Cristiano Ronaldo 2016: A new reality for Zidane

Cristiano Ronaldo 2016: A new reality for Zidane

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.

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La Liga season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. The line is a reference: 1 key passe created every 20 successful passes (20%)

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.

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La Liga 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league.

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.

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The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league

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.

tirs-vs-taux-de-conversion-large
La Liga 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. Shots and goals in the box and don’t include penalty.

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.

centres-tentes-vs-centres-reussis-large
The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. Line is a point of reference: 1 successful crosses every 4 crosses (25%).

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.

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The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league.

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.

tirs-vs-buts-large
The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. This involve every offensive players of the five big leagues who have participated to at least 50% of the games.

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.

 

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Recognize their quality

Recognize their quality

For his first game as Real Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane made a few changes from Rafael Benitez’s preferred team. He selected a slightly different starting line-up, tweaked the position of several players, and it was also possible to notice a few changes in terms of collective instructions.

In brief, Real Madrid tried to build their game by using short passing, avoiding long balls as much as possible and overall the team appeared more aggressive without the ball and less direct with it. There, they regularly holding the defensive line before moving toward the goal.

Is this enough to explain the 5-0 victory against Deportivo La Coruna? Not really. In fact, these new instructions were executed slowly and poorly. The build-up phase was untidy, the pressure disorganised and the ball circulation never really reached a tempo that could realistically unbalance the opposite defence. All logical, of course. After five days of work it couldn’t be anything more.

What can really explain this large victory against a good Depor side though, is the change in attitude. By attitude we’re not talking about intensity or distance covered, but about behaviour when having to decide what to do with the ball. Clearly, Real Madrid players seemed more inclined to keep the ball and combine, in the process putting themselves in dangerous situations frequently with more desire to rely upon on their technique. It may sound like a small thing, but it isn’t.

During the very short Benitez era, the squad never seemed connected with their coach and his vision of the team. The Spaniard doesn’t lack knowledge in terms of tactics or mechanisms to build a team. However, his instructions never seemed to reach the players. At a certain point, some of them have even critiqued his approach and vision in public

Clearly, the initial impact of Benitez was complicated. By replacing Carlo Ancelotti, beloved by the players, and coming from an uninspiring spell with Napoli, Benitez started his Real Madrid adventure with low credit in the locker room.

In addition, there is little doubt that some of his public interventions didn’t help much. But beyond his troubling lack of communication and a perplexing trajectory as a coach, what was certainly the main cause of his rejection was the message he tried to put across with his football.

In itself, playing direct football or trying to control the ball isn’t good or bad. It isn’t convincing not the contrary. It clearly depends on the players at your disposal. And if it’s clear that the Real Madrid squad is dominated by offensive associative players (from the left-back to the number nine), the wealth of the squad and the possibilities that it offers allow the team to play different types of football.

The problem though, is when the squad at your disposal takes on a diminutive character, or even witnesses a negligence of its talent. Indeed, by some distance, it’s clear that despite good intentions, Benitez made a series of decisions conveying poor confidence in the talent he had at his disposal.

Let’s recap a little bit some of those decisions:

-Collectively we have seen Real Madrid try to play a direct football, often jumping the line of defensive minded midfielders, and completely giving up the control of the ball in order to focus on space control close to its goal, almost always after taking the lead.

-Individually, we have been witnessing the isolation of Cristiano Ronaldo, taken away from the build up and elaboration phase of play, in turn being reduced to a finishing role. Isco and James, equally, were reduced to less central roles and often performed as wingers. In addition, the organisation of the team and the preparation of the offensive phase lost a lot of focus with the entrance of Casemiro, replacing Toni Kroos, this encountering an unavoidable consequence on the style of the team.

All these decisions, collective and individual, that by nature, have pros and cons, without a doubt upset a group of players which, already against a change of coach, ended up by rejecting the football professed by their new coach.

Now, we can criticise their professionalism, point out their attitude and recall that they are players under contracts, but in the process, let’s not forget that all the players who were already here during Jose Mourinho’s era and later with Ancelotti, showed a level of determination and commitment of the highest level. In truth, the problem isn’t the lack of seriousness, it’s the lack of conviction.

