In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup Finals, there have been two topics on everyone’s lips. Needless to say, the first of these is hailing the German triumph over Argentina in what proved to be a tense and close match-up pitting the tournament’s best two sides. That topic has covered most of the front pages of newspapers and online media alike, and rightly so. However, there has been a second topic, and one that has taken a life of its own. This one has focused on undermining Lionel Messi’s World Cup and general standing in the history of the world’s most popular sport.
To add context to the subject, it is fair to suggest that a large number of experts and non-experts alike (social media has given a voice to the voiceless) had always claimed that to be considered the greatest footballer ever, Messi would have to shine at the World Cup. Most of these people fall into the generation that grew up watching another Argentine legend, Diego Maradona, rather than one which grew up idolizing Pele. Legend has it that Maradona single-handedly, excuse the pun, led the Argentine’s to the trophy in 1986 without the help of a decent set of players around him which included Pumpido, Batista, Burruchaga, Valdano and Ruggeri among others.
Whilst Messi has been the single most dominant player in world football during the last 5 or 6 years, his success both individually and as part of a team has almost entirely happened with his club, Barcelona. The question mark would always hover over the debate as long as Messi did not win the World Cup. Needless to say, Pele largely doesn’t figure in this debate because either “he didn’t play in European football” or he wasn’t alone in leading Brazil to those World Cup titles. Selective criteria does wonders to carve out the results that one is looking for.
So the stage was set for Messi to lead Argentina to the World Cup title in Brazil and cement his position as the undisputed greatest. In the early stages, he did not disappoint. A crucial goal against Bosnia in a tense 2-1 victory, a 90th minute winner against a resilient Iran and a brace against Nigeria in his side’s final group stage game gave Messi 4 goals and the key man behind Argentina’s progress at that stage. In the second round, Messi laid off the assist for Angel Di Maria to score against Switzerland in the last minutes before a potential penalty shoot-out. Against Belgium in the Quarter Finals, Messi produced a tactically astute performance which kept the Belgian defence on their heels throughout the match. However, there was no goal or assist. By the end of the semi-final, the criteria for immortality had been shifted by those posing them. Instead of simply winning the World Cup, Messi now had to do something special, something that I, and many others, were under the impression that he had been doing throughout the World Cup, more or less.
There are two explanations for the goal-posts shifting. Firstly, the generational obsession with forwarding one’s own as the greatest of all time poses an insurmountable obstacle. As time passes, legend grows with it too. The emotional connection that is created between idol and object of idolization lasts a lifetime. Secondly, Leo Messi has raised the standards of measurement and analysis to previously unseen levels. Its no longer enough to score a goal, but necessary to put out performances like the famous 4-goal haul in the Champions League against Arsenal regularly. Its no longer sufficient to score 40 goals a season, even though some of the world’s greatest players have never reached that tally, as it would be considered an average or poor season. Those are the criticisms thrown at Messi. Those or simplistic arguments like those put forward, last night during commentary, by BeIN Sports Andy Gray when he stated that he wants to see Messi “move more” and “he doesn’t look happy on the pitch” and “needs to help his defence out”.
Waking up this morning, had you had not watched any of the matches at this summer’s World Cup then you’d be inclined to think that Messi incurred an atrocious World Cup. To add context to the debate, Messi had 4 goals, 3rd in the list after Colombia’s James Rodriguez and Germany’s Thomas Muller. He added 3.3 key passes per game (via WhoScored), only behind Kevin De Bruyne from players who made it past the group stage, equating to 23 clear cut opportunities for teammates, more than any other player, and a World Cup leading 6.6 successful dribbles per game. Despite passing the ball less than Manuel Neuer, a fact widely informed to us today by Castrol Index, he still had more completed passes than either of Arjen Robben or Thomas Muller and averaged more than James Rodriguez or Neymar too. So did Messi have a poor World Cup, like Andy Gray reiterated on numerous occasions during the final? Absolutely not. Was Messi the best player of the tournament? That is probably open to debate, although Robben and Muller definitely had strong cases. James Rodriguez was arguably the type of breakthrough star that the World Cup has had in the past a la Toto Schillachi but his side failed to progress past the Quarter Finals. Neymar may have had a claim if his World Cup had not ended prematurely. Any number of German players could be considered contenders for that pointless award too, but what this World Cup, more than most others in the past, illustrated was the triumph of team over individual. Does it matter who wins the player of the tournament? Does it change anything when all is said and done? Should Messi have been embarrassed, like Gray said he should be, having been selected as the player of the tournament?
