Cristiano Ronaldo is Trying Too Hard – And That’s Just What Juventus Needs
by 15 September 2018, 10:00 AM
People are worried about Ronaldo not scoring. They shouldn’t be.
Cristiano Ronaldo has gone three matches without a goal in Juventus stripes and, apparently, the world is ending. Or something like that.
The Portuguese all-timer has started his Serie A career with a small goal-drought, and the famously – or infamously – opinionated Italian press has emerged en masse to speculate, ruminate, and criticize. Also the English press. And the Spanish press. And the American press. They’ve only settled down because of the recent international break.
It’s tempting to say Ronaldo is trying too hard, and there’s probably some truth to that assumption. He’s taking an absurd 7.7 shots per game, by far tops in Serie A, and some of those have been ill-advised swipes at the ball. Ronaldo has always been known for his histrionics, but he’s appeared like a 33-year-old toddler trying to get off the mark in Italy.
Guess what, though? Juventus is clear at the top of the table, having strung together three wins to start the new campaign. Asked about Ronaldo after the Bianconeri’s 2-1 win versus Parma two weeks ago, Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri seemed unconcerned. Despite the massive adjustment of adding a larger-than-life galactico to a well-drilled, almost militaristic side, his team hasn’t yet dropped points. If Ronaldo is trying too hard, maybe that’s exactly what Juventus needs.
Juve has long relied on a conservative formula under Allegri and his predecessor Antonio Conte. The Turin side is compact, organized, and nigh-impossible to break down. And in attack, the Agnelli family simply outspends the competition. The basic theory is that talented coaches prevented goals and talented players score them.
According to Understat, the Bianconeri under Allegri has never finished first or even second in Serie A in expected goals – a stat that calculates the probability of scoring based on shot-type and distance. Allegri’s men have simply compensated with superb defensive play and expert finishing. Last year, they tallied just 59.23 expected goals, sixth in the league, but scored 86 times. That 26.77 goal outperformance was the highest among clubs in Europe’s top four leagues.
The formula has worked, of course. Juventus has won seven straight Serie A titles and is the clear favorite to add another. But Napoli, Roma, and Inter have improved rapidly over the last few years. And the Old Lady is still awaiting a first Champions League title since 1996, despite their domestic success.
That’s where Ronaldo comes in.
Juve is flush with ball-progression wizards who can ping forward passes or zoom down the wings with the ball at their feet. But creating goalscoring opportunities is as much about the finisher as it is about the creator. And what makes Ronaldo so lethal isn’t the laser-beams to the top corner or the track-star pace, but rather his expert movement in the attacking third.
CR7 is always making runs. He dashes into the penalty area as soon as he releases the ball, and he chooses the correct position nearly every time. This intelligence obviously serves to produce passing windows and inevitable goals for himself. But it also opens up space for teammates because central defenders are so occupied with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. Just ask Mario Mandzukic, the master space-filler who’s profited most from Ronaldo’s arrival.
Adding an attention-hogging, shot-creating forward like CR7 gives Juventus the potential to create several clear-cut opportunities every match, rather than relying on a few high-percentage chances.
Ronaldo totaled 1.05 expected goals per 90 minutes in league play last season, the second-best number among players who logged more than 1000 minutes in Europe’s top five leagues (the always excellent Robert Lewandowski was first). He managed elite numbers of 0.90 and 1.01 the two years before that. Juve’s former striker Gonzalo Higuain never put up more than 0.59 expected goals per 90 in Turin.
Those numbers are skewed slightly. Ronaldo played in front of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – the best midfield pairing of the last half-decade – in Madrid. He also takes penalties, which Higuain has done only occasionally.
It’s not all noise, though. Higuain is a predatory finisher, sure, but Ronaldo offers a more varied and consistent attacking threat. He shoots more often and is more willing to shoot from long-distance.
Cristiano Ronaldo is taking more shots per 90 minutes than Huddersfield.— Ryan O’Hanlon (@rwohan) September 5, 2018
At 6’1”, he’s also far more dangerous in the air, having scored 90 headers in his career compared to Higuain’s 20. Ronaldo knocked Juve out of the Champions League in April by leaping over Alex Sandro, and he’ll offer crossing angles that Douglas Costa, Juan Cuadrado, and Sandro himself didn’t use to have.
He isn’t just a poacher either. It gets lost because of the obvious goalscoring exploits, but the Madeira native is an excellent ballplayer adept at securing possession with his back to goal and making intelligent square passes when defenders collapse on his forays infield. He’s leading the Bianconeri in fouls drawn with 2 per game, and his 2.7 key passes per game – while admittedly a small sample – dwarfs Higuain’s 0.9 per game from last season.
To be fair, Ronaldo’s expected goal tally so far is just 1.34 – a tick under 0.45 every 90 minutes. That number, however, doesn’t include this whiff vs. Parma…
Or this “assist” against Lazio…
Juventus is now better equipped to contend for the Champions League crown. They’ve made two finals in the last four years, of course, but those finals have revealed the structural problems of a defense-first side.
In 2017, they fell short against Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, a team who posted 90.87 expected goals that domestic season compared to Juve’s 68.74, according to Understat. Two years earlier, the Bianconeri came up against a Barcelona side that nearly doubled them in expected goals.
Comparing between leagues is an imperfect science, but those sides had more dominant and systematic attacks. As a result, their margin for error was greater. If the counterattacks and individual magic the Italians needed didn’t come frequently enough, they would lose. And they did.
The newest solution? Buy Ronaldo, an attack unto himself.
Whether he’s offering a crossing option for the Bianconeri’s wingers or making a diagonal sprint in behind, Ronaldo is better than any player in the world at giving teammates options. He makes his midfielders better passers and gives his fellow forwards more space to operate. And everything – the constant running, the long-range shooting – is driven by an almost petulant desire for goals.
Is Ronaldo trying too hard to score? Yes. But that’s exactly what makes him so good.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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