Joining Pele below is a rough shortlist of some very complete forwards and attacking midfielders (i.e. Zico, because on closer inspection - seems to be an incredibly complete attacking player who was not your typical 10 but a super productive forward in equal measure). I have left out Romario and Muller, as they're more ' poacher-like' and wanted to focus on more all-round forwards. Now grading these players 1-10 at each attribute is a very subjective and laborious exercise, so to avoid that.. I will just discuss if certain players were able/unable to demonstrate mastery of a particular ability and spark a discussion and comparison as to how many areas of attack this list of footballers could master..
How does one determine what makes a player complete? or in this instance an attacker complete? In the overall sense, one would easily make reference to someone like Di Stefano who was able to participate in the defensive phase of the game in addition to the build up (midfield) phase and the attacking phase but when limiting it to the question of the most dangerous and complete operator in the final third.. it becomes tougher - which players could claim to have mastered the following arts or possess the following attributes:
Now, alot of players on the list above have obviously scored a range of long-distance goals but I would argue R9 and Van Basten can instantly be ruled out as evidence of their long-range prowess isn't as pronounced as the others. Some like Zico who clearly had great set piece ability and could score from range tended to choose not to and majority of his goals result from dribbles into box/being a fox in the box.. Di Stefano and Cruyff were similar in that they could also strike from range but preferred to work their way into the box and put the ball away from close range.
Puskas was renowned for having one of the most lethal shots of all time but he was not a huge threat from beyond 25 yards, with his ferocious long range effort against Benfica being the exception rather than the norm. Maradona was a scorer of spectacular goals but it would be pushing it to say he was a master of the long-range goal. He like Henry, loved to score a variety of goals which seemed to defy the laws of physics but powerhouses from distance? no.
Eusebio, Messi stand out.. with the former having a cannon shot off either foot and Lionel being able to pass it in from just outside the box and generally just being unerringly accurate and consistent from long range. Cristiano is also a great threat from range but his efficiency is questionable. Pele as the video below illustrates is right up there, mirroring Eusebio's explosiveness from range and more efficient than a Cristiano. I'd have him just behind Messi and alongside Eusebio. Lets not forget his attempt from the halfway line too - a man clearly not daunted from taking a long distance punt.
Long-Range passing incorporates the ability to spread the play and crossing. It is an area of the game where Pele falls short. His style of play just didn't incorporate long range passing/crossing, as he preferred shorter passes for quick-fired combination play. through central areas. In this category, Maradona, Zico reign supreme with their wonderful mastery of long passing as well as crossing, although for outside of the foot crosses - Cruyff was King. CR7 is underrated with regards to his crossing but not really renowned as a long-range passer. None of the other forwards are worth a mention in this regard.
Whilst you'd expect all footballers of the calibre of our shortlist to be A* at this, for me R9, CR7 and Eusebio fall slightly short here. They are the sort of footballers who were prone to losing the ball under pressure due to the high octane nature of their game and the sheer directness of their play. The rest are as gold standard as it gets, supremely intelligent footballers under pressure who very rarely relinquished possession.
Cristiano, Van Basten are real standouts from this list yet Pele absolutely matches them in this regard and is recognised as one of the GOAT headers in the game, Some would argue that Pele had the greatest leap ever and as the video testifies below - who would blame them. Cruyff and Di Stefano were solid in the air, with Cruyff's header in the European Cup Final against the hardmen of Inter something for the ages and Messi has scored his fair share of memorable headers but you wouldn't consider any of these players as forces of nature in the air.
The original Ronaldo is probably the greatest force of nature the game has ever seen, and the two portuguese powerhouses Ronaldo and Eusebio were also fine physical specimens.. but Pele in his prime was right up there and IMO with his superior sense of balance/agility, arguably eclipses all of them as the perfect footballing specimen from a physical perspective. That is what gave him that God-like quality which transcends the likes of Messi/Maradona.. they seem like demi-gods, the most gifted humans ever due to their diminutive stature and mortal nature, whereas Pele is truly divine in that sense. He just seemed to have it all.
Now Zico stands out as probably the best of all time alongside Juninho Pernambucano, but in terms of ruling players out.. R9, Van Basten can certainly be as they're not renowned for free-kick brilliance. Cristiano is far too wayward to be recognised as one of the greats in this respect but Messi is a serious contender who is putting together an impressive resume. Pele is criminally underrated for his set-piece prowess. He is second on all time list of set-pieces scored (70 free-kicks scored during his career). Whilst he didn't possess the sublime grace of a Zico in this regard, he was a threat from a variety of ranges due to his sheer power and accuracy.. mastering the lace knuckleball technique 50 years ago..but also capable of the more deft 'falling-leaf' technique from closer range too.
The best players in this regard run the game in the final third, effectively taking over from the Regista as the playmaker. Di Stefano was unique out of this shortlist of forwards in that his ability to control the entire game despite being such a lethal forward was unprecedented and has not been matched since... although Cruyff did come close in terms of his ability to stamp his authority on a game. Maradona was the master of controlling the final third, whereas Zico was not as adept as Diego or even Platini
Whilst I wouldn't place Pele at the top of the list in this regard alongside the likes of Maradona/Di Stefano/Cruyff, he definitely had the ability to control a tempo of a game and was a ball-magnet. He had a playmakers mindset in the final third, in contrast to CR7, R9 and knew when to accelerate or slow a game down in the final third which kept opponents guessing as to when he'd go for the kill.
