SEVEN STEPS OF RON­ALDO’S EVO­LU­TION

Sport360 - - News - BY ALEX REA

Gawky prodigy

Sport­ing have a rich lin­eage when it comes to nur­tur­ing wing wizards. Paulo Futre, Luis Figo, Si­mao Sabrosa and Ri­cardo Quaresma are some of the lu­mi­nar­ies but even as a 17-year-old, Ron­aldo was al­ready join­ing them on the road to great­ness. Of course, few ex­pected the des­ti­na­tion to be reached so quickly, but iron­i­cally for a player who is con­sid­ered the ul­ti­mate com­peti­tor, it is two friendly fix­tures which stand­out from his fledg­ling years. The first was in 2002 pre-sea­son when against Real Betis, Ron­aldo dis­played the sear­ing speed and com­po­sure which has be­come a trade­mark. He beat the keeper to the ball and from an acute an­gle out­side the box, bent a su­perb right-footed strike into the top corner. A few days later he would make his pro­fes­sional de­but against In­ter Mi­lan. The sec­ond lives in in­famy. A year later and now 18, Ron­aldo tor­mented Man­ches­ter United in a friendly to mark the open­ing of Sport­ing’s new sta­dium. The pace, power, bal­ance and abil­ity to vapourise his man were all wrapped up in the gawky frosted-tipped teenager. But he made quite the im­pres­sion and after the game United agreed to pay Sport­ing £12.24 mil­lion, a Bri­tish record for a teenager.

Tricky teenager in de­vel­op­ment

Ron­aldo’s United ca­reer can es­sen­tially be split into two very con­trast­ing parts. Be­fore the 2006 World Cup, he was a vex­ing blend of raw skill and dire judge­ment. Func­tion­ing pri­mar­ily as a tricky but slight right winger, his game was pure tech­nique and agility. Phys­i­cally and men­tally, he was un­der­de­vel­oped, though, his skinny frame match­ing the lean­ness of mind. The stepovers and drib­bling thrilled but his in­con­sis­tent end prod­uct in­fu­ri­ated, with show­boat­ing and over­play­ing su­per­sed­ing ef­fi­ciency and ef­fec­tive­ness. Across three Premier League sea­sons, he scored a dis­tinctly un­ex­cep­tional 18 goals in 95 games, his slalomed runs flat­ten­ing op­po­nents but rarely re­sult­ing in find­ing the net. If you re­quire an il­lus­tra­tion of his egre­gious ten­den­cies, Tot­ten­ham at Old Traf­ford in the 2004/05 sea­son serves up a menu of mis­placed passes, nee­dles feints and heavy first touches. But at the tip­ping point, when even Va­len­cia were be­ing con­sid­ered as a po­ten­tial des­ti­na­tion, Ron­aldo re­turned from the 2006 World Cup a de­mon.

Phys­i­cal phe­nom

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 2006, Ron­aldo un­der­went the type of phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion usu­ally re­served for im­prob­a­ble gym ad­verts. In a mat­ter of weeks he mor­phed from this wiry and awk­ward fig­ure, into a hulk­ing pres­ence. He was stronger, faster, could jump higher with a body bulked out for the rigours of English foot­ball. His new phys­i­cal­ity al­lowed him to fizz low drives with min­i­mal back­lift and ham­mer free­kicks with unswerv­ing, or rather swerv­ing, reg­u­lar­ity. With the phys­i­cal mat­u­ra­tion, came men­tal mod­i­fi­ca­tions. He fo­cused more on goalscor­ing and less on show­boat­ing. In­stead of glu­ing his feet to the touch­line and then dis­solv­ing de­fend­ers, he was more di­rect, start­ing out wide still but then ex­ploit­ing gaps for shoot­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties rather than aim­less crosses. He led the Premier League in as­sists with 14 dur­ing the 2006/07 ti­tle-win­ning sea­son, adding 17 goals and then a year later led the way with a record-equalling 31 league strikes. That 2007/08 sea­son is ar­guably the best blend of Ron­aldo. He was ter­ri­fy­ing with the ball at his feet but pos­sessed a killer in­stinct off it. The hy­brid for­ward-winger had ar­rived and although he was less pro­lific in his fi­nal sea­son, the re­fine­ment into a hy­per-fo­cused goalscorer was al­ready in process.

