The story of Ronaldo’s decline has been oft-covered, with various degrees of melodramatics coupled with choice statistics, match clips, and his overall offensive production (goals and assists) the bread and butter of countless articles.
The conclusions reached have been varied, with some critics choosing to believe that Ronaldo is dead and buried, while others seem to see a Ronaldo that is still every bit as good as he was 2-3 years ago.
The former conclusion has been pushed harder than ever before this season, with critics pointing to his lack of ability to produce consistent pieces of magic across the 16/17 season as evidence of a disastrous decline. To be more specific, the argument is that he can’t take players on, can’t create, doesn’t threaten to score from different distances, and that he’s essentially a one-dimensional penalty-box poacher.
Statistically, it seems like these critics have a point.
Ronaldo’s dribbling decline is a well documented fact that can be confirmed by raw numbers across La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. There seemed to be signs in 2014/15 that Ronaldo wasn’t the same skillful, pacy, and agile winger he used to be, which was soon confirmed by a further decline in his dribbling in 2015/16 and a sharp drop-off this season.
It seems that the fall in Ronaldo’s ability to create chances for his teammates is not a myth as well, as demonstrated by his noticeable decline in La Liga, which is curiously not mirrored in the Champions League.
Ronaldo’s shots from outside the box tell a similar story and confirm the assertion that his influence is being limited closer and closer to the box as his career progresses.
So that’s it then, the stats confirm that Ronaldo is a finished penalty-box poacher right? It surely wouldn’t hurt Real to get rid of him?
While these p90 stats are strong barometers of season-long influence, they lack context, a key part of the evaluation of statistics.
The hidden story behind these numbers is that Ronaldo has still got ‘the magic’ in particular situations - or big games to be exact.
With Ronaldo clearly not able to play a full season at the same intensity as before, due to natural aging and two debilitating knee injuries and the fact that he is still an undisputed starter thanks to his nearly unparalleled goal scoring ability (something Madrid clearly need, as Ronaldo is Madrid’s top scorer in La Liga with 14 goals - a total 9 more than strike partners Benzema and Morata), Ronaldo has had to make a conscious decision to save his most athletic and offensively dynamic performances for the games that matter most.
Yesterday’s match against Napoli is case in point. Ronaldo looked reborn in one of Madrid’s most crucial matches of the season and off the back of his team’s shaky form following the termination of Real’s 40 match unbeaten run.
He played as a classic winger, choosing to stick to the flanks in an effort to stretch play and isolate Napoli’s fullbacks one-on-one.
The result was spectacular, as he drove at Napoli with pace, beat players off-the-dribble, crossed and created from out wide, and cut inside when the opportunity presented itself.
It was a vintage Ronaldo performance that saw him pick up a stunning 5/8 completed dribbles, 4 key passes, and 1 brilliant assist, in which he burst up the pitch on a counter, dodged a tackle, played a one-two with James, and than skinned Koulibaly alive before cutting the ball back for Toni Kroos to finish.
But this was not an isolated big-game incident.
Against Atlético Madrid in November, he showed his genius to turn Godin inside out, dodge players inside his own half, and bag a hat-trick against the best defensive side in the world.
In the biggest match of them all, El Clásico, Ronaldo showed evidence of his demonstrated intent to reach a higher level, as he executed a brilliant dribbling sequence in addition to acting as Real Madrid’s sole offensive threat for a side that had little will to push outside of it’s defensive shell.
Digging even earlier into the season, Ronaldo’s performance vs. Dortmund stands out: 3 dribbles, 2 fouls drawn, 1 key pass, and an opening goal.
Aside from these four crucial occasions, Cristiano has also made it a point to turn on the magic in crucial set-piece moments; even neglecting his deflected strike vs. Atléti, he has managed to convert clutch equalizing free kicks against Sporting CP in the Champions League and against Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey (and at an excellent conversion rate).
These moments demonstrate clear pieces of individual magic that belie the narrative that he is a one-dimensional player that almost totally relies on his teammates to create for him. Maybe surprisingly to some fans, it shows, that while Ronaldo has most certainly declined in his ability to impact every facet of the game across a whole season, he still has the genius to rip sides apart in the biggest moments; and that is invaluable.