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An amateur’s guide on how to play like Cristiano Ronaldo

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The basics for emulating the style of one of the world's greatest ever players.

Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

We are all familiar with Cristiano Ronaldo’s style of play. At his best he rampages down the flank turning defenders inside out, before cutting inside and firing a shot on goal. In his years at Man United and first 3-4 seasons at Madrid, Ronaldo has been the most attractive player to watch in world football. While I highly doubt that any of you can manage to become as skilled as this man (I don’t mean to discourage anybody, but you lot need to be honest with yourself here), you can still master the basics to emulate the style one of the world’s greats.

The first thing to know is that Ronaldo’s position throughout the most of his career has been on the wing. He started off on the right and was slowly shifted to the left as Sir Alex Ferguson began to realize how much more effective Ronaldo was when he could cut inside onto his dynamite of a right foot. At Madrid he is steadily transitioning towards a center forward role that prioritizes efficiency over showboating. For simplicity’s sake let me explain the position that’s seen the best of Ronaldo: the inside forward.

Pre-requisites (What you naturally need)

Good acceleration and pace

These two elements are absolutely key if you want to play like Ronaldo. There is no point in trying to play as an inside forward if you aren’t naturally quick. Without this basic genetic gift, beating players will become immensely tougher than it already is and you would be much better off if you modeled your game off David Beckham (if you still want to play in a wide position of course).

Attacking mindset

It is arguable that such a mindset is developed just as much as it is inherited, but it would be a lot easier for you if you naturally step onto the football pitch looking to score goals and take players on. If you find that you like to quickly pass the ball to someone else and sit back in your own half, it would be much better if you trained yourself for more defensive roles instead.

Dribbling and Skills

Intro

The basis of the majority Ronaldo’s game over the years has been about taking players on. Earlier in his career we saw Ronaldo throw 6 step-overs before going past a player and then backtracking so he could execute another victim. What resulted was an inordinate amount of amateurs trying to emulate this by randomly throwing their legs around the ball without any real purpose. It’s better to look at Ronaldo’s game by focusing less on the actual skills he does and more on his general mindset.

How does Ronaldo dribble?

He does everything at speed

The key to how Ronaldo takes players on is that he does everything at breathtaking pace. The objective of this, is to catch defenders by surprise so they dive into a tackle instead of carefully jockeying you. If you can keep a defender on their toes in this way, passing them will become a lot easier. This then allows Ronaldo to further destabilize defenders by actually taking things slowly once in a while. After blowing past a guy 2-3 times, if Ronaldo approaches his opponent slowly before making his move, the defender will be caught between two worlds. The defender won’t know if he should get closer to Cristiano or stay back, and if Ronaldo manages to catch the indecision in his opponents movements, Ronaldo can transition to hypersonic speed and leave his marker in the dust.

Why all the skills?

The key to answering this question lies in the comprehension of the mindset of defenders. Good defenders like to jockey players until they see their opponent move in a direction. This moment is usually where defenders see the player with the ball as most vulnerable and look to challenge. Ronaldo exploits this by executing a number of feints and step-overs (which are essentially over-exaggerated body fakes) to make the defender think he is going one way when he is actually going in the opposite direction. Understanding why he uses the skills he does is essential, because then you can realize that his style is all about waiting for defenders to make the first move.

Ronaldo has dance routines

This might sound silly, but if you observe the man in practice, you will notice he has specific routines that he uses in matches (One of my favorites to use is a reverse step-over combination). Whatever you want to do, make sure you practice at least a couple complicated tricks that are something you can immediately turn to if you are running out of ideas or are facing a tough defender. You will be surprised how practicing specific routines can help you in a match, because when facing defenders, you tend to automatically turn to things you have practiced rather than things you make up on the spot.


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What can you do?

Practice till your feet move like lightning

There are tons of things you can practice in order to improve your dribbling. The first thing is to gain general control of the ball. Practice basic cuts (with the inside and outside of your boot) in quick and unpredictable moments. Once you feel reasonably comfortable with this start shifting your body to the side opposite of the place you want to go. Remember to throw your whole body into the movement so you are selling it as much as possible. Once you have mastered the body-feint move on to step-overs. The first thing to do is just practice the movement of dancing over the ball until you can get to a significant speed. Once you can do that, start implementing it in matches. The key is to not only move your leg, but also your whole body. This way the defender will actually be tricked. Also remember, do everything FAST. This will set the tempo of your dribbling and will enable you to evade incoming defenders from any direction.

