Let’s get some things off the table. We’re not arguing that these are the three best players of the year. Or that we are OK with how the process favors forwards over midfielders and defenders. Because we could write up a storm about that. It’s December and it’s too late for all of that. These are the three finalists for the Ballon D’Or. So we decided to take a look at the numbers.
First things first. We all know Messi was injured for a portion of the year. He played 17% fewer minutes than Ronaldo and 15% fewer minutes than Neymar. We decided to ignore that. Let’s see how he does in spite of the injury.
All three are forwards, so the comparison is simplified. While each has a slightly different role in their team, at the end of the day each is asked to do similar things. Create opportunities – for themselves and their teammates (winning a PK qualifies as creating an opportunity), and put the ball in the back of the net. From that perspective, there’s very little daylight between the three as you can see above.
As you know, at Alt/Sports one of the key metrics measuring performance on offense is Expected Goals – a measure of the quality of the chances created. That’s important because otherwise a player who takes more shots is rated higher. And Ronaldo took far more shots. But not all shots are created equal.
Here’s a map of every shot Ronaldo took. The size of the circle represents the “Expected Goal Value” ranging from 0 to 1. The greens are shots that turned in to goals. The blue represent shots on target that weren’t goals. And the red are shots off target. We then added up the total for each shot. Based on the quality of the shots as determined by Alt/Sports, Ronaldo should have scored 36.6 goals. As you see from the actual goals earlier, he scored 34. Pretty consistent. (Other interesting things that jumps out is that Ronaldo has lots of large red dots inside the box – whether he’s finishing worse or getting more defensive attention is for another day)
Here’s the same thing for Messi – 37.4 Expected Goals, 29 actual goals. Slightly higher Expected Goals, slightly lower total goals than Ronaldo:
And finally Neymar – 30.4 Expected goals, 27 actual goals.
Still not much separating Messi and Ronaldo. Neymar would appear to be a little further behind. But you have to take in to account what each of the three does when they have the ball. As you can see below, Ronaldo clearly shoots more frequently, and Neymar’s assisting shots more often than the other two. (Makes sense – Neymar is to Messi what Bale is to Ronaldo – so Ronaldo shoots more and Neymar passes more)
When you put it together in terms of opportunity creation (EGV Taken is for themselves, EGV assisted if for their teammates), Neymar makes up his lower EGV taken with a much higher EGV assisted.
Clearly all three had a phenomenal year, and are key parts of their respective teams. Messi has the slight edge, not just because he manages to lead key stats in spite of the lower playing time, but also because he helped his team to three important trophies – La Liga, Champs League and Copa del Rey. By that token, we’d argue Neymar would nudge out Ronaldo if we had to pick a second place winner.
(Ronaldo has always been the more physically gifted player, which makes age a bigger problem for him than Messi. We are going to look at whether there’s any truth to fans perception that Ronaldo is “slowing down” soon. Stay tuned)