There are three things certain in this world. Death. Taxes. And football pundits discussing the age-old question: who is better, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? With Ronaldo’s sensational return to the Premier League and Messi’s surprise move to Paris, that topic has once again resurfaced with added vigour. The pair are obviously two of the best footballers in history. And without a doubt, the rivalry between the pair has spurred each of them onto greatness.
But how does the next generation compare? For a while, it seemed like there was no stopping a young Kylian Mbappé from one day emerging as the next of the world’s best. But now he has a tall, blond rival from Dortmund challenging him for that title. And that might just be the best thing to happen to the Frenchman.
But do the statistics support the notion that Mbappé is the heir apparent?
Coming of Age on the European Stage
When Mbappé appeared in his first UEFA Champions League final back in August 2020, he was aged just 21 years and 247 days old. For comparison, Messi was 21 years, 337 days old, and Ronaldo was 23 years, 106 days old in each of their first Champions League finals.
Despite ending up on the losing side that day, it felt at the time like Mbappé’s appearance was a coronation for the French youngster, a coming of age and a signal of the changing of the guard.
Messi and Ronaldo’s monopoly on Champions League finals has been strong. Ever since the pair started playing in the top five European leagues in 2003-04, eight out of 18 Champions League finals (44%) featured either Ronaldo or Messi. The 2008-09 final, which is the only instance so far where Messi and Ronaldo have locked horns in the showpiece event, was Messi’s first, at the ripe of age of 21 (21y 337d). Messi scored in that one, a giant header for such a little man, where he rose and hung in the air as if held up by string. If he had not been injured three years previously, he would have probably featured in Barca’s 2006 final triumph over Arsenal, aged just 18 (18y 327d). Funnily enough, that is exactly the same age Patrick Kluivert was when he scored against AC Milan back in 1995. The Dutchman is currently the youngest player to score in a Champions League final.
Ronaldo made his Champions League final debut a year before Messi, in 2007-08. He also managed to score in his first final, but unlike Messi, it was not enough to see his side win in regulation time. The game went to the penalties, with Ronaldo ultimately missing his spot kick, but Manchester United won the shootout 6-5.
Today, Messi is just over 34 years old while Ronaldo is almost 37. The duo still perform at an incredible level, setting standards that the world has never seen before. That standard includes a run of three consecutive seasons from 2010-11 to the end of 2012-13 in which they both scored 30+ goals in the league. During that spell, Ronaldo scored 40 and 46 goals, while Messi scored 50 and 46. No wonder then, that when Messi and Ronaldo scored 30 and 29 goals respectively last season or 36 and 21 goals in the one before, that those tallies are met with a mere shrug of the shoulders. Overall, since the start of the 2007-08 season, Messi and Ronaldo have scored 30+ goals 16 times in total. These are staggering numbers.
So how does Mbappé compare? So far, the striker’s managed to eclipse the 30+ goal mark only once, back in 2018-19, where he played in 29 league games. He was hampered by injury the following season, only managing to play 20 league games, scoring 18 goals in the process. Last season he plundered an impressive 27 in league play. These are impressive numbers, but they are not quite yet in the realm of Messi or Ronaldo.
And now there’s a new face in town, a new nemesis for Mbappé: Erling Haaland. Almost two years Mbappé’s junior, the Norwegian is racing up the scoring charts in alarming fashion. Looking at the data above, Mbappé’s league goal contribution (combining goals and assists) is just below one goal per game, while Messi leads the way with 1.28 and Ronaldo sits at 1.05. Haaland has scored almost one goal per game, and with assists added on his tally reaches 1.21 goal contributions per game.
The graphic below charts the goalscoring efforts of these four players across the top five European leagues by age. It’s very early days, but currently, Mbappé and Haaland are both outscoring the other two at their current ages.
What Were the Big Two Like at Mbappé’s Age?
Today, Mbappé is almost 23. Messi was that age back in April 2010, while Ronaldo was 23 back in November 2007. Haaland on the other hand will be Mbappé’s age in April 2023.
Here’s what this quartet’s figures look like at the age of Mbappé today. Except for Haaland, obviously, as we’re not able to travel to the future.
Record At Mbappé’s Age:
|Player||Date when Mbappé's age||Games played||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Mins Per Goal||Mins Per Goal Or Assist|
Mbappé’s 111 goals and 39 assists in Ligue 1 are extremely impressive but might be met with a hint of scepticism. Despite French sides’ successes in European club competitions as well as on a national team level, rightly or wrongly, Ligue 1 is still considered weaker than Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.
Mbappé’s figures so far put him at a total of 150 goal contributions in 155 games. He’s averaged a goal every 97 minutes of action, and a goal contribution every 72 minutes. At this age, Messi was scoring every 122 minutes, while Ronaldo was scoring once in every four hours of football. Due to Messi’s high assist numbers, his overall goal contribution gets closer to Mbappé’s but it’s still not quite enough to match him
Haaland’s record on the other hand is phenomenal. If he can keep up the pace he’s scoring goals and delivering assists, we could start seeing him contribute to a goal every 60 minutes of league action.
Let’s move away from domestic performances and look at the Champions League:
Mbappé’s 27 goals and 17 assists in his 46 games of Champions League football is again impressive. He scores less frequently in this competition than in France, but he provides assists considerably more often. It keeps his goal contribution frequency in line with his Ligue 1 numbers. In Europe, when Messi and Ronaldo were Mbappé’s age, their figures were nowhere close to what Mbappé has achieved in terms of raw individual statistics right now.
But again, the numbers point at how crazy Haaland’s start to his career has been. He’s reached 21 Champions League goals in the fewest number of games in history, and he’s averaging a goal every 64 minutes in the most difficult competition in world football. Both Mbappé and Messi reached 21 UCL goals in 40 matches while for Cristiano Ronaldo it took 56 games. It took Haaland just 17 matches.
Let’s introduce expected goals to the narrative. Since we’re evaluating each player’s scoring prowess, xG totals also create a good comparison point.
Over the past 11 seasons – i.e back to the point we have concrete xG data – Ronaldo and Messi have scored an incredible 564 non-penalty goals between them. Their combined expected goals figure over that time stands at approximately 453. But the +111 combined xG overperformance is mainly Messi’s doing. The Argentine has scored an incredible 84 goals over his expected goals figure, while Ronaldo’s overperformance is roughly 28 goals. Does Lionel Messi break xG models? Probably.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Mbappé’s and Haaland’s level of overperformance to the others at this early stage in their careers, as the pair haven’t had 11 seasons of top-level football to juice up their numbers.
Looking at shot quality (xG/shot), Messi and Ronaldo are averaging 0.13 and 0.12 respectively. For Mbappé this value is 0.18 while Haaland’s 0.23 is almost double that of the two legends. This points to the fact that, so far, both Mbappé and Haaland have chosen their shots well before deciding to fire off a shot. Haaland, in particular, is exceptionally clinical. Since his debut for Dortmund in January 2020, no player in Europe’s top five leagues can better his 29.7% shot conversion (min. 10+ goals).
The “Messi or Ronaldo” debate will never end, not even after they retire. Even Maradona and Pele are still included in that discussion. Despite ageing and seeing their goal numbers reduce relatively speaking, they do not show signs of stopping any time soon.
But time goes on, and it won’t be long before football will start looking for its new kings. Mbappé has been on that trajectory ever since we first witnessed him in a Monaco shirt. And Haaland’s rise has been nothing short of astronomical.
Both of their names will be in the spotlight in upcoming transfer windows. Where each decides to go next will probably be the game-changer for their careers and directly affect how the next chapter of football history will be written.
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Design by Briggs Clinard.