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The Unseen Powers of Cristiano Ronaldo

By Steven Mandis, author of The Real Madrid Way

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad de Futbol - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Note: The following article is written by Steven Mandis, author of ‘The Real Madrid Way’. As you may recall, Steven appeared on our podcast here and here, and we posted a preview of his book here. Furthermore, please make sure to check out the new BBC podcast with Steven which looks at some really interesting faucets of the club’s business machinery.

Ronaldo won FIFA's 'The Best' a few weeks ago after also winning the Ballon D'Or in December at the end of a year in which he won football's biggest club trophy (Champions League) and then captained his country to Euro 2016 victory. In other words, whatever your position on the Ronaldo-Messi debate, 2016 was Ronaldo's year

I wanted to share some of the unseen powers of Ronaldo that make him great.

I am an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and was provided unprecedented access by Real Madrid to the Club to write the first ever, complete study of a sports team. To write my book, The Real Madrid Way, over two years, I was given everything from financial information to access to players and coaches to access to on-the-pitch player data analysis.

Without further ado, here are key unseen qualities about Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.

The king of gravity

Ronaldo has scored goals in prolific amounts throughout his career, averaging more than a goal per game since joining Real Madrid. But the way he scores has changed over time. Age has forced him to adapt. The devastating solo goals are coming fewer and farther between, but Ronaldo has improved his movement and his game understanding to compensate so that his average goals per game has not been impacted.

However, it is what Ronaldo does that is not covered in the typical statistics of goals and assists per game that matters when he is not at elite performance. Whether or not he is scoring goals and at peak performance, Ronaldo creates space for his teammates because he draws defenders like gravity. There is actually a gravity score to measure this. It is an actual number. Gravity in this context is defined as the tendency of defenders to be pulled to certain parts of the pitch. The gravity score measures how closely the primary defender defends a player off the ball at any given time. The higher an attacker’s gravity score, the better they are at drawing players away from the ball when out of possession.

More than anything else, the primary factor determining a player’s gravity score is their scoring ability. Defenders cannot stray from elite scorers like Ronaldo or Messi, to risk giving up a high probability of a goal. Against less efficient shooters, however, defenders can cheat an extra step toward the ball or the goal, making it easier for them to offer defensive help to teammates.

The best attacking teams account for all of these factors, and put their forward players in positions where they have the most gravity to open space and create difficult decisions for defenders.

Quantifying gravity to understand how its impact on the pitch is complicated. While it might be reflected in plus-minus data, nothing in the traditional “stat sheet” reflects a player’s true gravitational pull. But now that cameras in every stadium are capturing where players and the ball are at any given moment, we can determine the way defenses respond to different offensive players.

I was provided proprietary confidential information from various sources for my book The Real Madrid Way. The conclusion I can share is that Ronaldo and Messi’s gravity scores are outliers, just like their scoring. So even in a game in which they don’t score, it is likely that Ronaldo and Messi led the team in a gravity score, meaning they provided more space and opportunities for teammates to score.

One can also look at heat maps and see how defenders have to respect Ronaldo’s scoring. This is a simpler, and less quantitative, way to analyse Ronaldo’s impact. One can take the heat maps of defenders and where they are positioned in a game and then compare that to when Ronaldo is not on the pitch or versus another team.

By doing this you will see a much higher concentration and overlap over where Ronaldo is. You will see two defenders playing closer to Ronaldo than their typical positioning.

The smart tactical decision from Real Madrid was to add speed to compliment Ronaldo. When Gareth Bale, one of the fastest footballers, is on the pitch with Ronaldo, defenders have to respect Bale’s speed. This causes all types of frustration for opposing coaches and defenders. Because often, players are caught if they stick close to Bale or Ronaldo or help their teammates. This causes defensive organization to stretch and break down.

What makes Karim Benzema interesting is that through familiarity and skill, Benzema is effective in finding the open space left by Ronaldo and Bale.

In Champions League games Benzema’s goal per game average is around 20 per cent higher than in La Liga. My hypothesis is this is because more teams focus a lot more on trying to shut down Ronaldo with such high stakes, providing more space and opportunities for Benzema. But this contribution from Ronaldo doesn’t show up in the stat sheet.

Ronaldo the quiet leader

Ronaldo plays a unique leadership role that is not seen on the pitch during matches. In the 1950s there were plenty of stars at Real Madrid including Ferenc Puskas, but it was clear Alfredo Di Stefano was the sun in the galaxy. Ronaldo is that sun today.

Managing elite players is a complex business. In my research I discovered that, from 1955-1960, while Real Madrid famously won five European Cups in a row, the club had six coaching changes before settling on Miguel Munoz. Since 1955, the club has only had two coaches last longer than three years, being Munoz and Vicente Del Bosque, both of whom were elite players who played at Real Madrid.

