The evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo

October 17, 2012

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.

1 & 2) Ball is circulated to Di María; 3) He cuts inside; 4) Higuaín runs; 5) Ronaldo exploits

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.

1) Di María collects deep; 2) can cross to Ronaldo or find Higuaín down the flank who then crosses

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.

– – –

All pictures: JAN S0L0

Large graph: Gary Curneen. Read his excellent posts on José Mourinho’s pre-season sessions here

Video: MadridAE


*As I’ve already pointed out (in a previous post on a separate article)

by Schrodinger's Cat on August 29, 2014 at 12:28 pm. Reply #

The article’s a good read but it’s also far too simplistic. If you’re not analytical you might mistaken it for gospel; for one, it’s dated in October 2012 but it’s essentially a critique of the 2010/2011 season. I don’t doubt that Ronaldo doesn’t score as many solo goals as, say, Messi (i.e. solo goals, generally speaking, are pretty uncommon unless you play a high-possession system as most goals in professional football tend to be either assisted or quasi-assisted). I also don’t doubt that Ronaldo scores more one-touch goals than the average player. But that doesn’t show any evolution, it simply shows how the player in question (in this case Ronaldo) is being oriented to score in a given system. As we all know, Barcelona play a high-possession system, Messi HAS to score the way he scores playing as a false 9 otherwise the system would fail due to an absence of quick passing movement and flanking – and therefore goals. Messi’s style of play isn’t too dissimilar to Romario in his prime as an in the box finisher.

Secondly, As I’ve already pointed out, Ronaldo’s assist count is far from “underwhelming”, he averaged 12+ assists per season since coming here. Heck, while Messi might have scored more goals in the 2012/2013, a temporary advantage in this eternal tete-a-tete rivalry, Ronaldo created 60 chances that season, 15 more than Messi (45) despite Barcelona, as a team, possessing more of the ball than other team in Europe. Haugstad Limited the scope of the article to just THAT season (2010/2011) which does an injustice to Ronaldo’s versatility. A better, more analytical article would show precisely HOW Ronaldo’s evolved into the ‘weak-side’ threat he’s become by illustrating how wildly different he scored goals at Manchester United (when he was truly a classic winger cum inverted winger) vis-a-vis how he scored goals under Pellegrini (playing behind Higuain), and subsequently Mourinho – a manager who’s ALWAYS favored a direct counter-attacking approach with minimal ‘massaging’ of the ball (e.g. Arjen Robben at Chelsea). The article, for instance, fails to point at that in 2006/2007 Ronaldo was top 3 in the EPL goal scoring charts and #1 in the assist charts (becoming the first player ever to win PFA players & writers award simultaneously) , and he did so scoring many solo goals and performing as a ‘classic’ winger by drifting out wide and delivering pinpoint crosses/key-passes in between the lines. 2007/2008 Ronaldo (the one that scored 42 goals in ~47 games and an EPL record 31 goals) revolutionized the inverted winger position by showing that a ‘classic’ winger could score boatloads of goals by drifting inside and then USING the threat of drifting inside to create space on the outside. (It’s no coincidence that Ronaldo carried United to back-to-back champions league finals in 07/08 – 08/09 on a team that had ZERO business being there b/c there were weak – Tevez was injured and Wes Brown and Anderson were starting for goodness sakes hahaha).

A good thesis but overall a weak, parochial article with a limited scope. The author provides no context within which one can see Ronaldo’s so-called “evolution” by comparing changes over time (the textbook definition of ‘evolution’). The point I was trying to make is that you can’t pigeonhole Ronaldo into a positional archetype: is he a classic winger, an inverted winger, a wide forward, left-midfielder/right-midfielder, some combination of all 4? Haugstad also seems to be simplifying Ronaldo’s ability to pure “athleticism” which is almost laughable when you consider that his aerial ability, free-kick technique, power from distance, off-the-ball movement, technical ability, one-touch passing, and ABOVE ALL, Madrid’s tactical preference for direct counter-attacking, would all suggest that it is by DESIGN (Mourinho’s design) that he has less touches before scoring. You can’t reduce all of that to simple “athleticism” which is what Haugstad seems to do. A compare and contrast paper would illustrate this point better but Haugstad fails in this regard. Players with great technical ability tend to have diminished production when their athleticism wanes (even the great Zidane) so I find this false dichotomy between “technical ability” and “explosiveness” (i.e. athleticism) so, so, so silly.