All in all, I would like to ask Mr. Gray what criteria he uses to assess players. He’s known to have stated on many occasions in the past that Cristiano Ronaldo is a better player than Leo Messi. To him, I’d like to say that the debate is no longer about Messi or Cristiano, as that train passed a long time ago. It is about Messi or Maradona or Pele. Its unlikely a unanimous or objective conclusion can be reached on this topic. If one factors the importance of the World Cup then Pele is arguably the best player of all time. Winning the World Cup once is one thing but it is not a coincidence that he won it thrice. Maradona’s generation of followers would probably limit the need of winning the World Cup to just one. Messi’s would probably negate it altogether and claim that the Champions League is played at a higher quality each and every season. It may well be. Unfortunately football does not have an easy way of making individuals stand apart from the team. As good as a single player can be, he cannot succeed without the right teammates and manager. This is undebatable. What is certain, though, is that there has never been as much scrutiny, cameras, technology, or analysis involved in football in the history of the game and to stand tall at the end of it all is a feat on its own.
What this summer’s World Cup did more than anything else is to have re-ignited the passion for the international game. The World Cup does matter. It matters a lot. It is the pinnacle of football. Ask any German footballer if they’d trade last night’s trophy in exchange for multiple Champions Leagues and league titles till the end of their career and the answer would be no. But what that means is that the debate over the greatest footballer of all time will probably remain inconclusive – for now. Simply put, there are far too many variables involved that makes it difficult to conclusively provide a single objective answer. Messi is great. Without a doubt. There will be a generation (this one) that will strongly put forward his case to be the greatest of all time when another contender to the tag comes along in 30 years time. By then, its likely that noises emanating from the Maradona camp would have died down just as had been the case with Pele’s. What we can’t argue about is that we are lucky to be witnessing someone of that caliber play right in front of our eyes, week after week, sometimes twice weekly. Its questionable that even Maradona or Pele’s greatest proponents had the privilege to watch and observe their hero play so often in an era with limited television coverage. Just to be having this debate right now is a testament to Messi’s greatness, barely at the age of 27.
Looking back over the years you would find it difficult to recall when was the last time that Real Madrid and Spain captain Iker Casillas was not “number 1” whenever he’s been available for selection. Since making his club debut in 1999, he’s effectively been first choice at Real Madrid, from the tender age of 18. He went on to make his international debut only a few days after representing Real Madrid in the successful 2000 Champions League Final, having just 19 years of age. It would be the summer of 2002 that he would be promoted to first choice in the national side, starting off at the World Cup in Japan/Korea. He hasn’t looked back since. He’s set himself up as a constant in the ever-evolving institution at Real Madrid.
At international level, though, a few talented keepers have been around the team over the years, including Santiago Canizarez, the man who he’d displaced, Diego Lopez, Pepe Reina, and Victor Valdes, Barcelona’s number one. Valdes only began getting called up to the national side, when contrary to popular belief, also known as speculation in the Madrid press, it was proven that he would not be a bad influence in the dressing room of the national side even when he knew he would rarely get a start, just like Pepe Reina had accepted before him. Valdes, like Reina, has gone on to improve team harmony and add to the spirit that exists between the team-mates, although it must be said that the national side players, namely the Barcelona and Real Madrid contingent have yet to share three or four weeks together in tournament mode since Jose Mourinho arrived in Spain to take the competitive nature of “El Clasico” to another level.
Now, only 30 years old, Casillas, practically a baby in goalkeeper years, has amassed over 600 matches for Real Madrid and 127 caps for Spain. He’s also won every major club and international trophy before he turned 30. His clean cut image in the media as well as his undoubted ability and talent in goal has meant that he’s virtually never had any competition in the Real Madrid goal.
Valdes is a talented keeper in his own right, with some believing that in recent years he’s played at a higher, more consistent, level than Casillas. Whilst this may be tantamount to blasphemy in Spain, we’ve found the holy ground where we could analyze this assertion without the fear for our lives. Before comparing the respective keepers performances over the past three seasons, you’d be forgiven if you had forgotten that VV, as he’s know in some quarters, has been around for almost as long as Casillas. A product of La Masia, Valdes made his debut under Raddy Antic during the 2002/3 season at the age of 21. He would go on to displace Roberto Bonano (remember him?), and establish himself as regular first choice by the start of the next season. He would win the league title by the age of 23, Barcelona’s first in 6 years. He’s also won every club trophy that there is on offer before the age of 30. He’s won the World Cup in 2010 but is yet to pick up the European Championships trophy, although he may well change that this summer.