Asking a group of fantastic players to give up the control of the ball and adapt to a rival of historic dimension, when they have barely lived together and didn’t win anything as a group is complicated but doable.  Asking a group of exceptional players to give up the control of the ball and adapt, when they are convinced of their quality as they have won the biggest trophy for a club  and proved that they can play a football that fits their technical abilities while winning every game has very little chance to seduce them.

That’s the key: Seduce the players. Get them on board. Without that, there is no team or competition. Benitez, sadly, has somehow failed to do this, but Zidane, who knows the squad very well, seems aware of the importance.

And this here, is probably the most encouraging point for Real Madrid. Not the final score, not the fact that Isco and Dani Carvajal have both started Zidane’s first game, or even that Gareth Bale has scored a hat trick. But rather the fact that the new Real Madrid coach, the novice that he is, has taken an important step to fulfil the most fundamental part of his job.

He has recognized on and off the pitch, their tremendous quality.

Reconocer su calidad

Reconocer su calidad

 

Para su primer partido como técnico, Zidane introdujo algunas novedades en comparación al último equipo de Benítez. Cambió un poco el equipo inicial, el posicionamiento de algunos futbolistas fue variando y también hemos podido ver nuevas instrucciones colectivas. El Real Madrid buscó construir su juego con una salida de balón en corto, intentó evitar el juego directo y, de manera general, el equipo se mostró más agresivo sin la pelota y más paciente con ella, esperando la llegada del bloque defensivo antes de buscar la portería contraria. ¿Son esos cambios responsables de la amplia victoria ante el Deportivo? Viendo el contenido del partido, para nada. De hecho, esas nuevas instrucciones fueron ejecutadas de manera lenta e imprecisa. La salida de balón fue laboriosa, la presión desorganizada y la circulación de la pelota nunca fue tan rápida como para desequilibrar la defensa del adversario. Lo normal, claro. Después de cinco días de entrenamiento, no podría ser diferente.

 

Lo que puede realmente explicar la goleada del Madrid a un buen Deportivo es el cambio de actitud. Por actitud no se quiere hablar de esfuerzos o de distancia cubierta, sino de comportamiento al momento de decidir qué hacer con la pelota. En efecto, los jugadores han intentado quedarse con el balón, muchas veces exponiéndose a pérdidas muy peligrosas; se inclinaron más por utilizar su técnica y confiar en ella. Puede parecer algo anecdótico, pero no lo es.

 

Durante la corta era Benítez, el grupo nunca pareció conectado con el técnico y su manera de ver al equipo. Al entrenador español no le faltan conocimientos en términos de táctica o conceptos para construir un equipo. Sin embargo, la plantilla nunca pareció realmente entregada a su estilo y visión, hasta el punto que fueron cuestionados públicamente por el primer capitán.

 

Claramente, el contexto inicial era complicado. Tomando el puesto después de Ancelotti, un técnico que tenía a la plantilla enamorada, y viniendo de un ciclo poco convincente con el Nápoles, Benítez inició su aventura con un crédito bajo con los jugadores del Real Madrid. Además, es bastante probable que algunas de sus intervenciones públicas no le hayan ayudado mucho a ganarse a la plantilla. Pero más allá de su comunicación dudosa y de su trayectoria poco emocionante, el motivo principal de este rechazo de los jugadores es sin duda el mensaje, el fondo ligado al fútbol que quería imponer.

En sí mismo, jugar un fútbol directo o de control del balón no es bueno o malo. No es atractivo o repelente. Y si bien parece claro que la plantilla merengue está en su mayoría compuesta de jugadores de naturaleza ofensiva y asociativa (del lateral izquierdo al nueve), su riqueza ofrece posibilidades de jugar de muchas maneras diferentes. El problema llega cuando el grupo de jugadores que está a su disposición ve un mensaje reductor y una negligencia de su talento. Ahí se complican mucho las cosas. Con distancia, está claro que, a pesar de sus buenas intenciones, Benítez ha tomado una serie de decisiones que transmiten poca confianza en el talento de sus jugadores.

Hacemos un pequeña recapitulación de algunas de esas decisiones:

·     Colectivamente, hemos visto al Real Madrid intentar de jugar de manera directa, saltando su línea de centrocampistas de manera frecuente y abandonar el control de la pelota para intentar dominar los espacios, muchas veces con un repliegue cerca de su portería después de abrir el marcador.

