Ronaldo a strength or a weakness?

Ronaldo is an extraordinary and remarkable footballer, but does his way of playing become a weakness for opponents to exploit?


…Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal stats are preposterous: 165 in 164 games since he joined Real Madrid in 2009. Physically he is monstrous: he has an explosive pace but also balance and deftness; he is strong enough that many opponents simply bounce off him and he is good in the air. He is exceptionally gifted with both feet. He is an extraordinary footballer, by many measures one of the greatest handful the world has known. He may also be the reason this Real Madrid team never wins the Champions League.

To an extent, of course, such a statement is ludicrous. With a fair enough wind, anybody who reaches the last 16 can win the Champions League – hard though it is to imagine Ronaldo accepting a role as an auxiliary wing-back as Samuel Eto’o did for Internazionale in the 2010 semi-final or driving himself to exhaustion with the sort of selflessness Didier Drogba showed at times last season. The point is more that no side that contains Ronaldo can reach the level that Barcelona did under Pep Guardiola or Milan did under Arrigo Sacchi, or Liverpool did under Bob Paisley, or Ajax did under Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs – when they are so good that it’s almost a bigger story when they fail to win the European Cup than when they do.

Those sides, who stand as the greatest club teams there have been in the past 40 years, share the fact that they were about the collective rather than the individual. Valeriy Lobanovskyi took the principle so far that he argued that the coalitions between players were more important than the players themselves.

That was why Sir Alex Ferguson used him so often as a centre-forward that season: there his abilities could damage opponents without his laxity damaging United. Wayne Rooney, a lesser player than Ronaldo in many ways – and less disciplined in terms of staying in shape off the pitch – could be trusted to track an attacking full-back. The last-16 game with Porto was emblematic: in the first leg Ronaldo played wide, Rooney central and the Porto full-back Aly Cissokho caused untold problems; in the second Rooney and Ronaldo switched and Cissokho was kept in check.

The lesson has not been learned. When Ronaldo comes up against a strong driving right-back, Real struggle. Dani Alves, for all his defensive flaws, has generally had the better of him in Clásicos over the past three seasons. Philipp Lahm, in the first leg particularly, was key as Bayern Munich won their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid last season – his overlap led directly to Mario Gómez’s winner. Ronaldo was still good enough to score twice in the second leg; the question is whether the problems he causes the team shape are worth it.

To an extent, this is the Real Madrid way. Since the presidency of Santiago Bernabéu, it has favoured stars over system, something that led Sacchi to walk out after being appointed director of football in 2004-05, complaining about the insistence on “specialists” – that is, players who could function in only one way.

Ronaldo will continue to bully lesser sides and occasionally good ones. In a one on one with a defender he is formidable. He finishes magnificently. He is an awesome player. But at the highest level, against the best opposition, his way of playing becomes a weakness for opponents to exploit. He said recently that he thinks he doesn’t get the credit he deserves because of perceptions about his personality; the problem is that, whatever he is really like in private, that perceived character pervades the way he plays. He should be a great strength for Real Madrid – he is a great strength; but he is also a flaw.

Read Jonathan Wilson on The Question: is Cristiano Ronaldo a strength or a weakness to a team?

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