The evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid

Words by Simon Harrison Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 2, 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo has been at the pinnacle of the game for over a decade. He has five Ballon d’Ors to his name, as well as the reputation of being the current Champions League record goalscorer, with over 600 goals scored across his long and illustrious career for both club and country. Ronaldo now faces a new challenge: age.

For many years at Real Madrid, the volume of games had never been an issue. But while years of congested fixture lists can allow for trophy cabinets to be filled, there is a physical knock-on effect to suffer.

  • 10/11: 34 league apps, 12 CL apps
  • 11/12: 38 league apps, 10 CL apps
  • 12/13: 34 league apps, 12 CL apps
  • 13/14: 30 league apps, 11 CL apps
  • 14/15: 35 league apps, 12 CL apps
  • 15/16: 36 league apps, 12 CL apps
  • 16/17: 29 league apps, 13 CL apps

At 33 years of age, Ronaldo has had to take a look at how he trains, his physique, how he plays and ultimately whatever can delay any decline. This season and last, Zinedine Zidane has encouraged Ronaldo to do something previously unthinkable: to sit games out, prioritise others and to take rests when required. Alongside his mentality changing, so too has his role out on the pitch, with a serious ligament injury picked up in the Euro 2016 final forcing reality to set in perhaps a little more prematurely than first planned.

Left wing

For many years at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Ronaldo took up his position on the left wing with no room for debate. His pace, tricks and explosive acceleration made him a constant threat when jinking infield onto his right foot. His knuckle-ball style long-range finishes were trademark, with Gareth Bale’s arrival to the club in September 2013 seeing the rise of the ‘BBC’. Bale, Benzema, Cristiano. Real Madrid’s three flying forwards featured in a 4-3-3 which asked a lot of opponents with their pace in the wide areas linking nicely with a more selfless central figure of Benzema.

Ronaldo boasted acceleration and physicality, with his hours in the gym resulting in a hulking presence that could generate power to both protect possession and strike the ball ferociously. His explosive edge was what defined him, frightened opponents and allowed him to create something out of nothing. If the ball found its way down the right-hand side, Cristiano’s towering leap could always be of use at the back post, too.

Central striker

After seasons of gallivanting infield, and returning from injury having missed pre-season in 2017, Ronaldo needed to reinvent himself, but the scenery around him needed to change to allow this change to happen.

Whether used in a front two or three, Ronaldo would remain more static and pick his moments. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal would be relied upon to bring width to the attack, with Karim Benzema given closer company by the Portuguese.

Similarly, Isco came into the picture as a key man at the tail end of last season; this helped further reduce Ronaldo’s role. He would no longer need to create his own chances as much, instead he could be more predatory, exert less energy and sniff out chances once crosses were swung in from the wide areas. Real Madrid’s 4-2 win over Bayern Munich in the 16/17 edition of the Champions League was the showcase for this change. Rather than creating and finishing, Ronaldo meticulously polished off the chances that came his way to fire home a memorable hat trick.

Zinedine Zidane’s 4-2-4

Back in December 2017, Zinedine Zidane opted for a 4-2-4 system in a 5-0 win against Sevilla, with Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez deployed on the flanks in midfield and two deeper central midfielders left with the task of holding down the fort. It was the first window into how to get the best out of Ronaldo this time around, after a damp start to the 2017/18 campaign in LaLiga.

A 5-2 win against Real Sociedad in February bore the same hallmarks, with Real Madrid then going on to knock Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League in March with their wide men still leading the way. Benzema and Ronaldo would set up as a front two, as much of the creativity was left in the midfield’s hands.

Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez would combine for the first goal of the evening in Paris, with a well-weighted cross nodded home by Ronaldo at the back post; his average position on the night showing him to be the point of the attack. Benzema could drop deeper at times to link up, but it would be Ronaldo that would be able to quickly position himself in and around the box whenever Real Madrid broke at speed.

Ronaldo’s age has forced his hand. No longer can he stretch himself thin across too many games, or take unnecessary risks. From a flying wide man, to a more measured central striker, Los Blancos have shown that they have the energy and creativity to continue to give ammunition to a forward whose aim needs no fine tuning. He may not be the Cristiano of old, but even at the age of 33 there is still plenty of time to add further honours to an already plentiful list.

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