By any standards Thierry Henry is an all-time great footballer. A World Cup winner, an "Invincible," a treble-winner. From the elite.
Ruud van Nistelrooy. Serial trophy winner, but also one of the great metronomic scorers. Ask any defender he played against, ask any of his teammates: the Dutchman had a phenomenal goal-to-chance ratio. The best most of his teammates or opponents ever saw.
Then there's Ronaldo, Luís Nazário de Lima. World Cup winner, trophy winner with six different clubs. Skilled and predatory beyond belief. More than 400 goals for clubs and country in his career.
I once interviewed Eric Abidal about his favourite all-time Champions League players and he mentioned Ronaldo. "The Brazilian Ronaldo?" I checked. Eric just swivelled his head up from the cup of coffee he was drinking and stared at me with an "are you seriously asking me that question?" expression.
That's how good Ronaldo Ronaldo was.
All right, that will do for a set-up. It's February. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 36 times in 33 matches for Madrid since August. In Henry's entire 21-season career, he only once had a goal total for an entire season which bettered that figure: 39 in 2003-04.
Van Nistelrooy, similarly, over 20 seasons, only twice beat Ronaldo's current (August to February!) total across an entire season. Ditto, Ronaldo; once in his illustrious career, with Barcelona in 1996-97, did he outscore the 36 goals that CR7 has produced in just six and a half months.
Cristiano Ronaldo has 11 assists thus far, the last of which sealed victory at the weekend when he served up Karim Benzema for 2-0 against Depor. In the league he's scoring a goal every 65 minutes. If you throw in assists, he's scoring or creating a goal every 49 minutes. Across all competitions this season he's scoring or making a goal every 61 minutes.
Then there's Messi. Lionel Andres Messi. Thus far he's scored 37 times in 33 matches, adding 17 assists. A goal every 81 minutes in all competitions, a goal scored or created every 55 minutes if you take assists into account.
Sunday was Messi's 300th La Liga game. Over that span, he's scored 269 goals and given 107 goal assists. That means that during those 300 league matches, the Argentinian has scored or created 1.25 goals per game, every game for 300 appearances. If he'd played every minute of those 300 games (and he has not) it would mean he was producing a goal every 71 minutes.
Given his playing time it's likely (admittedly I don't have the precise minutes calculated) that the ratio is nearer a goal scored or made every single hour that we've watched him play league football. Literally astonishing. Messi, too, has scored more goals in five and a half months this season than Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy or Henry in 99 percent of their 10-month seasons across their careers.
I contend that it is far, far too rare for the football industry, the media and fans to stop, realise and glorify in the fact that these two are so utterly far ahead of others who are generally considered "greats." What I do find interesting, however, is something more than just the fact that we are in the presence of utter footballing genius.
It's my firm belief that Ronaldo and Messi score so prodigiously that among many there is now a complacency about it. Their exploits have undermined some people's appreciation of the "power of the goal."
I hear phrases like "but he scores lots of penalties," as if that weren't scoring. "All he does is score," as if there were some negative connotation to prolific goal numbers. "He's only scored five in his last ten," making a ratio which was once regarded as top class now, suddenly, to be disparaged. There are many such phrases; you'll know them. Complacent and unrealistic.
Perhaps most managers, who stand to lose their jobs, or agents, who stand to make millions in commission, still worship just as eagerly at the temple of the goal scorer. But I'm convinced that among some in the football community (and especially in the football media, fans and social media), there is a great temptation to discard context and abandon any pretence that these elite footballers are human and to relentlessly ratchet up the demand for "more, more, more" rather than to relish, and retain appreciation of, what's being served up.
What makes these scoring feats still more extraordinary, supernatural really, is that at the moment, football has never been better equipped to stop them.
There has never been a time in the history of the professional game when players are fitter, taller, stronger and with more stamina. There has never been more brilliantly number-crunched, bite-sized chunks of useful information for managers and coaches to sift through and plan.
With the possible exception of Catenaccio, teams have never been better organised than they should be now. Plan and plot how to stop the opposition, plot and plan about out to exploit the weaknesses they detect. The tools are now just a click away. Not two flights, a long bus journey, a bad seat in a noisy stadium, two flights and a long bus journey home.
I wouldn't say that football coaches and managers are necessarily more intelligent or "better" than they were in previous decades. In fact, I suspect that they are possibly less resourceful. And I'd not be convinced, either, that there are as many innovators. But their capacity to piggyback on the thinking and strategy of great men around the world has never been more firm.