·     Individualmente, hemos asistido al aislamiento de Cristiano Ronaldo, alejado de las tareas de creación y de desequilibrio del adversario para ser reducido a un rol de goleador. Isco y James también fueron alejados del juego y colocados en roles de extremo clásico. Además, la organización y ordenación del equipo recibió un golpe importante con la entrada de Casemiro en lugar de Kroos, con consecuencias inevitables sobre el estilo del equipo y su potencial.

Todas estas decisiones, colectivas e individuales que, en sí mismas tienen sus buenas y malas consecuencias, han molestado a un grupo de jugadores que, contrarios al cese de Ancelotti, no tardaron mucho en rechazar el fútbol propuesto por el nuevo técnico. Podemos cuestionar la profesionalidad de este grupo, señalar su falta de disciplina y recordar que son jugadores pagados y con contratos, pero sería olvidar que todos los que fueron parte de la plantilla con Mourinho y después con el italiano han mostrado en su momento una determinación y un compromiso de un nivel tremendo. En verdad, el problema no fue una falta de seriedad, sino de convicción.

Pedir a un grupo de jugadores de muy alto nivel abandonar el control de la pelota es algo bastante complicado pero factible cuando no ha ganado nada, ni tiene experiencia como equipo y, además, tiene como rival directo a un equipo de dimensiones históricas. Pero si el grupo es consciente de su calidad y ha demostrado de manera concreta su capacidad para lograr lo más grande y ganar partidos jugando un fútbol a la altura de su nivel técnico, pedirle que renuncie al balón –aunque sea puntualmente– tiene cero posibilidades de seducir al equipo.

Y ahí está la clave. Seducir a los jugadores. Tenerlos implicados. Sin eso, no hay equipo, ni competitividad. Benítez tristemente ha fracasado en este aspecto. Pero Zidane, que conoce muy bien a la plantilla, parece consciente de su importancia. Y ese es el síntoma más ilusionante tras la victoria contra el Deportivo. No el marcador, ni que Isco y Carvajal hayan jugado de inicio, o que Bale haya marcado un hat-trick. Sino el hecho de que el nuevo técnico del Madrid, un debutante, ha dado un paso importante en un aspecto fundamental de su cargo. Ha reconocido dentro del campo  y fuera del campo la tremenda calidad de sus jugadores.

Reconnaitre leur qualité

Reconnaitre leur qualité

Pour son premier match comme entraîneur du Real Madrid, Zidane a effectué plusieurs changements par rapport à la dernière équipe de Benitez. Il a légèrement modifié l’équipe de départ, le positionnement de quelques joueurs, et on a également pu constater l’apparition de nouvelles consignes collectives. Concrètement, les madrilènes ont cherché à construire leur jeu en sortant le ballon avec des passes courtes, en évitant le jeu long et de manière générale, l’équipe s’est montrée plus agressive sans le ballon et moins directe avec. Les joueurs ont souvent pris le temps de se regrouper après une récupération de balle avant de se diriger vers le but adverse.

Est-ce assez pour expliquer cette large victoire face au Dépor ? Pas vraiment. Dans les faits, ces nouvelles consignes ont été exécutées de manière lente et approximative. La relance était laborieuse, le pressing désorganisé et la circulation du ballon n’a jamais vraiment atteint un rythme suffisant pour déséquilibrer le bloc adverse. Logique bien sûr. Après cinq jours d’entraînement, il ne peut en être autrement.

On peut d’avantage expliquer cette large victoire par changement dans l’attitude des joueurs. Par attitude, je ne veux pas parler d’effort et de mètres parcourus, mais de comportement au moment de décider quoi faire avec le ballon. En effet, on a pu voir de manière assez prononcée, que les joueurs ont essayé de garder le contrôle du ballon, au risque de se mettre en danger à plusieurs reprises. Ils ont semblé plus enclins et confiants à l’idée d’utiliser leur technique. Cela peut paraître anecdotique mais cela ne l’est pas.