Ronaldo’s scored more goals from distance (outside the box) than any other player in La Liga in the last 25 years (for the exception of Roberto Carlos, 32, and Messi – who’s been a regular at the Camp Nou since 03, a 7 year head start). Source: Opta Sports
You and Haugstad say “tap-in”, I say he scores 10 different ways, all very unpredictable

by Schrodinger's Cat on August 29, 2014 at 12:26 pm. Reply #

Basically, you can put Mario Gomez at left wing, and ask him to start running inside when the ball is on the feet of right winger, and you have the same thing as Mourinho Madrid..

by Alex on January 7, 2014 at 8:57 am. Reply #

oh, but i would pull a comparison with the way wenger used to use thierry henry. and i would like to point out another thing- attacking “the second post”, the “weak side” is definitely the way you can make most out of space you get when attacking a serious, well organised team, never mind wether it’s a header to finish with or a timely run in an empty space with a cool finish just waiting to happen. actually- that is the only space you do get. so using it is crucial.

by ivan on March 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm. Reply #

Never realized the occurrence of this evolution until I read your observation and analysis. Thanks.

by From indonesia on February 27, 2013 at 3:02 am. Reply #

Great analysis of Ronaldo as someone said before. But I cant agree we can’t say on wich position he’s playing. So what are Messi, Wallcott, RVP, Rooney than… :)

by Richest football clubs on January 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm. Reply #

Pls send me regular analysis feedback and other training content

by RANJAN on December 22, 2012 at 11:48 am. Reply #

Ronaldo is d best in whole world for my mind

by Anonymous on December 19, 2012 at 8:46 am. Reply #

a good point. Often Ive seen Ronaldo accelerate away from the RB or make those smart runs; but didn’t realize his “first touch” goal ratio was that high.

Im also re-blogging this on our website with a link to your page.

by Omer on November 8, 2012 at 6:14 am. Reply #

Great Analysis of Ronaldo’s way of playing. For me he is the best in the world.Imo i dont think hes a forward and i dont think think hes a Pure winger anymore like he was at Man Utd especially in 2006-07 season. Not many wingers score goals like Ronaldo and this season he already has 14 goals and that for most winger is a good stat for the entire season. Ronaldo has changed how wingers play , he outscores strikers now, if Messi and Ronaldo played in a team together i would bet my house that Ronaldo would score more goals hes that good. viva ronaldooooo

by Athique on October 18, 2012 at 8:05 pm. Reply #

What a shit article

by pete on October 19, 2012 at 11:25 pm. Reply #

I’ve been saying the same thing for years. Ronaldo’s one-touch passing ability is woefully underrated. He’s a perennial 80+% passer, a perennial 12+assist player, and he almost always averages at least 1.5 key-passes per game (more than Bale and Isco, for instance, last season). If Messi and Ronaldo switched teams, both nationally and at the club level, I think Ronaldo would score more goals. Easily. Don’t believe me? Here’s a statistical absurdity: FIVE Barcelona players Fabregas, Sanchez, Pedro, Tello, and Neymar scored hat-tricks last year (2013/2014), and virtually all of them did it in Messi’s injury absence. That to me is telling, VERY telling. Ronaldo’s off-the-ball movement might be the best ever. Very underrated football IQ – one of the few analytical positives of this out-dated article. in the 2009/2010 season Ronaldo scored a lot of solo goals. I wonder if that would confute your thesis to the point that you’d have to reassess your assumptions about Ronaldo’s playing style. (By my measure Ronaldo scored at least 5, maybe more, solo goals in 2009/2010). The truth is Ronaldo can play in any style; Madrid plays a direct counter-attacking style to take advantage of Ronaldo’s pace and aerial ability – like any intelligent coach would.

by Schrodinger's Cat on August 29, 2014 at 12:42 pm. Reply #

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