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Has Cristiano Ronaldo Actually Performed Better Under Zinedine Zidane? - A Statistical Analysis

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An analysis of Cristiano Ronaldo's key statistics and performances with the help of Tableau visuals.

Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

One of the running themes of Real Madrid’s turbulent 2015/16 season has been Cristiano Ronaldo’s form. Coming off the back of arguably his best season the previous year (definitely his best in terms of goalscoring and shooting efficiency), few expected anything but excellence from the Portuguese superstar under Rafa Benitez. But life under the Spanish coach proved to be difficult, as the critics slammed Ronaldo’s inconsistent form and his mediocre performances in the big games. Seemingly on a drastic decline, new coach Zinedine Zidane seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Hailed as the savior since the outset, the Frenchman seemed to bring new life and a sense of calm to the team. This apparently seemed to help Ronaldo, as he soon looked reinvigorated and once again lethal in the eyes of his supporters.

But how much of this is actually true? So far only general sentiment seems to be backing up the claim that Ronaldo has done better under Zidane rather than under Rafa. Do the statistics back up this up?

Appearances, Minutes, & Touches

The first thing to do is evaluate the sample size. If Ronaldo has played only 5 games under Zidane, it doesn’t do us much good to compare that to the 24 games he has played under Benitez. But luckily for us, the sample sizes match up nearly perfectly. Ronaldo has played only one less game under Zidane, which comes from missing the first leg of the UEFA Champions League (UCL) semifinals against Manchester City. In the league, Ronaldo has played an aesthetically pleasing 18 games under Benitez and 18 games under Zidane.

In terms of minutes, it doesn’t match up so nicely due to Ronaldo being subbed off against Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña, and due to him missing the first leg against Manchester City. But the numbers are still close enough to make a comparison of Ronaldo under both managers a reasonable endeavor. In all Cristiano only played 147 minutes less under Zidane then he did under Benitez, playing 57 minutes less in the league, and 90 minutes less in the UCL.

Another factor to take into consideration before comparing Ronaldo’s performances under both managers, is the level of involvement CR7 had under both Benitez and Zidane’s systems. One way to measure this is by the average number of touches Ronaldo has had under both coaches. While not all-encompassing, this is the best analytics can provide at the moment, as off-the-ball movement is not currently recorded in any public space.

As you can see in the bar graph, Ronaldo took virtually the same number of touches under Zidane as he did under Benitez, only taking about 1.8 less touches per 90 minutes (p90) under the Frenchman than under the Spaniard. Along with the symmetry in number of games and minutes played, the similarity in number of touches per 90 minutes allows for a credible comparison of Ronaldo’s performance under both managers to be made.

Shooting & Goalscoring

The first set of metrics to compare are the statistics that are of the greatest importance to Ronaldo’s role in Real Madrid's set-up: shooting and goalscoring. Conventional wisdom would have it that Ronaldo has been more lethal and prolific under Zidane, and the stats somewhat back this up on face value.

Overall, Ronaldo takes 0.3 less shots p90 and puts 0.03 more shots p90 on target under Zidane. These differences seem rather inconsequential until they are split into shots and shots on target for La Liga and the UCL. In La Liga, Ronaldo takes marginally less shots p90, but puts a big 0.55 more shots on target under his new boss. The difference is even bigger in the UCL (albeit vice versa), with Ronaldo putting approximately 47% of his 8.5 shots p90 on target under Benitez, compared to a relatively poor 32% of his 7.6 shots p90 on target under Zidane. Taking into account both La Liga and the UCL together, Ronaldo shoots marginally better under Zidane, as seen on the shot accuracy graph, putting up an impressive 44% of his shots on frame compared to an accuracy of 41% under Benitez. Thus, those who claim that Ronaldo has been more lethal under Zidane (or at least more accurate in his shooting) are only technically correct.

But the real business is whether these shots get converted into goals, and Ronaldo has done it better under Zidane, netting 26 strikes for the Frenchman compared to 25 goals for Benitez. This translates to an improvement of 0.12 goals p90 minutes under Zidane (Ronaldo scored 1.16 goals p90 under Zidane and 1.04 goals p90 under Benitez).

