How have Messi and Ronaldo impacted their new clubs

  • Their other-worldly prowess is intact but that alone may not be enough for trophy-hunters PSG and Manchester United.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo PREMIUM
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Published on Oct 08, 2021 05:27 PM IST
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The international break seemed like the right time to see how Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have bedded in at clubs who looked more than ready for a life without either. Exactly a month separated Messi’s unveiling in Paris and Ronaldo lacing up at Old Trafford. In that time, Messi has played five games, Ronaldo six. Included in that for both are two Champions League ties. Messi has played only one full game in Ligue 1; the corresponding number for Ronaldo is three.

Neither has any assist and on the metric by which they are usually judged, Ronaldo is considerably ahead, having scored five goals in all competitions to Messi’s one. But before we read too much into that number this early in the season, consider this: thrice Messi has left the goalkeeper stranded and the crowd holding its breath in anticipation of a euphoric release only to see his shots from range thud into the framework and bend out of play. What this means is that the best players of our time—possibly all time—may be well into the fourth decade of their lives but that hasn’t waned their other-worldly prowess by much.

How it began

If Messi eased into his Paris St-Germain debut— at Stade Reims where the home team sold nearly thrice the number of tickets because a legend was travelling— replacing Neymar in the 66th minute to the cheers of the whole stadium, Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford after 12 years was anything but quiet. Following a complicated manoeuvre that involved Dan James moving and Edinson Cavani willing to accommodate, Ronaldo even got his old shirt back. He is still CR7; Messi is LM30.

Like Messi, he was the cynosure during warm-ups and when he emerged from the players’ tunnel behind Paul Pogba, Old Trafford shook. But if Messi had one sharp, smart give-go with Kylian Mbappe in his opener, Ronaldo had two goals to mark a memorable reunion with the Theatre of Dreams.

Ronaldo’s tap-in after Mason Greenwood’s shot popped out of Newcastle goalkeeper Freddie Woodman’s grip was all about being alive to the situation. Ronaldo was an ace dribbling wide player when he left Manchester United but he showed the full house that the art of playing centre-forward honed at Real Madrid and Juventus was as sharp as ever. As was his sudden burst of pace, a trait neither Ronaldo nor Messi has lost despite nearly two decades in the top flight. When Ronaldo took off after Luke Shaw found him, he left Newcastle midfielder Isaac Hayden trailing in his wake. When he nutmegged Woodman for his second of the afternoon, the Stretford End was bouncing like it was on a giant trampoline.

First day, first show over, Ronaldo and Messi had their coaches waxing eloquent (what did you expect?). “He does what he does. He lifts everyone and gets everyone around the place so focused. He puts demands on himself which then will put demands on his teammates and on us,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

There was more from the Manchester United manager, once Ronaldo’s teammate at the club. “He’s a different type of player to when he left but he’s still a ruthless and clinical goalscorer. He smells the big moments and when there are goals in there. He’s developed into a miles better footballer than he was when he was [first] here,” said Solskjaer.

PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino said: “Every time he touched the ball, he spread calm throughout the team. He is Messi: he can radiate an optimism and energy that everyone can feel and that has a positive influence on our players.”

How it is going

Ronaldo’s goals against Newcastle set the trend for the rest of his strikes so far. They have all been through shots from close (Young Boys, West Ham, Villarreal). Typical centre-forward’s goals, often coming when he is playing off the shoulder of the last man. Those against Young Boys and West Ham were off Bruno Fernandes’ assists, showing why the Portuguese playmaker had wanted his senior compatriot at Manchester United.

And his supreme fitness—that ripped torso has been burned into our memories— means Ronaldo, 37 next year, can still come alive very late in the game. This year, he has scored in the 96th minute for Portugal and in the 95th for United.

Messi started his first game, against Lyon, as a second striker behind Mbappe as Pochettino juggled to fit a bewildering array of attacking talent and still make it resemble a football team. It was a role Messi seamlessly slotted into, dropping deep and finding Neymar and following up only to have his shot grazing goalkeeper Anthony Lopes’ knee. That and a free-kick that rocked the crossbar were the closest he came to scoring.

Messi missed games against Metz and Montpellier with injury and the earlier one against Clermont Foot because he was returning from international duty. Against Rennes, he again began as a second striker; Messi’s favoured inverted right winger position being taken by Angel di Maria. In a game where Mbappe and Neymar ballooned over from close, Messi again hit a free-kick into the horizontal. But like against Lyon, Messi’s ability to find that telling pass showed when he connected with a rampaging Idrissa Gana Gueye.

In Champions League though, Messi played on the right side of a three-forward line-up. Ronaldo too drifts wide but doesn’t stay there for long, preferring a central route to goal. Messi hit the crossbar against Club Brugge and his only goal for PSG came with him starting on the right, cutting in and firing a sumptuous left-footer from a more central position. It was the culmination of a move that had Marco Verratti’s vision—at his unveiling, Messi said the Italian was a genius—Mbappe’s exquisite touch before Messi did what he does.

But…a pressing problem

So far, so good then? Well, yes and no. Ronaldo’s arrival has increased the pressure on Solksjaer to deliver a trophy. No one likes being reminded that it has been eight seasons since United won the Premier League and that the club has spent half a billion pounds over the past five years in search of one. Add 500,000 pounds per week on their latest acquisition. United were proactive in signing Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho which gave them quality at the back and in front but if there was one area that has really needed attention it was not scoring —United had got 73 goals, second only to champions Manchester City—but the central midfield.

The problem area persists and the way in which United’s midfield has been carved open, the number of times Varane has been exposed to one-on-one duels, does not make them a contender for silverware. Yet. Fred and Scot McTominay stay their best bet but it hasn’t been good enough. Fred erred twice in the goal Villa scored, and often McTominay is the lone sitter in front of the defence as United seek to be fast and creative by playing Paul Pogba.

Ronaldo and Messi are reluctant pressers, preferring to conserve energy for more creative pursuits. As are Mbappe and Neymar. According to data in The Athletic on October 1, Ronaldo has tried the least, among forwards with over 270 minutes in the Premier League, to regain possession. He did it 2.7 times per game while at the top; Wilfried Zaha did it 20 times. Messi tackles more, fbref.com puts him in the bottom four per cent last season, but that is possibly because he often plays in a deeper role. The stats website puts both in the bottom one per cent when it comes to pressing.

But Solksjaer and Pochettino want an aggressive pressing game. PSG are unlikely to be tested regularly in Ligue 1 and against City, they looked like a gathering of gifted players who were playing a team not short on talent or cohesion. It worked that night, it may not always.

In sum

“It is a fact, not an opinion, that we are a work in progress.” When Pochettino said that ahead of the 2-0 win against City, he could have been speaking for United too. Messi and Ronaldo have already made an impact, and with time they will get to know teammates better. Both will win games on their own—Ronaldo may even be the designated penalty-taker in waiting— and, even if they are not the final missing pieces in their teams’ jigsaw, guarantee jaw-dropping entertainment. Let’s enjoy the ride.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021