complete than Leo Messi?"
For many, the answer was obvious: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Just as green or blue or red or whatever color is en vogue this season as the new black, "complete" is the new "best." Complete is a surrogate superlative, the latest tactic, a piece of discursive dexterity in the sometimes tedious Messi or Ronaldo debate -- presented like it was some kind of incontestable fact.
It is as if those who prefer Ronaldo -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; he is without a doubt a brilliant footballer -- have realized that they are fighting a losing battle in declaring him the world's "best" player. So instead they have latched on to something else, something seemingly more objective: He is more complete than Messi.
You might think, they argued, that Messi is the best player in the world, but Ronaldo is the most complete player in the world, more valuable. Put together a checklist of footballing attributes and you'll see why. Ronaldo can, in short, do more than Messi. Never was that better expressed than when, a year ago, the newspaper Marca ran what it called an X-ray of Messi and Ronaldo. Calling it an X-ray gave it a kind of pseudoscientific quality, while its format was designed to imbue it with an objective touch.
Now, let's assume for a minute that the there is nothing suspicious about the report -- despite the fact that it was commissioned by the pro-Real Madrid newspaper Marca, a newspaper that appears to be trying to beatify Ronaldo; despite the fact that Messi plays for Barcelona and Ronaldo plays for Madrid; and despite the fact that it was written by a Madrid-based journalist who had just signed a contract with Real Madrid to write a series of glossy biographies of Madrid players, starting with Ronaldo.
Let's assume, too, that the author, Enrique Ortego, was right to point out in the preamble that "Messi is overvalued because he plays for Barcelona -- he is in the perfect place at the right time." Let's assume he is right, too, that the proof of that is in the fact that he "does not play as well for Argentina," unlike Ronaldo for Portugal. Let's even assume he is right, too, when he says, "Ronaldo can perform in any habitat -- United, Madrid or the national team -- and does not need his teammates as much." Let's assume all that and see what the writer had to say.
After an analysis of 10 qualities, with marks out of 10 given for each, the report concludes that, as the huge headline on the front of Marca had it, RONALDO IS MORE COMPLETE THAN MESSI. He outscored Messi on Physical Condition, Speed, Shooting, Heading, Leadership and Free-Kicks/Penalties, received the same score on Technique and Passing, and was beaten only on Collective Play and Dribbling. In other words, the report was essentially a published version of the argument so often presented in Ronaldo's defense.
But is it true? Can any analysis based on a score-totting system that is essentially arbitrary be reliable? Can you really judge players on a checklist, like football is a game of Top Trumps? And is 1-10 a sufficient range to handle the nuances of footballers? If so, if you can, if the methodology is OK, do you agree with the judgments made?
Is Ronaldo really better than Messi in Leadership? And by two marks? (And how do you measure that? By stepping up when the game gets tough? By refusing to go missing? By doing the right thing? By producing in the really big games? Big games like the clásico on Monday? Or countless other clásicos? Or the Copa del Rey final? Or the European Cup final? Does Ronaldo do that and Messi not?)
With the ball at his feet, does Ronaldo really have greater speed? Is he actually quicker without it?
Is his Technique really as good?
Is he really as good at Passing?
Is his Shooting really better?
Statistically, the answer to that last question is "no." This season, Ronaldo has taken more shots than Messi. But only 16 percent have gone in, to Messi's 25 percent, while 38 percent have been on target, to Messi's 52 percent. In terms of goals per minute, Messi has scored more -- and more of his goals come away from home, where, in theory, it is more difficult. He has scored the key first goal seven times; Ronaldo just twice. He also hasn't taken any penalties; Ronaldo has taken four. Ah, you reply, but Ronaldo can hit it far better from distance, as he is bursting with power while Messi is a weakling. Again, that's not true: Messi has scored three from outside the box, the same as Ronaldo from a quarter of the shots.
But let's return to the X-ray. Even if Ronaldo is better in those categories, take a look at that list again. Take a look at the categories that enable Ronaldo to sneak through -- objectively, remember -- as the More Complete player. Penalties/free kicks are as important as Shooting, Dribbling and Passing? Is that right? Then there's Physical Condition, Speed and Heading. That's an interesting choice of categories, seemingly chosen in search of a specific result.