On the face of it, these statistics seem to contradict my introductory statement, but context needs to be brought to these numbers. A massive 46% of Ronaldo’s goals under Benitez came in 4 games & against two teams in the UCL: Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk. While smashing in 11 goals at a rate of 2.75 per game is no easy feat regardless of the opposition, such an achievement does skew the statistics.

The true measure of goalscoring prowess (in terms of consistency) comes from hitting the back of the net in the league, something Ronaldo has been vastly superior in under Zidane. Looking at the right-hand chart, you can see that Ronaldo scored at a spectacular rate of 1.21 goals per 90 minutes under Zizou, compared to a decidedly mortal rate of 0.78 goals p90 under Benitez. As stated before, Ronaldo’s numbers under Benitez catch up due to his performance in the UCL, where he scored at an unreal 1.83 goals p90 compared to a still exceptional 1 goal p90 under his second manager. The latter numbers in the UCL are especially impressive considering the fact that he scored those goals in the knockout stages, facing much tougher opposition in the form of Roma, Wolfsburg, and Manchester City.

Thus, taking the raw statistics and the situational factors into account, there can be no doubt that Ronaldo’s goalscoring prowess has improved significantly under Zidane. Without shooting more and without putting more shots on target, Ronaldo has a better distribution of goalscoring figures with an elite per 90 statistic in the league. So conventional wisdom has proved to be right in this category.

Creativity

A less talked about, but still very pertinent category to evaluate, is creativity. Straight off the bat you can see (in the top graph) that there is a marked difference in Ronaldo’s La Liga and UCL stats between the two managers once again. Under Zidane in La Liga, Ronaldo has provided 0.35 assists p90, which is 0.07 more than his 0.28 p90 under Benitez. In the UCL, Ronaldo produced an unreal 0.5 assists p90 under Benitez, which is significantly better than the 0.2 assists p90 he has produced so far under Zidane. All together, Ronaldo has provided an insignificantly better assist per minute ratio of 0.33 under Benitez than under Zidane, with his UCL stats once again skewing the figures in favor of Benitez. Thus, perhaps a better metric to look at is key passes per 90, which is displayed in the pie chart.

As can be seen, Ronaldo’s chance creation statistics under both managers are nearly identical; with Cristiano producing 2 key passes p90 under both Zidane and Benitez, whilst producing 0.12 more key passes in the league under the Spaniard. When combining these metrics with the assists p90 statistics, you can see that Ronaldo was slightly more creative under Benitez. As mentioned before, this is slightly skewed by his monstrous performances against Shakhtar and Malmo, but his key passes statistics show that he has without a doubt been marginally a better creator under Benitez.

Passing & Crossing

While the above charts dealt with the end-product derived from the final ball, these charts focus on Cristiano Ronaldo’s less decisive, but still important passing metrics. It is interesting to see the near uniformity in Ronaldo’s passing numbers under Benitez and Zidane, with Ronaldo attempting an identical 34 passes per 90 minutes with marginally less accuracy under Zidane. This demonstrates the similar way in which both managers have employed Ronaldo. As backed up before by the "touches" statistic, those who believe Ronaldo has done better under Zidane cannot point to a new system that revolves more around the Portuguese forward in terms of build-up or pure end-product. In other words, it his hard for one to claim that Ronaldo is benefitting under Zidane because he is being passed the ball more, or because he is being eliminated out of build-up in order for him to focus all of his energy on scoring, when his touches and passes are identical to his time under Benitez.

This observation does not take into account crossing statistics however, which roughly indicates Ronaldo’s willingness to cut to the byline in order to provide for his teammates instead of shooting. But those who believe that Ronaldo has been neglecting his winger duties under Zidane in order to hit more consistent scoring figures under Zidane will be disappointed. Overall, Ronaldo swings in only 0.12 less crosses p90 under Zidane than he did under Benitez, whilst maintaining a slightly better crossing accuracy of 25% in comparison to a figure of 24% under Benitez. In the league this difference is slightly more visible, with Ronaldo having put 0.17 more crosses into the box under the Spaniard. Combined with the fact that Ronaldo shoots marginally less under Zidane, it can be clearly proven that Ronaldo has not sacrificed his duty to cross in order to selfishly pursue more shots and more goals.