Durant la très courte ère Benitez, le groupe n’a jamais vraiment semblé connecté avec son entraîneur et sa manière de voir l’équipe. Le technicien espagnol ne manque pas de connaissances en matière de tactique et d’organisation d’équipe, pourtant, ses consignes n’ont pas atteints les joueurs et son discours a même été contesté publiquement par le capitaine de l’équipe.

Clairement, le contexte initial était compliqué. En remplaçant un entraîneur adoré par les joueurs et en venant d’un périple peu convaincant avec Naples, Benitez a entamé son aventure merengue avec un crédit limité auprès de ses nouveaux joueurs. Par la suite, il est clair que certaines de ses interventions publiques n’ont pas aidé sa cause. Mais au delà d’une communication problématique et de sa trajectoire peu enthousiasmante, ce qui est certainement la cause principale de ce rejet des joueurs, c’est le message. Le fond associé au football qu’il a voulu implanter.

En soit, jouer un football direct ou chercher le contrôle du ballon n’est pas bon ou mauvais. Convainquant ou non convainquant. Et s’il est clair que l’effectif madrilène est majoritairement composé par des joueurs offensifs, la richesse du groupe et les variantes qu’il offre permettent la pratique de jeu variés. Le problème survient lorsque l’effectif à disposition y voit un caractère réducteur, voire négligent de son talent. Là, la tache s’avère très compliquée. Avec du recul, il est assez clair que malgré de bonnes intentions, Benitez a pris une série de décisions reflétant une confiance mitigée envers le talent de ses joueurs. Récapitulons certaines de ces décisions:

·        Collectivement, on a vu le Real chercher à jouer un football direct, en sautant régulièrement sa ligne de milieux de terrain et abandonner le contrôle du ballon pour essayer de dominer les espaces. Souvent avec un repli proche de son propre but après avoir ouvert le score.

·        Individuellement, on a pu voir Cristiano Ronaldo éloigné des phases d’élaboration et de désorganisation de l’adversaire et réduit à un rôle de finisseur. Isco et James ont également été éloignés du cœur du jeu (l’axe) et confinés à des rôles d’ailiers. De plus, l’organisation de l’équipe et la préparation des offensives a perdu énormément de considération, avec l’entrée de Casemiro en lieu et place de Kroos, avec des conséquences inévitables sur le style de jeu l’équipe et son potentiel.

Toutes ces décisions, collectives et individuelles, qui comportent des pour et des contre, ont sans aucun doute agacé un groupe qui, déjà peu enclin à un changement d’entraîneur, a fini par rejeter le football proposé par l’entraineur espagnol. On peut questionner le professionnalisme des joueurs, pointer du doigt leur attitude et rappeler qu’ils sont des employés sous contrat, mais il ne faut pas oublier que tous ceux présents durant l’ère Mourinho puis les deux années de Carlo Ancelotti ont a moment ou à un autre, démontré un niveau de détermination et d’implication de très niveau haut. En clair, il ne s’agit pas d’un manque de sérieux, mais plutôt d’un manque de conviction.

Demander à un groupe de joueurs de très haut niveau d’abandonner le ballon, quand ils n’ont rien gagné ensemble ni accumulé un vécu, et que le rival direct est une équipe de dimension historique, est compliqué mais réalisable. Demander à un groupe de joueurs exceptionnel d’abandonner le contrôle du ballon alors qu’ils sont conscients de leur qualité, et qu’il ont prouvé qu’ils peuvent gagner le plus prestigieux des trophées  et remporter énormément de matchs en développant un football à la hauteur de leur niveau technique a extrêmement peu, voire aucune chance de les séduire.

Et c’est bien là toute la clé. Séduire les joueurs. Les avoir impliqués. Sans ça, il n’y a ni équipe, ni compétitivité. Benitez a tristement échoué sur ce point, mais Zidane, qui connaît très bien l’effectif, semble bien conscient de son importance. Et c’est sans aucun doute la chose la plus encourageante pour le Real après ce premier match. Pas le score final de 5-0, pas la double titularisation de Isco et Carvajal ou même le triplé de Bale. Mais plutot le fait que le nouvel entraîneur du Real, tout novice qu’il est, a fait un premier pas pour succèder dans le prérequis le plus fondamental de sa fonction : Il a reconnu, sur et en dehors du terrain, l’énorme qualité de ses joueurs.