Life, the Universe and Ryan Shotton
In one weekend (that of Dec. 8) the two greatest footballers in the world were in action: Argentine star Lionel Messi broke Gerd Muller’s entirely pointless record of 85 goals scored in a calendar year (or, as they’re known outside of football, "a year") and Ryan Shotton managed to get himself sent off in Stoke’s incredibly surprising—and in no way inevitable—goalless draw away at Aston Villa.
In a way, it was written in the stars (as everything is, according to Sky Sports) that, on the weekend that Lionel Messi broke the least important record in football, Shotton, his only real counterpart in the current game—proved by the fact that he is a man who regularly does it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke, though in this case I’m not sure I want to know what the "it" is—would get himself sent off in perhaps the only game in the history of football that would be considered more pointless than a calendar-year goal-scoring record.
Though you could compare Lionel Messi’s calendar-year exploits to that of the great German striker (nicknamed the not-at-all threatening "Der Bomber"), you shouldn’t, as there is no point.
Much like those alternative tables that tell you who would be top of the league if all games finished at half time or in the 80th minute, calendar-year records are interesting statistics, but they are of no real value whatsoever, much like Ryan Shotton.
Football is divided into seasons for a reason, so in my view the only credible way to draw comparisons between Messi and Muller is through season records and overall career statistics (or maybe a kick-ups competition if you know the right people and can get it arranged).
The Statistic-y Part
So let’s attempt to analyse the careers of "Der Bomber" and Messi through some viable statistics.
Muller managed an incredible 723 goals in 771 games for club and country, a strike rate of 0.93 goals per game throughout his entire career.
Messi has so far managed 314 in 428, at a rate of 0.73 goals per game. This record is far more credible than comparing a "calendar year" record, but it is no less pointless (actually it is slightly less, but still pretty pointless).
Gerd Muller played far more games than Messi has so far and has ended his career; therefore these statistics are currently meaningless and incomparable until after Messi retires.
So maybe we should compare Messi last season (when he turned 25) to Muller’s season when he was the same age. In the 2011-12 season Messi scored 73 goals in 60 games in all competitions for Barcelona. In the 1969-70 season, when Muller turned 25 years old, he managed 42 goals in 38 games for Bayern Munich.
Both averaged over a goal a game, but the only real comparable conclusion you can draw is that Messi played significantly more games in the season than Muller did, so this statistic is also completely pointless.
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
Messi and Ronaldo
Despite its total pointlessness, this latest statistic is probably the closest way you can currently compare the two footballers, which only really proves one thing: It is virtually impossible to compare any two players at all.
For example, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two best players in the world at the moment, and both have incredible goal scoring records. But when comparing their styles of play they are incomparable.
In the most basic of technical terms, when it comes to their trademark default settings, Messi likes to start inside and drift to the flanks to find space, while Ronaldo likes to do completely the opposite, starting out wide (normally on the left) and cutting inside.
These are two very different styles, but both incredibly effective.
It is also an extremely simplified example ("pidgin football," if you will), therefore also making it slightly pointless.
However much anyone tries, you cannot really compare Ronaldo and Messi on anything other than goal record. Their only real comparison is that they both happen to be exceptional footballers cohabiting the same league at the same time.
You cannot really compare any two footballers (except maybe Gervinho and Andrey Arshavin, for their ineffectiveness).
Messi the Greatest?
It is pointless to compare the goal-scoring records of Gerd Muller and Lionel Messi for one main reason: Gerd Muller had a sensational goal-scoring record and currently has a better goals-to-games ratio than Messi, but the German never realistically features in any conversations about who is the greatest player of all time, whereas Messi does.
So if you are only comparing them on goals scored, surely Muller is better? (The answer being no, obviously.)
This is because, whilst the German was a great goal scorer, Messi is so much more, which leads me to the point I’ve belatedly been trying to get to now for what seems like far too long.
Though you can draw basic comparisons between Muller and Messi from their individual goal-scoring exploits, you only have to look at Messi’s assists records as well to see they are totally different players.
And if you can’t realistically compare Messi and Ronaldo in the same league and in the same season, then you cannot possibly compare two players who have played in completely different eras such as Messi and Muller. Attempting to do so would be extremely pointless.