Victor has also won more Zamora trophies than his counterpart Iker. For those of you who don’t know, the Zamora is an award given to the goalkeeper in La Liga with the lowest goals to games ratio. VV has picked it up 4 times as opposed to the solitary success of Casillas. Valdes, however, has always fallen short in international recognition and plaudits when compared to Iker. Be it reputation, popularity, the memory of early promise, or a stronger, more influential press behind him, Iker Casillas excels on that front. It was as late as last season, in the midst of Arsenal’s Champions League clash with Barcelona, when sections of the broadcast British media highlighted Victor Valdes as a weak link and an average keeper who Arsenal can take advantage of. It was obvious they hadn’t watched VV closely since his floppy-hair years.
Voices from Barcelona have been saying for a while now that Victor Valdes deserves to be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper. It’s our purpose here to highlight and compare the performances of both keepers largely over the last 2 and a half seasons, including the on-going campaign, in order to draw certain conclusions and not to express a matter of opinion. We will compare and contrast both keepers performances, across a range of categories including shot stopping, passing skills, types of goals conceded, clean sheets as well as having a brief look at their respective records in the Champions League, in the hope of making concrete assertions in answering the question at hand.
It’s widely accepted that both goalkeepers are excellent shot stoppers, possibly outside England, where Iker Casillas was once called a “lucky goalkeeper who is always in the right position” by Ron Atkinson. Regardless, statistics prove that both keepers are among the best in Europe and have been for a long time. It has probably taken VV a little longer to receive acknowledgement for his ability though. Valdes has really emerged with a reputation under Pep Guardiola’s reign where he has become an integral part of the way Barcelona play in his position of sweeper keeper, a role from the Dutch Total Football philosophy.
When it comes to pure shot stopping, both keepers have saved over 75% of the shots taken against them through out their La Liga careers. With close to 750 matches between them, it proves a level of consistency and longevity beyond their years. Casillas has saved a staggering 80%-plus in 3 of his seasons including his breakthrough year in 1999/2000, however the last of which had been in 2007/8. VV, on the other hand, has achieved an 80%-plus save ratio twice, but once as recently as last season. Valdes has only averaged more than a goal a game against a season once in his career and that was in his debut season. Casillas, on the other hand, has averaged less than a goal a game against a season only 5 times during his 12 full seasons. A staggering difference, but arguably inconclusive, as Casillas has been “blessed” with less than adept defences over the years. If anything, though, it brought out the best in him, as he was peppered with shots against. Last season, Iker had the least amount of shots against him over his career. Between the two of them, they’ve had close to 300 clean sheets with VV edging it despite having played significantly less matches.
Since 2009/10, VV has gone on from strength to strength, just as his club has, and has a save ratio of at least 77%, winning two Zamoras (with the current season on-going, although VV currently leads again), Casillas has seen his save ratio drop year by year, currently standing at 70% this season. One last interesting fact is that Valdes has never had more than 147 shots against him in a league campaign, whilst Casillas has had at least 159 shots against him in 8 of his 12 campaigns and has definitely been the busier of the two during his career. On the flip side, as most goalkeepers will tell you, remaining switched on and being focused when you have less to do is sometimes more difficult than being busy for 90 minutes when you are not allowed to switch off for a second.
“You give the ball to me”. That’s simply what Victor Valdes is suggested to say in the infamous Youtube video circulated all over the Internet last year. He is considered by some to be among the best if not the best keeper in the world when it comes to passing a football. Barcelona would probably not look much weaker if VV turned up somewhere in the outfield for them. That is why his momentary lapse at the Santiago Bernabéu inside the first minute of the game when he gave the ball away to be punished by Karim Benzema to the fullest extent was such a surprise. His composure and confidence to keep on attempting to play the short pass subsequently was praiseworthy. VV has had the most successful passes by a goalkeeper in Spain in recent seasons (823 and 617 complete passes in the last two seasons). After 21 games during the current campaign he’s had 447 successful passes and is on route to potentially breaking his own pass record. What is more telling is that his success ratio is something a central midfielder would be proud of. He has averaged 82.3%, 86.4% and 86.5% respectively during the last two full seasons as well as the on-going campaign. He has not hit more than 23 long passes in a single season during any of that time either. That is an extraordinary feat. Just to put it in context, 257 out of the 368 passes Joe Hart has made this season have been long passes.