Eusebio, R9 and CR7 struggle in this regard and whilst Henry had a ridiculous amount of assists, he and Van Basten didn't quite possess the same level of prowess that you'd associate with the finest passers in the final third including Messi, Cruyff, Maradona and Zico. Di Stefano was also an incredible passer in the final third and was the creative force of that Madrid side of the 50's. Puskas was also a fine passer but in comparison to the aforementioned, his passing game was slightly more limited.
Pele was an absolute master in this regard.. the assist for Jairzinho's goal against England in 1970 as well as the final pass for Carlos Alberto's goal in the final. Two iconic assists in the same tournament which have stood the test of time and they were just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst this is a highly contested category, for me Pele has the perfect blend of insane imagination, flair technique and efficiency of execution to reign supreme in this category.
To be a great finisher like a Romario you have to be able to put the ball into the back of the net in a variety of ways and possess nerves of steel. Messi might be the best finisher of the modern era but his finishing in the big games has at times been questionable... his mental frailties exposed too often and his one-footedness rendering him predictable. Cristiano has more variety and arguably a better big match record but he is inefficient, requiring many chances in order to finally stick one away.
Out of the shortlist, Van Basten, Zico and Puskas are the greatest finishers... but it is fair to say with a reputed 1000 goals to his name.. Pele has to go down as one of if not the most versatile finisher of all time... any situation in the box, he had all the tricks in the locker to make the ball land in the back of the net. His headed goal in the 1970 World Cup Final, his brace in the 1958 World Cup Final.. Pele was a goalscoring force of nature and incredibly difficult to stop once the ball found its way into the box.
In football you tend to get guys who either excel at the classical lace dribbling, with slaloming runs and use of body swerves to weave through opponents or you get guys who are the 5* skill masters and like to embarrass and confuse opponents with their street skills. Very rarely do you find a guy who possesses a blend of both.. Dinho in his prime perhaps, Maradona to an extent but for me Pele in his prime combined all the best attributes you want as a dribbler.. both simple, yet superfluous and entertaining in equal measure. He could body swerve with the best, yet he was a pioneer in bringing street skills.. that Brazilian magic to the big stage.
We have recently seen from CR7 just how important this attribute is. He is a GOAT footballer in this regard. Most of the footballers on the shortlist aren't particularly famed for their exceptional off the ball runs in behind which makes sense as due to their all-round game, they wanted to be at the forefront of the game and get the ball to feet. Pele was no exception although his performances in the 1970 World Cup were reminiscent of recent Cristiano performances, in that he knew his body wasn't the powerhouse it once was but through his sheer ability to read the attacking third, and the ability to time runs and pick up space.. he remained an incredible goal threat - just ask Burgnich who found him a nightmare to mark once he entered the box.
Now this is where guys like Cruyff, Pele, Eusebio and Di Stefano distinguish themselves from Messi, Maradona and Zico. They could hold the ball up as good as your best strikers, and play with a man up behind them as well as win tough physical encounters by outmuscling opponents not just out-thinking them. For example, the way Messi regularly got snuffed out by sides like Chelsea..
It is worth noting that Pele struggled with adapting to the physical nature of the game in the 1962 and 1966 World Cup. It was only once he was past his prime and his body began to become more stockier that he became a bull and incredibly difficult to push off the ball. With his new physique Pele overcame his injury demons and eventually proved he could dominate a physical defensive side for example Italy in 1970. His first touch was simply sublime and allied to his athleticism made him virtually unstoppable at times.
Messi, Maradona, Puskas and probably Cruyff (who had a penchant for preferring the outside of the foot) probably fall short when compared to the others in this regard. As the video below illustrates - Pele dare I say it, is arguably the most ambidextrous player in history from a ball striking perspective, he has zero hesitation in unleashing shots with his weaker foot (bit like Cristiano but way more accurate and powerful) which is incredible considering he's from the 60's. He was like Bobby Charlton in this respect and even in his other videos, he doesn't hesitate to play killer passes with the weaker foot either. His ball-carrying foot was solely his right, so unlike a Bobby, or a Nedved.. he wasn't two-footed in that regard.
In conclusion, long range passing aside, Pele pretty much nails every other aspect of being an elite attacker. It would have been nice to see more of Di Stefano in his physical prime to see if he can also be a real competitor and Cruyff comes extraordinarily close which when you think about how involved in the build up these two were - it is phenomenal to think in terms of skills they were almost as complete as Pele even just based on final third play.
Readers might be taken aback by the fact that the original Ronaldo gets a lower score than someone like Thierry Henry, who is by all accounts an inferior player but this isn't about who is 'better' it is about who has the more all-rounded skillset and Henry was simply more versatile. Henry was in many ways the Pele of the Premier League, capable of doing many things albeit with some major flaws such as his lack of aerial threat. Messi is also an outstanding challenger despite his physical deficiencies and lack of a top tier right foot (in fact you could even argue his aerial threat isn't bad) but O Rei do Futebol is truly the undisputed King.