It is the question that is debated fiercely in every pub, office and school playground all over the country (and indeed the world).
Who would be in the greatest starting XI of all time? I am not going to compile an all-time great starting XI now—it would go against the entire point of this article in which I am trying to state almost every comparison between players is pointless as every era in football is completely incomparable.
Comparing Eras, Dixie Dean, et al
As time has moved on, the quality of football has gotten better and better. In 1927-28, Everton legend Dixie Dean managed a quite-ridiculous 60 league goals in 39 league games, making Robin van Persie’s effort of 30 in 38 last season appear paltry, in comparison.
But if you took Dixie Dean with the ability, fitness and training he had then and stuck him in the modern-day Premier League, he would be no better than Fernando Torres—although the jokes about Torres being rubbish are a little less funny as he has scored a few goals lately, so let’s go with Jason Roberts, instead.
Van Persie, on the other hand, would seem like an alien from another planet if stuck him in the 1927-28 First Division. (We may be heading into the realms of sci-fi fantasy but I am sure you understand my point.)
With the lifestyle he had back then, George Best, one of the most naturally talented footballers of all time, would not make it as a modern professional player. But then, maybe he only lived that lifestyle because of the era that he lived in. Perhaps if he were around today, he would be a lot fitter and more dedicated to his profession.
But I am not saying George Best did not love playing football. I am saying that in the modern era, there are so many players who have incredible natural talent. It is those who work hardest who reap the greatest rewards (not including Mario Balotelli).
Many players who played in the top division in the pre-Premier League era would not be playing in it now as there is so much more competition for places in the top sides from other nations—good for the League, bad for the English players and even worse for Scottish footballers.
But then, it is not Dixie Dean’s fault that he played in the era in which he did.
Everything in life is relative. So, relative to the players who were playing around him, Dixie Dean was just as exceptional in 1927-28 as Gerd Muller was in 1969-70 and Lionel Messi was in 2011-12. Much in the same way you cannot compare Messi as a footballer to Gerd Muller, as they were such different players in such different eras, you cannot say that Messi is the greatest of all time, as you do not know how great Gerd Muller would have been now, or how good Messi would have been in Dixie Dean’s time (to take it to a slightly cryptic level).
Therefore, any comparison between any players in any era is pointless.
Arguably the greatest player of all time, Pele, cannot be compared to any of these players as he never played in a European League. No one can really say how he’d do if transported into modern day football (because it’s obviously impossible), so it’s pointless to debate whether he’s the greatest of all time, or in fact if anyone is.
Zinedine Zidane cannot be compared to anyone because no other player in any era of football has ended their career with a flying headbutt in a World Cup Final.
Diego Maradona cannot be compared to anyone because he’s completely insane.
Messi’s 90 goals (as it stands) in a calendar year record is very impressive. But it is a pointless statistic. Gerd Muller was an incredible goal scorer, but there is no point comparing him to Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo is Messi’s closest compatriot in present-day football, but you cannot compare the two, as they are so different in every way.
Every situation in football is different. Every player is ultimately incomparable, and this article has therefore been almost entirely pointless.
You can use statistics to analyse basic situations and conclusions, but just because Messi has scored more goals in 2012 than Gerd Muller did in 1972 does not mean for certain that Messi was better this year than Muller was that season.
The quality of football is better now than it was, but every situation in the game is relative. You cannot say that Messi’s goal-scoring feats now are greater or lesser than Muller’s then, much in the same way you cannot say that Messi is the greatest of all time.
So in conclusion, pretty much everything in football is incomparable, pretty much everything is uncertain, and the only thing in life that is currently certain is that I should probably apologise for wasting your time.
All-Time Greatest Starting XI
I said I wouldn’t, but it is still fun, so I did it anyway: A 4-2-3-1 sort-of-audacious attacking formation in which the three central attacking midfielders rotate. I’m sure Zidane would find a way to get forward as well, as he was a decent player, himself.
GK: Peter Schmeichel
CB: Bobby Moore
CB: Paolo Maldini
LB: Roberto Carlos
CM: Franz Beckenbauer
CM: Zinedine Zidane
CAM: Johan Cruyff
CAM: Lionel Messi
CAM: Diego Maradona