Iker Casillas, has hit 580, 474 and 318 successful passes over the past two and a half campaigns. His pass success ratio stands at 68.1%, 75% and 76.4% over that period. It is clear that his passing has “improved” under Jose Mourinho. However, it may be more explanatory that under Mourinho, Real Madrid tend to pass the ball out of the back far more than previously when long goal kicks and long passes from deep were far more profound. In 2009/10 when VV attempted 23 long passes, Casillas had attempted 102, but had better success at it with 24 reaching its destination as opposed to only 3 by VV. In fact, VV has not had more than 3 successful long passes during any of the past two and a half seasons. This season, Casillas has had 49 long passes attempted with 12 reaching their target. In terms of long goal kicks, VV only attempts less than half the amount of times Casillas decides to go long, with only 85 attempts from 2010/11 onwards to Iker’s 224, again indicative of the style each prefers.
Domination of Penalty Area and Beyond
As an extension of their shot-stopping skills, both keepers possess a great domination of their penalty areas especially off set plays. Casillas has not conceded a goal off a corner kick from 2010/11 onwards. Valdes has conceded a solitary goal during each of the last campaign and the current one. When it comes to shots from 6 yards out both save more than they let in. Casillas has improved his goalkeeping from long range shots too, having now only conceded 2 off 30 shots this season, as opposed to a combined 8 goals from 76 shots during the past two league seasons. VV has conceded 7 goals from 94 long range shots since 2009/10, thus providing slightly more secure hands behind the gloves from distance.
Both keepers are on their toes constantly and there is little to choose from when it comes to clearing the ball from danger, usually getting there before the attacker. In 2010/11, Iker cleared the ball 115 times to VV’s 100 times, whilst this season, VV has done so 72 times to Iker’s 67.
Blanking the Opposition
Ask any keeper and they will tell you that the most important thing for them is the clean sheet, whether they have any work to do or not. Championships are won based on good defences. When it comes to keeping a clean sheet, Victor Valdes is in a league of his own in La Liga. With a career total of 150 clean sheets in only 316 games, he has 10 more clean sheets than Casillas, having played 125 less matches. He’s had at least 15 clean sheets in a full league campaign in 6 of the 8 seasons which he has started. Casillas has only done so 3 times out of the 12 full league campaigns he’s been a part of.
The Holy Grail AKA Champions League
Europe’s elite competition is probably revered as highly as the World Cup and European Championships when it comes to quality of football on offer. It has taken football to the next level. Players who dominate their respective league competitions may fall short on Europe’s Tuesday and Wednesday nights and thus create question marks over whether they actually are as good as they had been billed previously. Today, its difficult to label someone as “world class” unless they’ve shown their qualities in the Champions League.
Once again, Victor Valdes has a better ratio when it comes to goals conceded per game, just as he has had in La Liga. Interestingly, he has also won more Champions League medals than his counterpart too. He also has more clean sheets despite playing less matches and has a better career save ratio too.
The Bottom Line
As illustrated above, Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes have the track record and caliber to back their reputations, although VV probably does not get the credit which his performances and ability deserve, especially outside Spain. He has broken numerous records at domestic level, including a record number of consecutive shut outs at home and is tied first for most Zamora trophies. He is on route to potentially breaking Andoni Zubizaretta’s record of clean sheets if he continues performing at his level. He broke his club’s record for the longest amount of minutes without conceding a goal when he went 896 minutes without conceding earlier this season.
Casillas’ individual and collective honors are impressive enough even if he retires today. He’s surely Real Madrid and Spain’s most successful goalkeeper in history. He’s recently become his nation’s most capped player too. Considering his larger than life reputation, it’s not surprising that he escapes criticism or open comparison with pretenders to his thrown. Victor Valdes may surpass Casillas in many departments, with performances and statistics over the years certainly backing that argument, but he is unfortunate that his counterpart has such an established persona and reputation in world football.
With thanks to the good people at Opta Spain for their unconditional help in providing in-depth statistics that were used in compiling this article. A special thanks also for Aaron Nielsen for his help in providing statistics tracking back into the 1990’s. You can follow him on twitter @enbsports
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