Dribbling

The final statistical category is dribbling, where unlike the previous three categories, there is no debate as to whether Ronaldo has improved under Zidane. The numbers don’t lie, and they tell us that Ronaldo has been a supremely better dribbler under Zidane. This is especially true in regards to La Liga, where he has completed a solid 1.73 dribbles p90, which is 0.69 dribbles p90 higher than when under Benitez. Combine this with Ronaldo’s tendency to draw fouls under both managers (which is another measure of how good a player’s dribbling is), and you can see that Ronaldo has seen the greatest improvement in this category under Zidane over all others.

The eye-test matches up well with these figures, as he has notched superb solo goals vs. Roma, Espanyol, and Athletic Bilbao, whilst looking lighter and more agile under Zidane.

Performances Overall & In the Big Games

The final piece of the puzzle is the analysis of Ronaldo’s actual performances under both managers. These statistics mean nothing without context, for the bunching of these statistics and the quality of opposition play a large part in deciding how successful Ronaldo has been under both managers. In order to provide this context, I have created a simple graphic illustrating Ronaldo’s performances in all games played and in "big games," using three simple barometers of performance: good, average, and bad. This measure is obviously subjective, but I have tried to eliminate bias by considering his statistical involvement in the game as well as his final third impact. Additionally, I have defined "big games" as matches against the top four in the final La Liga standings, the two ties against PSG, and all knockout rounds in the UEFA Champions League.

As can be seen in my colorful charts or in raw data form, I have ranked Ronaldo to be significantly better in Zidane’s tenure than under Benitez’s. Once again correlating with conventional wisdom, Ronaldo’s 13 average and bad games combined with his 11 good games, paints the picture of an inconsistent player who showed his brilliance only in spurts. This is backed up by the fact that Ronaldo failed to score or assist in 12 of his 24 matches under Benitez, whilst only failing to do so 7 times out of his 23 games under Zidane’s tenure (only once did Ronaldo not score or assist for two games in a row under Zidane, whilst managing 2 empty-handed streaks of three games under Benitez’s reign).

In the big games, Ronaldo’s level of performance under Zidane only gets bigger. Under the Spaniard I ranked only one of Ronaldo’s performances in the big games as "good," which was in Madrid’s 3-1 away win vs. Celta Vigo in which Ronaldo notched 1 goal. The three average big games were against PSG home and away and against Athletic Bilbao, the latter of which I was lenient on Ronaldo due to his general involvement in the game. His 3 bad performances, which were against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Villarreal, are indisputably terrible, meaning there should be no controversy as to my decisions in this case.

Under Zidane we see more Ronaldo-esque figures, with only one of CR7's big games ranked as "bad" and 2 as "average." The bad game was obviously vs. Wolfsburg in the first leg of the UCL quarterfinals, where the entire team was abysmal. The two "averages" I gave Ronaldo were for his performances against Atlético Madrid (for which I gave him that score due to his involvement in the game despite his missed chances) and for his performance against Manchester City in the 2nd leg of the UCL semifinals. His 6 "goods" came for his two performances vs. Roma (where Ronaldo was the undisputed man of the first match and possible man of the second one), his demolition of Wolfsburg, his 4 goal battering of Celta Vigo, his dribbling master-classes vs. Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao, and his clutch performance vs. FC Barcelona.

The Final Verdict

The statistics decisively give the advantage to the Ronaldo-Zidane pairing in the shooting and dribbling categories, whilst marginally giving the advantage to the Ronaldo-Benitez pairing in the passing and creativity categories. When bringing in the context of situational factors, such as the quality of opposition and consistency, it is clear that Ronaldo’s numbers look vastly more favorable under Zidane than under Benitez.

Thus, it is correct to say that Cristiano Ronaldo has performed significantly better under Zinedine Zidane as opposed to when he played under Rafa Benitez.

(All statistics taken from whoscored.com & all charts made using Tableau)