Left-wing weapon

The flu­id­ity of play­ing along­side Car­los Tevez and Wayne Rooney meant Ron­aldo was a threat any­where across the front line but un­der first Manuel Pel­le­grini and then Jose Mour­inho, he emerged as a lethal left-winger.

Weaponised out wide, he used ac­cel­er­a­tion and trick­ery to cut inside and un­leash the ‘knuckle-ball’ but with Me­sut Ozil in the side, he also func­tioned as a back-post preda­tor. In­vari­ably, Mour­inho built the team around Ron­aldo, the 4-2-3-1 a chore­ographed counter-at­tack­ing ma­chine, and the Por­tuguese thrived. Less flash and more bang, with fewer drib­bles and move­ment on the ball, Ron­aldo on one side and An­gel Di Maria on the other, Real were ruth­less as Gon­zalo Higuain or Karim Ben­zema oc­cu­pied the at­ten­tion of de­fend­ers. In Mour­inho’s three years in charge, he plun­dered 130 La Liga goals, a tes­ta­ment to his im­prov­ing ath­leti­cism and also shift to re­ceiv­ing the ball in the box or be­hind de­fend­ers. With the exit of his coun­try­man in 2013 after a dis­as­trous sea­son on the back of the most pros­per­ous in terms of goals, a new phase for Ron­aldo beck­oned.

BBC

Bale, Ben­zema, Cristiano - wel­come to the BBC era. With Carlo Ancelotti at the helm and Gareth Bale brought in from Tot­ten­ham, Los Blan­cos tran­si­tioned into a 4-3-3 which fea­tured the three fly­ing for­wards. Ben­zema was the linch­pin in the sys­tem, his self-sac­ri­fice to stran­gle his own en­ter­prise cre­ated space for the two wingers to ex­ploit. But although they won the Cham­pi­ons League to­gether in their first sea­son, Bale’s ar­rival co­in­cided with the first signs of degra­da­tion in Ron­aldo. In­deed, the for­ma­tion was framed with the two be­ing de­ployed as high-fly­ing narrow wingers but in re­al­ity, Ron­aldo was play­ing much closer to Ben­zema and Bale was ma­rooned on the right in an un­even for­ward line. Although in­di­vid­u­ally the Por­tuguese pow­er­house scorched to stag­ger­ing 48 league goals in 2014/15, be­ing wed to the for­ma­tion is per­haps what led to Ancelotti’s down­fall as col­lec­tively they toiled do­mes­ti­cally. For Ron­aldo, his evo­lu­tion was see­ing him move fur­ther for­ward, an­other step away from a player who did it all on the ball, to one who would be more im­pres­sive with­out it.

Static for­ward

For a cou­ple of years Ron­aldo prac­ti­cally ditched his wide berth to oc­cupy gaps in­field and as he en­tered his 30s be­came more static. In­stead of cre­at­ing some­thing out of noth­ing out wide, he re­served his en­ergy stores to play off the shoul­der of the last man, prowl­ing the edge of the box and pulling the trig­ger with preda­tory pre­ci­sion. The ex­plo­sion of old was los­ing its edge but he re­mained an un­be­liev­able athlete and fin­isher. Less in­volved in build-up play, his passes were merely to re­cy­cle pos­ses­sion. Un­der Zine­dine Zi­dane and after miss­ing pre-sea­son in 2017, the fi­nal stage in his evo­lu­tion was estab­lished.

The Preda­tor

Ron­aldo in the lat­ter part of his ca­reer has be­come a clas­sic No9. Whether used in a front two along­side Bale or Ben­zema or in a three as a lone for­ward, the Los Blan­cos icon is now a quin­tes­sen­tial apex preda­tor. Isco’s rise to promi­nence in re­cent sea­sons has meant he no longer cre­ates chances and ex­erts en­ergy in at­tack­ing phases, but rather fin­ishes off free-flow­ing moves. He played 39 times as a pure cen­tre­for­ward last sea­son and although his legs have nat­u­rally slowed down through the ag­ing process, he is still supremely sharp. In a slower league like Serie A, the 33-year-old and his hard­liner pro-at­ti­tude will mean he can stretch out his goalscor­ing feats for years to come.

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