Cristiano Ronaldo has under José Mourinho developed into a rare hybrid of a winger and a forward whose game relies on explosive movement rather than pure technical ability.
That is a far cry from Manchester United where the Portuguese was renowned as one of Europe’s finest dribblers; a tricky winger often criticised for taking too many touches.
José Mourinho, succeeding Manuel Pellegrini – who deployed Ronaldo as a forward upon his arrival at the Bernabéu – has adapted that individualism to his own emphasis on collectivity, making him less flashy but, typically, more effective.
In fact, as this analysis shows, Ronaldo has gone from being a dribbler to something close to a pure finisher, relying more on explosive off-the-ball movement than technique and flair. He may retain his old qualities, but the essence of his game has changed significantly.
A winger or a striker?
It’s hard to define Ronaldo’s role in Real Madrid. “We try to find a position that is most comfortable for Cristiano,” Mourinho said in 2011. “And there is always the debate. Is he a forward? I do not think that he is. I think [his game] is one-on-one against a rival.
“Is he a winger? No, because he is also a goalscorer and when you are a winger, how many goals do you score in a season; half a dozen? I think that he is the mixture of two things. He has everything.”
While Mourinho is right in labelling Ronaldo a hybrid, his analysis differs somewhat from reality. Ronaldo may be a winger positionally (defensively speaking, anyway), but his attacking game leans towards that of a forward. Although Ronaldo is exceptional one-on-one, few of his goals are scored that way. Rather, they are hammered home via ruthless first-time finishes.
Analysing Ronaldo’s 46 goals in La Liga last season (2011/2012), as many as 20 of his 32 goals from open play came via first-time finishes – that is, with no touches prior to the finish (this discounts the 14 goals from set-pieces – 12 penalties and two free-kicks).
This suggests Ronaldo’s technique beyond the finish was irrelevant in 63 per cent of his goals. Rather, his chief weapon was his ability to react quickly, lose his marker and time his runs.
The collective patterns leading to Ronaldo’s goals were also interesting; half of the 32 came from two specific moves. The first was obvious to regular Real Madrid observers; six goals came from Ronaldo accelerating behind the full-back, often in a transition, before cutting inside to finish. Another move was more surprising however; ten goals were scored directly off crosses from the right side.
This reflects one of the patterns Mourinho practices in training sessions. The graph below was created by US-based coach Gary Curneen who observed two of Real Madrid’s pre-season training sessions in Los Angeles this year. It shows a pattern where Di María can find Ronaldo inside the right full-back, as Gonzalo Higuaín or Karim Benzema drags the centre-backs out of position.
Analysing Ronaldo’s goals however, alternative combinations stemming from the same move proved more fruitful. The first is Di María hitting a deep cross curling in between the central defenders to find Ronaldo. The second variation is to play in Higuaín or Benzema down the right flank, whose low cross can find Ronaldo at the back post or between the centre-backs. The attacking midfielder – Mesut Özil or Kaká – can also take this run.
As such, and as is typical of Mourinho, Ronaldo’s goal ratio owes more to qualities that can be applied to a collective setting. The former individualistic traits; technique, flair and trickery, are now more concealed, substituted with the qualities of a forward. Part of his effectivity is his positioning; every run he makes arrives on the defenders’ blind side. Combined with his extreme focus and explosiveness, Ronaldo is virtually uncatchable.
Below is the video of the goals behind this study. (It is long, but the first goal sums up what Ronaldo is all about.)
With such a complete package and the blend between two positions, it is difficult to categorise Ronaldo. He is not an inside winger; they either play killer passes, dribble from wide positions or play one-twos; out of Ronaldo’s 32 goals from open play, one came from one-twos, zero from solo-runs. His assist count is underwhelming. And he certainly isn’t a classic winger.
One can draw parallels to Hulk and his forward/wing role at Porto, or Lukas Podolski’s ability to attack the far post with direct runs. Yet Ronaldo’s overall game is unmatchable – particularly with the added dimension of his aerial play, which makes him as threatening inside the box as outside it.
And so, for the endless comparisons with Lionel Messi, the statistics show that Ronaldo’s magic is produced in a vastly different manner. The Argentine is playing his way into history with the ball at his feet. Ronaldo is doing so without it.
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All pictures: JAN S0L0