Vary it up

The step-over is the most used skill by Ronaldo, but he does many other tricks as well. I’m not going to specifically describe how to execute them, but the main thing to remember is that you want to do things that help you change your direction quickly. Thus skills like the Ronaldo chop, roulette, reverse step-over, and lane-shift would be extremely useful to have in your arsenal.

1 vs. 1 Training

If you have a person to practice with great, if you don’t, imagine coming at a defender and making a realistic movement to pass your ghost. Do it with purpose and put mental pressure on yourself. If you don’t think you’ve done the skill satisfactorily, grab the ball and try again. If you get past your first imaginary player, imagine you are facing two more defenders and twist and turn in realistic ways to get past them. Finally get that shot off onto goal.

Be Mentally Resilient

While all of this practice is swell, the key is to have the right mental qualities in place to make sure your practice comes to fruition. You might be surprised how mentally exhausting it is to take on the same fullback over and over again. If you are not prepared, you will start running out of ideas before you start becoming tired. The key is to stay inventive. For example, if you have been constantly going in the opposite direction of your step-over, try following the movement of your fake.

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But if you find it difficult to invent something on the spot, make sure you have a significant arsenal of skills that will keep everything you do fresh.

Do not be afraid to express yourself

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to jump is the fear of failure. If you end up losing the ball after 30 step-overs your teammates will not only be incensed but they might stop passing the ball to you. While I highly recommend avoiding the execution of 30 step-overs, the key is to not let the thought of failure enter your mind. If you are confident the skill will work, 90% of the time you will find success. As you grow into the game let the flow of the match take control of you. Do not restrain yourself and let anything you want to do just happen. The results could be spectacular.

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Putting it all together

I have elaborated on many things you can do when facing a defender, but here are 3 scenarios to keep in mind.

1. You approach the defender and he lunges in for the tackle. No time for a trick here. Just use the basic "cut" that you have practiced millions of times to avoid the tackle and burst into space.

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2. You approach the defender and he starts jockeying you. Come within a couple of yards of the defender and try some tricks. Get him to commit to a challenge or commit to a direction. Once he does that, go the opposite way.

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3. You approach the defender and no matter what you do he doesn’t commit. This is where the necessity for physical qualities comes into play. Stop wasting time and just blow past him with your superior speed and acceleration (remember these are pre-requisites to play as an inside forward).

Heading

Intro

This is an aspect of the game that I have ignored the most. I am quite short, around 5’5", and thus have never seen it as beneficial for me to use my noggin. While I have successfully managed to avoid challenging for the ball in the air in all my matches, it has seriously reduced my impact in the box. If you want to play like Ronaldo, you need to be adept at heading. So here’s what you’ve got to do.

How Ronaldo does it

The first thing to understand is his movement. Ronaldo often runs in from the wing to head in at the far post (however nowadays he positions himself much more as a classic center forward and heads from the middle of the box). The next thing to know is his jump. While it may be unreasonable to try to reach the height Ronaldo manages, it is key to make sure that you are jumping as high as possible when going for the ball. The final element is the connection. Ronaldo uses the momentum of his core and the strength of his neck muscles to direct the ball with power towards goal.

What should you do?

First things first, get over the fear of heading the ball. It can be scary, I know. It is not a natural human inclination to use your head to obstruct the path of a 40 mph projectile, but it is necessary for football. Start off by simply throwing the ball in the air and heading at as hard and as straight as you can. Also make sure to keep your eyes open so that you can see where to plant the ball. Also add the jump as soon as possible into your training. Bend low and use your entire body (especially your arms) to lift yourself off the ground. If you are short like me, jump earlier than you normally would so you can get an advantage over taller players.

