On 15 August 2007, Cristiano Ronaldo got the three-match suspension that would lead him to become the player he is today. Manchester United were drawing 1-1 at Portsmouth with five minutes to go when the 22-year-old butted Richard Hughes and saw red. Back at Carrington, he had little to do but train. The ensuing period would install in him technical and subliminal qualities that remain at the core of his evolving game.
Until that point, Ronaldo had been a winger of undeniable talent and agonising unreliability. Behind the scenes he would declare his ambition to become the best player in the world, and his fervency denoted a potential to achieve it; he hired a private chef, lived in the gym and practiced stepovers as others hit the showers. “He was amazing,” Roy Keane later wrote. “He was immediately one of the hardest-working players at United.”
But particularly in his first three seasons at Old Trafford, Ronaldo’s efficacy was hampered by ostentatiousness and histrionics. He hit 18 goals in 95 league games, but it could have been more had he not always chased the spectacular. Gary Neville lost it when Ronaldo once tried a back-heel instead of placing the ball into the net – “that’s not what we do here,” he snapped – and Rio Ferdinand had a point this week when he branded the early Ronaldo a “show pony”.
When the suspension hit, Ronaldo convened with René Meulensteen, then at United. The Dutch coach later told The Telegraph how he had criticised Ronaldo for pursuing perfection, and how he sought to instil in him a poacher’s mentality. They discussed it, agreed, and started working on his finishing. Volleys, chips, first-time shots. In one drill, with Ronaldo standing with his back to the target, Meulensteen assigned four colours to different parts of the goal. “He had to shout which colour – green, whichever – he was aiming for, so subconsciously working his brain,” said Meulensteen. “He knew his target in advance.”
That season Ronaldo went on to score 31 league goals and 42 in all competitions. After United had won the double, he was awarded the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year for 2008. The following summer he sealed a world-record £80m move to Real Madrid as the most bankable star in the business. Safe to say, the training had paid off.
But it would also change the fundamentals of his game. In recent years more and more observers have noted how the wiry dribbler has become a gladiatorial finisher. The 2009/10 season – his first at Madrid – was his best in terms of beautiful goals, but after José Mourinho’s subsequent entrance he was converted into a pure goalscorer dependent on explosiveness, acuity and off-the-ball movement. As his eternal rival Lionel Messi has evolved into a playmaker operating in deeper zones, Ronaldo has gone the other way.
Frustration against Malaga
Image credit: Reuters
So much so that the Portuguese has forgotten his old tricks. Instead of hugging the touchline, he occupies an inside-left forward role that facilitates runs into the box. He participates in build-up play, but only with simple passes. In 2009/10, he averaged 3.1 dribbles per game in La Liga. This season the number stands at 1.5. On the list of dribblers in the top five European leagues, that puts him 164th. In La Liga it puts him 29th. In his own team, it puts him fourth.
At the same time, the average number of shots per game has never been higher. Since 2009 it has varied between 6.4 and 7.4. While it was comparably modest last season, it now stands at 8.2.
Clearly Ronaldo deserves the adulation when he delivers, which he usually does. Last season was a jaw-dropping demonstration of his insatiability: 48 goals in 35 league appearances, plus 16 assists. Such figures excuse his occasional egocentric tantrums and his aversion to defensive work.
Cristiano Ronaldo scores against Shakhtar Donetsk
Image credit: Reuters
The question gets more interesting should Ronaldo hit a dry patch, as he did recently. Prior to the brace in Malmö on Wednesday that triggered ubiquitous talk of Raúl’s all-time club record, Ronaldo had gone three fixtures without finding the net. Out of his five goals and one assist in La Liga, all have come away to Espanyol. In the other five encounters, he has contributed nothing.
Twice has this cost Madrid points. He was wasteful in the league opener at Sporting Gijón, and last Saturday at home to Málaga, he released a fusillade of 14 efforts without success. On both occasions, Madrid drew 0-0.
The sheer number of chances reflects how well Ronaldo is fed. His job is not to provide, but to finish. In this way he can settle games by being efficient, but he could never do what Messi did at Atlético Madrid earlier this season: enter the pitch, drop deep and start dictating proceedings. When Barcelona struggle, Messi can influence the game and turn it around. At Madrid, Ronaldo cannot.
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal against Shakhtar Donetsk
Image credit: Reuters
This notion ratchets up the expectations placed upon his goalscoring ability. Squander chances like against Málaga and questions can be asked about what Ronaldo brings to the table. When you concentrate all your efforts on finding the net, you better make sure you manage to.
Looking back, there is a debate to be had about what constitutes his peak. A sliding scale connects his start as a tricky dribbler and his current status as a titanic predator. The finest balance might have been achieved in 2009/10. With that in mind, one can discuss to what extent a player should be judged on the quantity of his goals, as opposed to the quality of his play. Statistically, he has never been better.
Whatever is the case, we should take care to separate the two aspects. Ronaldo may be the complete goalscorer. But to call him a complete player has never been further from the truth.