Having a coach like Zidane with elite level and champion credibility and calm presence seems to have a higher probability to work better with Real Madrid-level talent. Zidane, for all his achievements in a remarkable playing career, gets leeway from the players and community in his decision making.

In Zidane’s squad, Ronaldo is a clear leader—the team’s faraway standout player—who sets the example for the hard work and intensity in practice, and discipline off the field. Ronaldo is known to eat healthy, avoid alcohol and even take ice baths at unusual hours for his muscles to recover faster. His intensity, teamwork, discipline and work ethic drives the players in a way that the coach never can. The younger players mimic Ronaldo’s good habits. The captains of Madrid, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, who are elected by seniority, are also important for reinforcing Real Madrid’s values and expectations because they have the most familiarity having been around the longest.

Ronaldo, the captains and Zidane have to have a trusting relationship. As it turns out, being around the team, I discovered Ronaldo also is often the instigator for little bonding rituals and other things to bring players together. For example, he often leads the players in a “war cry” of “Siiiii.” As a shout out to his teammates he yelled it out right after his acceptance of the Ballon d’Or in 2015. It sent social media into a frenzy trying to figure out what he just said or did because it isn’t clear. I was told his teammates watching on TV laughed out loud that he actually did it. It is a silly thing, but something that brings them together. He was sending them a message that they were on his mind. Now the fans in the stadium shout it in unison after he scores and finishes his trademark jump celebration. Now everyone is united – Ronaldo, players and fans. These traditions and rituals are important in supporting the passion. This is another example of a player so often mischaracterized and branded as selfish, exhibiting team-centric behavior for the good of the group.

The power of Ronaldo’s brand

Ronaldo is a vitally important player for the local and global brand of Real Madrid. This is a club focused on putting aspirational players on the pitch, and they don’t come any more aspirational than Ronaldo.

Madrid fans have intense loyalty to the club because they see it as reflecting their own ambition. In Ronaldo, Madrid have a player who ticks their every box – elite talent, winner, showmanship, cross-cultural, hard working, philanthropic, intense will to win, and pride in the shirt. He is the club’s dream brand ambassador, a Galatico who has easily returned the £80 million Madrid paid Manchester United for as a marketing asset, let alone a footballer.

Some people may not like Ronaldo, but he is the most followed human being on social media (over 200 million followers), and has sold the most jerseys of any player on the planet. He tops the list of most charitable athletes. Those are indisputable facts supporting the idea that he is the world’s most popular athlete, even if he has detractors.

Is he the best footballer in the world? Based on the data, an argument can be made for Ronaldo or Messi. The debate is fun, but completely meaningless because the only reasonable conclusion is that they are both extreme outliers. But without question, the debate is very important to the passion and identity of Real Madrid and Barca. The rivalry causes discussion and publicity to draw more viewers, higher ratings and more sponsors.

The Ronaldo-Messi debate is also important in helping define their respective communities. Tell me which player you think is the best, chances are you support their club, maybe not as your primary team but as your second (because most people want to pick a side to root for in El Clasico). Both players are lucky to be on clubs coming together for El Clasico at least twice per year, the most watched regular season game in all of sports. They get to be center stage, just like the clubs. Their fans who identify with them come to watch too. And gives Real Madrid and Barca an opportunity to add the players’ fans to being fans of the clubs too.

It is estimated that at least twice as many people watch El Clasico than the Super Bowl globally. The continued growth in interest for the game, and in the two teams participating, is in no small part due to the biggest stars on either side. La Liga, Barcelona and Real Madrid, all have Ronaldo (and Messi) partly to thank.

The next phase

Not even Ronaldo can beat father time, but he has continued to adapt his game to stay at the very top.

The biggest challenge for Ronaldo and Zidane in the next few seasons, should both stay in Madrid, will be the need for rotation. As Ronaldo ages, he will need more time to recover, and may have to sit out matches. If he doesn’t then he won’t be at his elite level and closer to just very good. When you consider the highest probability for injuries is in the last 15 minutes of a match, pulling him during this time may also help reduce the probability of injury.

This will not be an easy transition. The Real Madrid community wants to see its star players play (especially at home), and Ronaldo is a competitor and wants to play every minute of every game. Zidane is left with the task to prioritize resources for the greater good. Fortunately, he has the credibility to deal with Ronaldo and the Madrid community at large.

Eventually, the time will come for Ronaldo to leave the Bernabeu, of course. When that happens Madrid will lose not just their greatest goal scorer and a player of the rarest talent, but everything above with it.

The power of Ronaldo is immense, and it goes beyond all things you already know about him.

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