Once you are sufficiently comfortable enough with destroying your brain cells while standing, move onto something a little harder. If you have a friend, have him toss the ball to you in an arc that mimics the movement of a cross. Remember to jump and smash your forehead into the ball. Also run from a couple yards away as if you were approaching from the wing to give yourself a more realistic simulation of what you would do in a match. The key when running is to time your jump. If you can read when the ball is going to reach your perfect height, the generation of power will come naturally. If you have no friend to practice with, bounce the ball of a wall hard and head the ball onto an adjoining wall. This way you can mimic the direction of a cross and can execute a sideways header.

The final step is to actually have someone cross the ball to you on a full sized pitch. Use everything I have mentioned before and try to beat the keeper.

The first touch

A key facet of every footballer’s game is their first touch. However, wingers more than any other player need to have this aspect of the game perfected. This is because central midfielders or defenders will often direct a sweeping cross in your direction to widen the pitch. This will often give a defender time to pressure you, so your first touch must be perfect.

How to do it

The first thing to do before you even receive the ball is to have spatial awareness. If your defender is really close to you, use your first touch to turn away and spin into space. If you have loads of time, just bring the ball down in front of you.

Once you’ve got that sorted out, you need to execute the actual touch. It is really hard to describe the softness needed to kill a ball dead on the ground with your foot, so I’m just gonna say that you simply need to practice.

Have someone throw the ball at your feet or high in the air. Try to touch the ball as close to the ground as possible and cushion its impact. If you have no one to practice with, throw the ball high in the air and try killing the ball without taking an extra touch.

For your chest control, have a friend throw the ball in a high arc that forces you to use to use your upper body. As you receive the ball bend backwards to cushion the blow. Also remember to push your chest out right before impact to generate a significant opposite force to halt the velocity of the ball. The faster the ball flies, the harder you need to push your chest into the ball. If you’re by yourself, throw the ball onto the wall hard and receive it on your chest. Also remember that you should hear a hard thumping sound when you meet the ball. This signifies that your muscles have hardened upon impact and is smashing into the ball. If you find pain in doing this, hit the gym to improve your pectoral muscles.

After you have mastered the chest control, use your seasoned first touch to kill the ball right after it drops from your torso. This way you are ready to take-on the incoming defender.

Weak foot

Now being an inside forward doesn’t mean you just cut inside to your stronger foot. If you could only do that you would be pretty one dimensional and highly predictable (unless you have the pace and skill of Arjen Robben, which I’m assuming you don’t).

Ronaldo for his part has practiced with his weak foot so much, that it is no longer "weak." He has scored plenty of goals by firing from range with his left foot and has tricked many defenders by going to the byline to cross instead of cutting inside to shoot.

What can you do?

Improving that brick of a weak foot can be difficult, but you must be perseverant. If you’ve got a buddy have him pass the ball to your weak side so you can use your weak foot to control and pass the ball back. If you’re alone, pass the ball onto a wall with your weak foot and pass each rebound back without taking an extra touch.

Then start attempting to cross with your left foot. Remember that if you want the ball to float in the air you have to hit the under side of the ball. If you want a low hard cross you need to hit the middle to the top of the ball.

For dribbling, consciously cut onto your weak foot whenever you practice and create skill routines that purposefully utilizes your weak foot.

For shooting, try to master the technique before using power. Make sure you bend over the ball as you make your approach and hit with the laces of the boot. As you feel your connection get better, attempt to hit the ball more powerfully.

The Result?

With two good feet now you’ve got the defender in a conundrum. He has no idea which way you are going to go and suddenly you’re a dual threat. Not only can you use your dribbling to cut inside, but you can go to the byline to cross. This makes you more dynamic and makes sure that you have an endless supply of options when it comes to beating a defender.

Free kicks

There is no doubt that Ronaldo has the most fascinating technique when it comes to striking the ball from a set piece. While his efficiency has declined over the last year or so, he will go down as one of the greatest free kick takers ever.

So how do you do it? Personally I’ve got no idea. I just go for the classic curling effort and hope for the best. So I’ll just let the Freekickerz explain this time.

Movement

While many focus on what Ronaldo does with the ball, few take the time to watch what he does without it. The first thing to know is that Ronaldo is always moving. He never stands still unless he is conserving energy for a move he is going to make 10 seconds later. At his peak, Ronaldo moved across the whole breadth of the pitch, stretching defenses and ruining their organization. He was always open for a pass in build-up and when the ball went wide he was always the extra man in the box.

