They are statistics from a bygone era. Having scored five goals against Bayer Leverkusen in mid-week, Lionel Messi took his tally for the season to 50 with a brace at Racing Santander on Sunday. His great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, has scored 40 goals for Real Madrid but nonetheless leads Messi 32 to 30 in the battle to be crowned top scorer in La Liga.
Last season they both scored 53 goals for their respective clubs. Since Ronaldo joined Madrid in 2009, he has scored 126 goals in 127 games. Over the same period, Messi has scored 150 goals in 151 games.
The diminishing goals-per-game ratio at the World Cup — an established barometer for long-term football trends — proves that the sport is becoming more defensive, and yet Messi and Ronaldo are scoring at a faster rate by the season. So what's the secret?
The most obvious answer is that they play for two of the most devastating attacking teams in Spanish football history, whose only real competition in their domestic league is each other. Barcelona's ability to dominate matches is unprecedented. They have averaged 70.2 percent of possession in league games this season and their ability to set up residence deep inside the opposing team's half means that 61 percent of their shots come from inside the 18-yard box (statistics from Who Scored?). It is a veritable conveyor belt of chance creation and it enables Messi to shoot at goal, on average, 5.4 times per game. "What I do isn't difficult," he protested after scoring four times against Arsenal in April 2010. "What's difficult is what Xavi and Iniesta do."
Madrid, meanwhile, have been scoring goals at a blistering rate since the start of the 2009-10 campaign. They plundered 102 goals last season, at a rate of 2.68 per game, and this term they have already netted 88 times in 26 games — a rate of 3.38 goals per match — with Ronaldo averaging a league-high 6.8 shots per game. "I've rarely seen moves constructed at such pace and with such precision," said Ajax coach Frank de Boer after seeing his side torn apart by a counter-attacking masterclass in September.
Tactically, both Messi and Ronaldo are granted freedom to pursue goalscoring opportunities wherever they might arise, with Messi allowed to roam laterally from a nominal central role and Ronaldo jutting in towards goal from his preferred position on the left flank. "Clearly, the main reason for these two players' tactical evolution has been to push them into positions from where they are most likely to score," says Michael Cox of Zonal Marking.
Both players are blessed with exceptional physical attributes — most notably Ronaldo. While Messi's game relies on explosive penalty-box sharpness and an astonishing nimbleness with the ball at his feet, the Portuguese is quicker and stronger than almost any forward to have graced the game. "His contribution as a goal threat is unbelievable," remarked Sir Alex Ferguson in July 2009. "His stats are incredible. Strikes at goal, attempts on goal, raids into the penalty box, headers. It is all there."
The two men are also remarkably fit and successful at avoiding injuries. Messi has started 24 of Barcelona's 26 La Liga games this season and in every single game that he has started, he has played for the full 90 minutes. Ronaldo has started 25 of Madrid 's 26 league matches to date and he has been substituted just once — in the 4-1 win at home to Real Betis on October 15. In such relentlessly prolific teams, more minutes mean more goals.
It would be remiss not to recognise that both Messi and Ronaldo have had the fortune to play football at a time when the sport facilitates attacking play as never before. Barcelona would not be able to exchange passes with such extraordinary precision were it not for the pristine quality of the pitches on which they play, while Ronaldo's dead-ball prowess owes much to the modern game's super-light footballs. The legacy of successive crackdowns against dangerous foul play is that both men can sprint clear of opposition defences safe in the knowledge that they are not about to be felled by a knee-high challenge from behind.
The cumulative effect of these factors is a perfect storm that enables both players to score at a rate not seen for decades. And with Ronaldo 27 and Messi just 24, there are almost certainly hundreds of goals still to come.
Opta's Euro team of the week (click to enlarge)