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Let me start with an apology to my future in-laws. I am engaged to be married into a wonderful and fiercely-proud Catalan family. They are Messi-loving, Mourinho-hating and Barca-worshipping to the core. When my son was born a month ago, they had him dressed and photographed in the blaugrana stripes within days. So the words that follow are potentially dangerous ones. I don’t mean to talk bad of Leo Messi - for he is quite simply brilliant – but I think the warning signs are there that Ronaldo is poised to steal his throne. ...I hope I’m forgiven, or there’ll be no more Pa Amb Tomaquet for me  :-(

Messi: All the tricks in the book

In the video above Leo Messi touches the ball 252 times. Of these six are with his chest or head and of the remainder 89% are with his left foot. 98 of his touches are with the outside of his left foot. He takes on and beats over 80 opponents, using his favourite outside left to beat a defender in 48% of the 1v1 (and 1v2, 1v3...) encounters we see in the video. He also uses a variety of other 1v1 moves, including the Zidane move, a Cruyff-like chop, several nutmegs, some drag-backs, and flicking the ball over the defender.

This video is proof that Messi can do everything! It’s a bit like he has swallowed the coaching manual, and is now regurgitating it with flair on the field. We see Messi control the ball at speed in such a variety of ways and situations that it is easy to see why he is the world’s greatest player, and possibly the world’s greatest ever player. We don’t see him defend in this video, but he can do that ok too, and if he was asked to play in goal I’m sure he would come up with some text book saves to add to his collection. There is no doubt that he is a fully deserving winner of the Ballon D’Or for three consecutive years. He is a shining example of everything we know is possible to do in the game today.

Messi has many great attributes. He can do everything well, and some things exceptionally well. Here are three of his finest attributes:

  1. Decision making. Messi consistently makes effective and successful decisions. He makes effective and successful choices about where, when and how to move off the ball. And when he receives the ball, he makes effective and successful decisions on whether to pass, dribble or shoot. He is helped by the fact that he plays in a team that consistently makes effective and successful decisions around him.
  2. Mental control. Messi has supreme control over his emotions and thoughts. This helps him to remain confident, courageous and calm. No matter the importance of a game, the situation within that game, or his own performance in that game, he is able to keep motivated, involved and ready. In the rare times when he makes a poor decision, this doesn’t affect his confidence, attitude or performance. He is blessed to be under the supervision of a great teacher, Guardiola, who instills in him the confidence and freedom to play without the pressure or restriction he looks to be under when playing for Argentina.
  3. Explosive speed. Given that Messi favours the outside of his left foot to pass defenders (classic examples at 2:36 and 4:32), I am quite sure that his opponents know in advance what he might do before he does it. In fact if you look closely at the beaten defender’s faces in the video, I think you can see a few expressions that say “I knew you were going to do that!”  Yet they are powerless to stop him partly because he explodes from deceptively still to supernaturally fast in the blink of any eye. (see: 1:46 – see how low to the ground Messi gets in order to move away at speed, wow).

Ronaldo: Writing his own book

Messi has read the coaching manual. In fact he pretty much is the coaching manual on 1v1 moves, especially using the outside of the left foot. Ronaldo has read the coaching manual too, and unsatisfied with some of its content is busy writing his own chapters.

Ronaldo’s free kick for Man United against Portsmouth in 07/08 is a good example of this. The connection was not with the usual inside of the foot, and the ball was hit with great velocity and with hardly any spin. It was quite unlike any free-kick had been before. As it soared up and down, over the wall and into the net, past a shocked David James, commentators were speechless, and writers of recently-published coaching manual chapters on ‘How to Take a Free Kick’ were being called and reprimanded by their editors and told to get cracking on a new chapter.

The Italians have a great expression for this type of make-it-up-as-you-go-along football: Inventa la partita. It means ‘invent the game’. Ronaldo is great at invention. He is extending what is possible in football quite unlike any other player in the modern game. You may have seen him use his back to cushion a falling ball and beat a defender in a game against Real Sociedad in February. This is another example of doing something that no-one has done before.

Ronaldo is doing things in football that other’s haven’t thought of. He is the Steve Jobs of football, not just doing the regular text-book things very well, but creating and sharing completely new ideas. What is especially impressive with Ronaldo is that he unmasks his inventions on a world stage. Everyone is watching, and yet he has the confidence – or arrogance – to try something that hasn’t been done before. This arrogance is vitally important for learning, especially when your inventions are so publicly uncovered.

And yet the world agrees that Messi, not Ronaldo, is the best footballer on the planet. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Decision-making.  You may remember in Ronaldo’s early days at Manchester United, he made some poor, naive decisions with the ball, often dribbling for too long when there was a much more effective pass available. He has improved since then, thanks largely to the guidance of another great  teacher – Sir Alex Ferguson. He is still not as consistently good at decision-making as Messi though.
  2. Mental control. Ronaldo does not have the mental skill set that Messi has. There are some games, and large chunks of other games, where he is not effective. He sometimes seems affected mentally by things that are out of his control, or by the game situation he finds himself in.  His confidence seems consistent, but his willingness to show the world his best seems to come and go at times.

But these skills can be learnt. If there is one thing that Ronaldo has shown it is that he a great learner. And watch out world, because he is once again under the supervision of an expert coach. Jose Mourinho is exactly what Ronaldo needs to take his performances to new levels. Never underestimate what may happen when a powerful learner works with an inspiring teacher. Mourinho is building a team which will rival Messi’s Barcelona. And – hopefully – for the good of the future game and for coaching manuals of tomorrow, Ronaldo will be able to provide us with many more new inventions. If so, he will surpass Messi and reclaim his spot at the top of world football.

Coach learning

Explosive speed (Messi). I am not convinced that many youth football coaches have the expertise to develop children to have explosive speed. Nor that most coaches have the motivation to spend time during their weekly sessions to teach this when their main concern is the impending weekend fixture. Teaching movement dynamics is an essential part of long-term athlete development, but most coaches at junior clubs have a very myopic view of success – and it’s usually very heavily linked to the score-line in their most recent local club game or their under-11 team’s league position.

Showing-off (Ronaldo). Do we allow our children to show-off in the games they play? We need to allow children to play and invent in environments where they are able to risk making mistakes. The phrase “stop showing-off” should have no place in youth football.

Teaching (Guardiola, Ferguson and Mourinho). Just like their professional football heroes, children growing-up pass through lots of different coaches and teachers. Some children will stay in a coach’s team, club or programme for years, others just a season, some maybe just for a few weeks. Great teachers find ways of developing them such that the learner has grown into a better player when the time comes for them to move on. This could be evidenced by improved confidence or by making better decisions for example. What difference do you make as a coach to each child during their time in your team or programme?

Mark Carter, December 2011




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