How to move in slow build-up

When your team is moving up the pitch with a low tempo, the objective is to make yourself available for possession. Thus if your central midfielder is looking for a pass, you have to drop a little deeper to receive the ball. But since your objective is to make an impact in the final third of the pitch, you will rarely distribute the ball purposely when you receive it (in this situation) and instead just play a lay-off to your fullback or pass back to your CM. If you see space out wide, you should always move into it, as it will allow your teammates to spread a long pass to you and stretch the opposing defense. Once the ball gets out wide you have to push into the box. If your fullback gets the ball you have two options. You can make the selfless run to the byline, which will drag a defender with you, or you can make a diagonal run to the far post to score. If the ball is on the opposite flank, you should attack the near post. If you time your run well, the defense shouldn’t be able to pick you up until it is too late.

Alternatively, if your team is unable to shift the ball up the field effectively after minutes of fruitless possession, they will look for the ball over the top. You will have to be the judge of when your team is looking stagnant, as they will only go route-one if someone is making a run. So if you see a golden opportunity to get in behind the defense, or if you’ve had enough of your team’s useless passing, do one of these three things:

1. Make a direct run past your fullback into space

2. Make a diagonal run that splits the fullback and center back

3. Make a run to split both center backs so that when you receive the ball you are straight through on goal

How to move in fast transition play

While Ronaldo is definitely effective when is team are knocking the ball around, he is pretty much unstoppable on the counter-attack. This is mainly because of his smart positioning. What you need to do is remember to always be open. Even if it looks like your team has no chance of winning the ball, you need to be consciously thinking of the best position to be in in case your teammates can release you. This will require a lot of floating around and mental persistence, as your teammates might not be able to find you the majority of the time. But if you do get that one chance, make sure you run off the shoulder of the defender and use your superior pace to burst onto goal. Finally, you can either hold up the ball and wait for a teammate, or create an angle to shoot.

Fitness

After reading about all the things Cristiano Ronaldo has to do in a game, you probably would’ve realized by know (if you somehow didn’t know that already) that he is really fit. While the obvious thing to do would be to go to the gym and jog for 20-30 minutes, that won’t really cut it. Sure, doing that sort of stuff is a great start, but it isn’t going to aid you much when you need to execute 15 sprints a match. Thus a much better training routine would be to execute short but intense running sessions that centers around boosting your recovery time. Sprinting 40 meters 20 times with 30-60 seconds rest sounds easy, but I guarantee that by the 10th time you will be absolutely dead. This training in addition to doing basic leg work in the gym will greatly improve your stamina and ability to execute several sprints in game situations.

(Go to 10:00 min in the video and you will see how fitness can decide a game)

Mental Qualities

This is probably the most ignored part of Cristiano’s game. Everyone focuses on his quick feet, his pace, and his heading, but few understand the mentality he has in his approach to the game.

He possesses a relentless desire to get better and is never satisfied with something that is average. He has an unbelievable amount of perseverance and uses failure as a springboard for greater success. But most of all he’s brave. Defenders and the media alike have lashed out at him time and time again, hoping he will simply give up. He has tossed those mental and physical scars aside every single time to get better and better.

These attributes are something you can only achieve on the path to reaching the highest level. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t be have a formidable set of mental characteristics all on your own. If you want to play like Ronaldo you must be disciplined in the way that you train yourself. Constantly learn new things and practice your skills to perfection. When you take to the pitch don’t let one failed take-on discourage you. Have faith and confidence in your practice and let it show on the pitch. Lastly don’t let any friend, coach, or enemy’s harsh words get to you. Objectively analyze if there is any merit to what is being said, take the good from it and move on. If someone is just spewing a load of tripe in front of your face, block it out and get revenge through some excellent performances.

(Watch the first 15 seconds of the video)

Conclusion

Now that you’ve got through this detailed tutorial it is time for you to practice! As you start executing step-overs and back-heel flicks, remember to consciously think about everything you are doing. Focus hard even in pointless scrimmages with your friends and you will began to see slow but sure progress in your skills. When you are done, take a couple of minutes to analyze what you did well and what you did wrong. Use this self-reflection to hone your personal training routines and your skills. When match-day comes around, you will be amazed at how much you have improved.