Got a problem with your formation? Your counterattacks? Defending set pieces? Your fitness planning? Scouting? Dietary planning? How other teams thwarted Messi or Ronaldo? It's all there. It's all been done for you. Experts, databases, academic papers, interviews, video and analytical tools end up in places like Southampton's "Black Box," where staff members coordinate all their forward planning via banks of TV screens. Places where potential player and managerial recruitment is coherent, studied in depth and shown at the same time to all the relevant "brains" so that analysis and discussion is concurrent and immediate.
The science of football has never been more comprehensive, more advanced; the sharing of both seminal thinking and applied practice has never been more widespread. Finding and applying mechanisms to stop Messi and Ronaldo running wild should be much easier than appears to be the case.
What it proves is that football managers can plan, devise and apply the most superbly thought-out schemes: works of sporting coordination that will make them legends, earn them millions, gain them professional kudos and, in all likelihood. win them trophies. But they can't produce the aforementioned flow of goals without a genius in the ranks; also, all the king's horses and all the king's men can't consistently stop such geniuses from performing at unparalleled levels.
My main point -- in fact, my main complaint -- is that despite all these facts, there is a widespread trend to ignore the molten gold that Messi and Ronaldo serve us and to consistently demand "what's wrong" with them when there's even a minor blip in productivity.
Last season it was Messi who, despite producing scoring numbers which would be considered utterly exceptional were it not for what he'd done previously, caused critics and fans to wail and gnash their teeth. Too little analysis was devoted to what was going on around him. Club uncertainty, a short-lived coach in Tata Martino, parenthood, the death of Tito Vilanova, vastly improved opponents, a team running out of stamina and conviction, the pressure of an impending World Cup.
A great deal of the debate was limited to the following questions: "why isn't he at the same level?" "Is he trying to engineer a move?" "Have we seen the best of ...?"
Some of the themes had relevance, some were just utter guff. But overall, there was too little context. Many forgot to say: "We've been spoiled and our expectations have been raised to an unsustainable level." Far too many forgot to examine the fact that football is a team sport based on squad performance and managerial aptitude. Even these two monumentally superior players will be badly affected if the structure around them is underperforming on an ongoing basis.
Now it's Ronaldo's turn. In his last six games he's made an assist in a 3-0 win over Espanyol, scored one goal in a draw with Atletico, two in a terrific personal display against Getafe, been sent off against Cordoba, played poorly against Atleti in the league defeat then made a goal, hit the bar and narrowly missed scoring spectacularly from Jesé's cross last weekend against Depor.
He's not in his best form, that's for sure. But not atrocious. And, once again, there's far too little analytical attention paid to what's going on around him as teammates keel over with injury or plough on while their brains and limbs cry out for a break. While he breaks up, very publicly, with his girlfriend.
I don't quite know how to phrase this for fear of it sounding impossibly silly, but I think some who talk or write about football have simply forgotten how difficult goals can be to score, and what a special gift it is to be able to rack them away at a prolific rate. How extraordinary are the levels to which CR7 and Messi have made us accustomed to.
In Spain, there have recently been some lovely recent examples of how you can get everything else to a high level ... but be left with egg on your face if the goals won't come. Sevilla played well at the Bernabeu recently and should easily have drawn, perhaps won, but they kept fluffing goal chances.
At the weekend Depor were in the game at Madrid, hit the post, allowed Iker Casillas to make saves that probably should have been goals and departed 2-0 losers. They could easily have drawn.
Back in July, Real Sociedad unveiled the two most expensive signings in their history: Carlos Vela and good old Alfie Finnbogason. The Icelander has yet to score in La Liga (16 appearances) while Vela is out injured, again. Without their goals Jagoba Arrasate was sacked and La Real are having to claw their way to safety draw by draw -- wins escape them because there are insufficient goals.
Celta Vigo have been the wackiest example. Flying like Icarus in November with a win at Barça, then three months without a win because the goals dried up. From a European place in November, via seven scoreless matches, to five points off relegation and "Toto" Berizzo very nearly sacked.
I know, I know. Just like "it's the economy, stupid!" it's preternaturally fundamental to say that success in football revolves around scoring goals. But I tell you, there are some who may "know" this, but then seem to criticise without sufficient recognition that the torrent of goals scored by Leo & Ronnie has obscured how damn difficult their wonderful art is.
When Samuel Eto'o was at the absolute peak of his powers at Barcelona, I remember a remark he made to us collected journalists in a Mixed Zone huddle at the Camp Nou after a match in Pep Guardiola's first season. El Pais' Luis Martin asked the striker about a short goal drought he was experiencing. Eto'o just grinned at him and said: "Lu, goals are like rats. They are fast and elusive and if you 'chase' them they'll disappear up a drainpipe."
