Who Is Most Important to Their Side: Arjen Robben or Lionel Messi?

Nick DorringtonSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 8, 2014

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with Angel di Maria after di Maria scored his side's only and winning goal in extra time during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Argentina and Switzerland at the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. Argentina defeated Switzerland 1-0 to move on to the quarterfinals. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi have undoubtedly been two of the stars of the 2014 World Cup. They will meet in Sao Paulo on Wednesday when the Netherlands and Argentina battle it out for a place in the World Cup final.

But which of them is more important to their side’s hopes of competing for the trophy in the Maracana come June 13?

Both players strike similar fear into opposition defences, and both have found themselves double- or triple-marked at times during the competition.

“At this tournament more than any other tournament Robben is to the Netherlands what Lionel Messi is to Argentina,” Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder said at a press conference ahead of Wednesday’s match, as per The Telegraph.

“He constantly occupies two or three opponents, creating space for others.”

Indeed, with the Costa Rican defence focused on Robben, Sneijder enjoyed arguably his best match of the tournament in the Netherlands’ quarter-final victory. He struck the woodwork on two occasions and set up two other chances for his team-mates.

As for Messi, noted football journalist Jonathan Wilson made the following observation in the wake of Argentina’s 1-0 win over Belgium in the last eight.

In terms of ultimate output, the pair are very similar. Per 90 minutes on the field, Robben has produced 0.56 goals and 0.19 assists for a total goal contribution of 0.75; Messi’s figures are slightly better at 0.79 goals and 0.20 assists for a total goal contribution of 0.99.

Include the match-winning penalty Robben won against Mexico in the round of 16 as an assist, and his overall goal contribution jumps to 0.94 per 90 minutes—pretty much on par with Messi.

They are also remarkably alike when it comes to the percentage of their teams’ efforts on goal in which they have been involved.

Messi has taken or set up 41.11 per cent of Argentina’s shots during the World Cup, while Robben has taken or assisted 41.89 per cent of Netherlands’ efforts. These are high figures, but it would be unfair to conclude that either country is a one-man team.

Daley Blind, Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie have impressed for the Netherlands, while Angel Di Maria, Ezequiel Garay and Javier Mascherano have all played an important role in Argentina’s progression to the final four.

There can, however, be no doubt that Robben and Messi are the ones their teams look to when attacking inspiration is required. This is particularly the case with Argentina and Messi.

“We know he is our main player, our captain, the best player in the world,” Mascherano said recently, as reported by Fox Sports. “Every time we recover the ball we try to pass to him as he is the best player we have in the team and he will score goals.”

Indeed, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella has looked painfully short on alternative plans throughout the tournament.

To date, Messi has received 9.68 per cent of Argentina’s completed passes, slightly higher than the 8.57 per cent of Netherlands’ passes received by Robben. He generally receives the ball deeper and more centrally than Robben, who does much of his work in wide positions in the final third.

In short, Messi is Argentina’s creative hub, whereas Robben is simply Netherlands’ most potent attacking threat.

Very little separates these two outstanding players, both in their individual output and in the amount they contribute to their teams. It is hard to imagine Argentina functioning well without Messi, while a Dutch side without Robben would also be far less dangerous.

Neither team has a compelling like-for-like replacement for their star player.

I am therefore minded to conclude that Robben and Messi are equally important to their respective sides. Their individual performance levels are likely to go a long way towards deciding the outcome of Wednesday’s semi-final.

All calculations performed by the author, using data from Soccerway, WhoScored.com and FIFA.com.