Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s explosion onto the scene with Manchester United and his birth as an offensive pillar, the Portuguese is mainly identified for his ability to score a huge amount of goals.
The variety at his disposal when it comes to finishing, the quality of his movement and his determination to score have created the firm conclusion that he’s a born goal scorer who will, sooner or later, leave behind the left wing to become a central forward.
Every year the debate comes back, and if he has demonstrated during the last few seasons that he’s still able of making differences on big distances, then the last year of competition played under Zinedine Zidane’ orders let us think that he is now only capable of doing so regularly.
More than a matter of position, it’s a matter of distance that exists about Cristiano Ronaldo in 2016.
We have seen this season – notably against Borussia Dortmund in the Bernabeu and against Barcelona at the Camp Nou – in games where Zidane opted for a deep defensive line and counter attacks, that the Ballon d’Or 2016 winner isn’t a threat over big distances and that this kind of approach has lost weight. Cristiano himself knows it well and he has taken a series of decisions to maximize his performances.
Arriving as a winger with an important level of participation in the play, Cristiano has gradually diminished his involvement in the circulation of the ball, to the point where he appears regularly isolated. His presence in the passing combinations has decreased and his ability to offer the last pass has followed the same path. He’s now less present in the play and less decisive in associative terms, which is the first strong sign that the Portuguese has been distanced from creative tasks.
In addition to this, Cristiano has also decreased his volume of dribbles. He came as a player who was very inclined to try and unbalance the opposition with the ball at his feet – but he’s now using dribbles as a punctual tool. His efficiency fits what he’s been showing since joining Madrid (between 40 & 55%), but his physical evolution and notably the loss of agility have culminated in him leaving such tasks to others.
If he has clearly distanced himself from creative tasks, it is also because Ronaldo has instinctively got closer to the goal. There is strong evidence of this when we look at the distribution of his attempted shots per zone. There was a time where Ronaldo tried more shots from outside the box than from inside – to a point where it annoyed a lot of fans. But no more. Since the first season under Carlo Ancelotti, the European Championship winner has inverted the trend and expresses himself mainly inside the last 18 meters. We can also see a progress in terms of volume inside the last 6 meters, which is a sign that Cristiano is now more focused on one thing – finishing.
Aside from this trend, we can see that Ronaldo maintains a volume of shots faithful to what he’s been showing since joining Real Madrid. A projection for the current season has him a little above 100 shots. In terms of efficiency though, Cristiano’s numbers let us to think that he’s on the way down. As the seasons 2013-2014 & 2015-2016 shows, he isn’t clinical by nature. He managed to go above the 25% conversion rate once (a goal per 4 shots without a penalty), and has demonstrated over the years that he needs sheer volume to express his goal scoring talents.
This need for volume and his recent evolution are certainly the reasons Zidane decided to go with a different attacking mode than his predecessors.
In 2010, Mourinho built the offensive system of his Real Madrid around Cristiano’s ability to impose his law on big distances. When he arrived in 2013, Ancelotti took a similar path and gave even more importance to the Portuguese movements in the game model of Madrid. In 2016, Zidane adapted too and has decided to attack in a way that allows Ronaldo to express himself in something he’s still a reference: with crosses.
Real Madrid cross the ball frequently. Since his arrival in Madrid, the team attempts more than 20 crosses per game. But we can see that there is a bigger focus on that point since the 2013-2014 season in which Real Madrid also improved their efficiency in that exercise. More than the evolution of the volume though, it’s the evolution of the importance of crossing in Real Madrid’s style that is so remarkable.
For the first three seasons with Real Madrid, the Spanish club used crossing as much as through balls. But then things have taken a different direction. Since the first season of Ancelotti, the base of Real Madrid’s attacking style is clearly crossing. And with Benitez and Zidane later, Real Madrid reached a point where the team produced almost six times more assists with crosses than with through balls. More significantly, last season, the team created more assists from corner kicks. And this season, the current European Champions are proving more productive with corners AND free-kicks than with through balls. Clearly, the space game is at his lowest point at Real Madrid.
This huge fall in the utilization of through balls to the benefit of crosses is obviously linked to Cristiano Ronaldo’s evolution who, as mentioned earlier, has seen his ability to be a threat and score from distance being greatly reduced in the last few seasons. The Portuguese is much less capable in that context and the coaches adapted in turn. In addition, we also have to remember that during that period the club sold Gonzalo Higuain, Mesut Ozil and recruited Gareth Bale. Which constituted a big change in the offensive style of the team.
In order for that idea to become a viable and working plan, Zidane also took the decision to push Bale, Benzema and Morata closer to the box. The goal? Create an overload of attacking force with the conviction that, sooner or later, one of the crosses will be converted into a goal. This change is particularly obvious with Benzema.
If for Bale and Ronaldo, the volume progress is small (5% for the Welsh and 13% for the Portuguese), Benzema has almost doubled the amount of chances he takes inside the box between the seasons 2014-2015 & 2015-2016. Which clearly shows that Zidane wants to populate the box to improve Real Madrid’s number of chances. The numbers for the current season aren’t as high, but they still mark a difference with the seasons played before Zidane took the team.
This big presence in the box explains pretty well the plan: Put big numbers of great strikers in the box and cross. And the conversion rate let us think that it’s also a great idea. Bale went from 18,5% to 34% (!), Benzema is stable around 27% and Ronaldo went from 27% to 17%. Even considering the important fall of Ronaldo’s efficiency and the abnormal jump of Bale’s, the numbers present a fantastic offensive trio only challenged by MSN during last season. For the current season though, it is less convincing. Bale, Benzema & Ronaldo present of volume of shots clearly take them far from the rest but their conversion rate doesn’t fit elite players. At least not after 18 games in LaLiga.
In front of the unavoidable transformation of CR7, who has let room for CR9, Zidane opted for a offensive plan that aims to maximize this new version of the Portuguese. And for that plan to become viable, he has pushed Benzema & Bale in the box, where they’re showing tremendous quality. In addition, he’s counting on great crossers in the three axis of the pitch and he can rely on the nature of his midfielders, inclined to stay behind the ball, to form a recovery net for the crosses which are cleared. Overall, this has led to every piece of the squad having a role in the team and a team capable of playing the same way when big players are missing, including Ronaldo.
The decisive part of the season will challenge the solidity of this plan again. But after a year of coaching Real Madrid, it is clear that Zizou has adapted very well to his squad as well as his biggest players. And this is principal mission.