Not the most laid-back guy in the world, Eto'o was nonetheless savvy and calm enough at that moment to know that he just needed to keep doing the right things, not over-analyse or get over-stressed. Then, the chances which snuck by, or hit a defender or were wrongly called offside would suddenly, almost magically, start hitting the net once again.
Which manager was it who famously called football "a simple game that we overcomplicate"? The subject of goals helps prove that truism.
I remember sitting in a Glenn Hoddle press conference prior to his England team playing Switzerland in March 1998 when he put forward his idea that Michael Owen wasn't "a natural goal scorer." It was, at that time, one of the oddest things I'd ever heard in football. An England manager should have lived by the slogan "Have Owen, will win! I couldn't be luckier." But Hoddle "knew better."
And then there's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Fooled by the fact that he was scoring quite freely at Barcelona in his first season but bamboozled by the tactical niceties of playing for Pep Guardiola, he admitted that by spring he was confused and unsatisfied with the coach's system so "I stopped making so many runs and was a bit static. I stopped thinking about what he wanted."
Because the arrogant Swede had been scoring, he thought he was inviolate. By May, he was being shown the exit.
Goals, it seems to me, are like some controlled substances. Alcohol, or chocolate. The more we have, the more we want. Common sense and context can fly out the window. Restraint? Nah. The more you get, the quicker the next fix is needed.
In January, Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or by a massive, landslide margin. Last season he broke a Champions League/European Cup scoring record (17 goals) that had stood since 1963.
Messi? I still suspect he can go on to be generally considered the pound-for-pound greatest player ever.
But they operate as principal components in complicated, finely tuned systems. They may underperform or fail to function from time to time but when that happens, it will generally be intelligent to look for context, to try to fix the infrastructure around them -- and to not forget, immaturely, that they both have the most consistently astonishing statistics in the history of football behind them.
The fun of the penalty spot
In Barcelona's Copa del Rey semifinal first leg with Villarreal on Feb. 11, there came a moment when Neymar inexplicably asked his BFF, Leo Messi, if he could take the penalty which had just been awarded. The score was 3-1, meaning that another goal, realistically, would have sealed the deal and put their side effectively in the final. The two players seemed to see it slightly differently. Three-one up? A chance to share the glory around.
Of course Neymar missed, they both looked a bit silly, Villarreal are still in the tie and there was just a hint of extra tension on Sunday when Messi needed to convert another penalty against Levante.
Down at Valencia on Sunday, Alvaro Negredo had paid no attention to any of that or Samuel Eto'o's charming comparison between goals and rats up a drainpipe. Valencia were being stifled against Getafe and there were 20 minutes left. He'd won a penalty, pretty craftily, and wanted captain Dani Parejo, the regular taker who's in the best scoring form of his life, to hand him the chance to score it.
Parejo agreed ... and Negredo scored.
It was a risk. First, he's not been in top form: he's scored just two goals in the league since arriving on "loan" from Manchester City. Second, the chance had to be taken or a costly 0-0 home draw was looming. Third, Getafe keeper Jonathan "Jona" Lopez stayed tall until very late and by Negredo's own admission: "I waited and waited for him to commit himself but he wouldn't and so I just had to pick my corner and go for it. It was tense."
But hitting the net meant that the gamble paid off (they won 1-0), that Negredo's three goals have now been worth seven points (a draw and two single-goal wins) and it meant that the striker could run off to the Valencia doctor whose father had died during the week in order to share the moment and the "unity" of the celebration with him.
Sometimes football is a damn decent, interesting and fascinating profession.
Do the math, as the kids say. Atletico Madrid have now recorded the same number of bookings by February as they did during the whole of last season. More than twice the red cards, and suspensions are the result. On Sunday at Celta they lost for the first time since 2005, only Celta's third win since the first day of last November. Effectively, it killed Atleti's title chance.
It wasn't Atleti's fault that Koke was injured or that Tiago had to come off injured. Diego Simeone bravely admitted his fault in the team selection, but it took him about 30 minutes to recognise that and to change the formation.
What was Atleti's fault, and what was wholly in their own hands, is that both Arda and Raul Garcia, who could have been vital in scraping a draw or a win, were both absent suspended. Over and again, Simeone's team has been affected by this blight, simply because they are committing more fouls and showing more dissent.
Signs which indicate that they have known deep down, long before Sunday's defeat, that they know the loss of quality in the transfer market last summer could leave them just short of title-defence quality.
As the lucrative Champions League returns, it's time for their tremendously talented and smart manager to put the discipline issue right.