Indeed, Marca's "analysis" was reminiscent of the kind of spoof comparisons carried out by the British comic magazine Viz that were always tipped to create a fictitious result. A kind of "Who Is The Best Michael: Jackson or Crawford?" with the last category being Ability to Moonwalk. Marca might as well have included "Portuguese-Ness."
Maybe we should not assume objectivity after all. But even if the categories were not consciously chosen to tip the result Ronaldo's way, there is still something striking about them. Physical Condition, Speed, Heading -- aren't they all be derivatives of the same thing? And when others argue that Ronaldo is more complete, that list of related characteristics gets extended. He is, they say, faster, stronger, more powerful. He hits the ball harder, runs more, leaps higher. Faster, stronger, higher -- now where have we heard that before? Couldn't that all come under one category called athleticism? Usain Bolt is a better athlete than Leo Messi, too.
All in all, isn't that a bit of a skewed interpretation of footballing attributes, a partial and partisan appraisal of what a player's game entails? Does it not reflect a peculiar obsession with the physical side of the game that willfully overlooks so much of what football is also about? There is nothing wrong with liking Ronaldo more. There's nothing wrong with believing he is a better player. But the fashionable, favored refuge is no refuge at all. The "objective" study does not hold up to scrutiny.
Ronaldo and Messi have appeared to match each other stride for stride this season. Their goal-scoring statistics, for instance, are stunning. But it is not just about goals. And, to limit footballing attributes to the purely physical is absurd. What about controlling the game? What about providing assists? What about vision? What about precision? What about efficiency? What about tactical awareness and decision-making? What about being involved in all areas of the game?
That was what Guardiola was getting at. It was Monday night and Messi had just played against Real Madrid. He had not produced one of those magical runs. He had not scored -- for the first time in 10 games. He had not done the things that people associate with him -- things he does so well that his other, more prosaic qualities appear to get overlooked. He had not scored or produced a fantasy dribble.
And yet, he had still been sensational. And yet, his team had still won 5-0. And he had been at the heart of it, controlling the game, passing the ball, dominating. Providing two inch-perfect assists into the bargain as well, the second a pass of barely plausible brilliance. He had been the complete footballer. He played up front -- he hit the post with a sumptuous lob -- he played in the middle and he played on the right. His performance was, in short, complete.
"It is not about goals," Guardiola said. "Messi is the most complete player in the world. He can do everything: He associates with his teammates, he combines, he opens up space."
He would say that, of course. But he is right.
It is true that what makes Messi appear so remarkable are his headline skills. He has a ridiculous number of goals -- 70 in his last 72 games. He has also outdribbled Ronaldo this season, completing 50 successful dribbles to the Portuguese's 30. But it is not about that. It is about the other things. All the other things. It is about the fact that, contrary to the assumptions that Messi is a player who only does the extraordinary, he does the simple things, too. Messi, in short, can play. When Ronaldo is no longer an athlete, he will probably not be much of a player. Messi will.
Monday was no one-off. If you really want to run through a checklist, try a list that's based not on arbitrary marks but actual statistics. This season, Messi has provided 27 assists, seven of them leading to goals. Ronaldo has provided 22, four of them leading to goals. Messi provides a goal every 147 minutes to Ronaldo's 307. Messi has completed 590 passes to Ronaldo's 429. Messi has delivered 105 bad passes to Ronaldo's 159. Messi gives the ball away less often, too. Ronaldo has delivered 45 balls into the area and Messi has delivered 64. Of those, Ronaldo has found his target four times, Messi 60 times.
In total, Messi has tried 695 passes and completed 590 to Ronaldo's 588 and 429. He is involved all over the pitch; his "action areas" are more varied. He participates in moves more often, starts more plays and has more total "actions" in a game than Ronaldo. As for that often eulogized quality known as fight, the cojones stereotype of which English commentators, in particular, are so fond: Messi has even committed more fouls, robbed more balls and won more possession than Ronaldo.
None of which makes Ronaldo a bad player. Far from it. He is a truly brilliant player. None of which means you have to like Messi any more. None of which necessarily means that Messi is definitively better than Ronaldo. What it does mean is that the "objective" argument that Ronaldo is more complete than Messi is -- despite what the discourse claims, despite the pseudo-objectivity -- utterly full of holes. Not objective at all. Rarely has the definition of complete been so incomplete.