A Familiar Concern
On Wednesday, Real Madrid followed up their deflating loss at home to Barcelona with an unexpected defeat at the hands of a brilliantly efficient Sevilla. The results from those two matches put the Liga campaign in jeopardy knocking the Galacticos off their perch into third place – a predicament that a five nil win against Rayo Vallecano couldn’t change.
The mini-crisis of sorts that erupted in the aftermath saw the resurfacing of a major criticism of the team: Ronaldo’s – and by a degree of extension the front line – ‘free role’ undermines overall gameplay as the midfield is often forced to cover unmanageable spaces in the central zone. The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson made one of the earliest and strongest cases against the Portuguese concluding that Real Madrid – or any team for that matter – would never reach the upper echelon of football greatness with the "Commander" occupying its left wing.
The argument is controversial and opportunistic but very necessary. The current Ballon d’Or holder hasn’t brought about an influx of trophies and neither has his time in the Spanish capital been characterized by a dominant ‘Madridismo’ revolution in European football. Or so they would have us believe.
Pellegrini’s short lived stint with Madrid wasn’t the glamorous kick-off to the Galacticos 2.0 project many hoped for. Disastrous cup eliminations and muted efforts against FC Barcelona in the league (despite an otherwise impressive challenge) marked the 2009-10 season a failure – capped off by the manager’s sacking. The Chilean’s successor, Jose Mourinho, fared much better winning each available domestic trophy once and managing three Champions League semi-final appearances in three years. Perhaps more importantly, the Special One closed the gap between Madrid and an imperious Barcelona beginning with the spectacular 2011 triumph at the Estadio Mestalla.
At the forefront of the charge, heading Madrid’s rise to competitive prominence with 203 goals, countless records, and numerous stunning displays, was none other than the world’s highest paid footballer.
Tracking Back of Elite Wingers
It’s elementary to reduce a team to one player: choosing to attribute the machinations of an entire sporting universe to a speckle in its realm is close-minded and unfair. While it is possible that a player can have significant influence (even if only in appearance), in the overall picture, he like a pixel is just a symbiotic component of the larger composite.
Nonetheless, individual weaknesses can be large enough that its adverse effects endanger the performance of the group. With Ronaldo, the topic du jour is his involvement, or lack thereof, in ball recovery and general midfield support. He often maintains a high position limiting his pressing and defensive actions to attacking zones. On occasion (more than is usually acknowledged), he retreats to the midfield third but doesn’t always offer useful aid due to poor defensive ability and awareness. That’s beside the point as his critics argue his mere presence provides an additional body constricting opposition passing lanes and operating areas. Looking at Ronaldo’s tangible contributions and actions in comparison to his peers gives a clearer idea of stark differences.
Data from Squawka was used to determine relative defensive presence and offensive participation by looking at ‘per 90 minutes’ actions as a percentage of team totals. The below illustration deals with the former (Click to enlarge - L stands for League, CL for Champions League):
The size of the circles indicates level of defensive performance.
It’s quite clear from the diagram that Ronaldo’s defensive cover isn’t at the standard level of elite wingers. Di Maria, who played in the right wing last year, dwarfed his teammate’s work in this department intercepting and making tackles at four times Cristiano’s rates. The same is true when the numbers of arguably four of the best active wingers plying their trade elsewhere are analyzed. They each almost quadrupled his 12-13 figures with Reus, in particular, accounting for a staggering 15.97% of Dortmund’s recovery play. The disparity has been fairly similar this season to date. Bale is also putting up better numbers easily doubling Ronaldo’s meagre 4% contribution.
Ronaldo, his critics argue, as a by-product of his ‘style’ cannot partake in Madrid’s possession game as much and with enough consistency. The following graph supports the statement as he makes fewer on-the-ball plays than the same players who do more defensively. Interestingly, the only player that Ronaldo attempts more passes than is Bale – even though the Welsh, as discussed above, offers more support in recovery.
The size of the circles indicates level of fouls suffered.
The statistics confirm that the critics’ claim is credible in essence. How detrimental the issue is, that’s the question. Like Wilson, some doubt Madrid’s ability to truly impose itself on the biggest stages purely because of this problem. They feel the exposure is too great due to the consequential disproportionate apportioning of responsibility to a few players. The team can’t be expected to do a ten person job shorthanded. And yet, apparently, that is exactly what Ancelotti’s system asks of them – obviously there’s more to this than meets the eye.
It is easy to summarize what Ronaldo brings to the team that overshadows perceived failings: unrivalled offensive firepower. The sheer magnitude of his impact in the final third is overwhelming for any defense in the planet and has been exploited to great effect by Ancelotti and his predecessors. His positive influence is irreplaceable.
"Cristiano has to be comfortable on the pitch, but we don't need to change his position. He doesn't need to do much work at the back. He needs to be ready when the team has the ball."- Carlo Ancelotti (MARCA)
Ronaldo’s outputs stand on their own when it comes to goal attempts. There is no winger or striker (barring the one exception) that can come close to his tallies. At the same time, he creates chances (lesser so in the league where his focus is even more on scoring due to the closed nature of games) at respectable rates falling somewhat in line with the standard. Shooting ability is an underrated feature; it’s an instinct both in mind and in body. It takes some expertise to always know where the net is and, more difficultly, maneuver well enough in any situation to take a shot.
In the form Ronaldo has sustained over the past four years, his goals and more generally his strength of attacking play will always have greater value than any added tracking back could. That is if the assumption that the issue begins and ends with the player is correct in the first place.