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Cristiano Ronaldo: Still King of the Mountain

On Ronaldo's continued greatness and the fallacy of certainty about the unknown.

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Ronaldo’s crown continues to shine brightly

Ronaldo put together another brilliant season over the course of 2016-17 driving Real Madrid to La Liga and Champions League triumphs. The Portuguese scored 42 goals and notched an impressive 11 assists to make him the team’s top offensive contributor (in raw numbers) for the eighth straight season. However, the whispers about his seeming “decline” that began several years ago appeared to grow louder. While the group of observers making this claim are not quite calling him a shadow of himself, there are clear insinuations that he’s presently a dimmer version of the mesmeric virtuoso that took the Bernabeu by storm in 2009-10.

Data: ESPN Soccer website

Chart note: percentage of team goals is calculated by dividing Ronaldo’s goals and assists by the total number of goals scored by Real Madrid in matches he featured in. This only looks at official competitions the team partook in.

Based on the above chart, there is some merit to the idea that Ronaldo’s prowess in front of net hasn’t been at the standard he set. His tally of 53 goals and assists is the lowest he has registered since his first season which was blighted with injuries. Ignoring contextual significance in terms of the influence of team style and tactics, there is a veritable case to make that he is trending towards lower production rates as he went from 81 in 2014-15 to 66 in 2015-16 to 53 in 2016-17. When applying a control to the numbers by measuring his production as a percentage of the team’s overall goals scored for games Ronaldo participated in, the trend holds true. The “decline” is not as stark but the 44% of team goals he scored in 2016-17 is also the second lowest in his time with Los Blancos.

That being said, one thing to note is that 2014-15 was an otherworldly season for Ronaldo and stands as somewhat of an outlier. The graph would look much more stable without that spike. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t change the fact that 2016-17 represented a downturn. Despite controlling for context by calculating the percentage of team goals, the stats are still somewhat stuck in a vacuum with little gauge of the relativity of the numbers. There is no baseline to provide a constant reference point.

Data: ESPN Soccer website

Chart note: the figures in this chart are calculated by taking Ronaldo’s numbers from the first chart and subtracting the same numbers for the player that registered the second most goals and assists in each respective season.

The above chart attempts to address the “vacuum” issue by comparing Ronaldo to the next best offensive performer (again based on raw G+A numbers). The trend of how many more goals and assists Ronaldo had is similar to the first chart and does show a decline in the last two seasons. However, this doesn’t convey valuable information as the totals don’t contain any environment markers (teammates, form, opposition etc). To do this, we should focus on the trend of how much higher Ronaldo’s percentage of team goals contributed is than the 2nd highest contributor.

The gap between Ronaldo and the second best attacking player in 2016-17 was the third highest it’s ever been. In fact, excluding his monster 2014-15 season, Ronaldo outperformed his teammates by the biggest margin since 2010-11. The percentage of team goals as a metric is more valuable because it captures the dynamic nature of a team sport — especially one as evolving as football in a mega-club like Real Madrid. The player’s performance, and specifically individual production rate, is invariably affected by a myriad of factors that are somewhat external to him. These factors are partially adjusted for by normalizing the statistics against a standard (No2 offensive player).

Finally, Ronaldo’s efficiency needs to be examined to determine if he has retained his killer edge in addition to being prolific.

Data: ESPN Soccer website

Chart note: this shows the moving mean of goals and assists registered per minute every 38 games from the beginning of 2009-10. The x-axis indicates the game number. (e.g. 51 represents the 51st game played by Ronaldo and the 51st game played by the combination of No2 contributors identified in the second chart). For Ronaldo, game 347 marks the start of the 2016-17 season. He has played more games than the No2 contributors hence the longer trend line.

It’s clear from the chart that Ronaldo’s efficiency, while experiencing the same decrease as the other stats when looked at in isolation, is still just as remarkably better than the No2 contributor’s as it’s been throughout his Real Madrid career. Again, the “blip” in 2014-15 due to his massive output creates a distortion effect but overall his goals and assists recorded on a per minute basis has continued to surpass his closest offensive rival.

This ain’t no world for absolutes and bias

The question becomes how a player — that would be instrumental in the success of the team and manage one of his best seasons in the white shirt — could be so easily written off in some quarters at the beginning of the season. Written off in the normal sense that a vocal “minority” simply didn’t expect him to be a major force and claimed there was more to be gained from selling him than keeping him on the roster. And also slightly less extreme but just as jarring with hindsight, Ronaldo was written off in the sense that he wasn’t expected to be a Ballon d’Or contender come the end of the year. He wasn’t expected to be in discussions for best player of the year — even though he had just completed a sweep of those individual awards for 2015-16.

This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. The truth is that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable or illogical to speculate that there was a possibility that Ronaldo would have a dip in production and impact in 2016-17. It is generally accepted, and supported by research, that players tend to decline in effectiveness as they enter their thirties due to reduced athleticism. Ronaldo, whose style has changed, especially compared to his Manchester years and first part of his Real Madrid career is a good example. Although it is not fair to argue that the adaptations in his game have been purely a response to diminished physicality, there is likely some truth to that. So as a hypothesis and conjecture, it wasn’t crazy to assume Real Madrid’s cherished No. 7 would regress.

The problem is when what is clearly speculation, conjecture, and hypothesis is presented as evidence-based fact. The problem arises when we move from the world of “could and can happen” to “will happen.” Nobody has a magic crystal ball and as such it is important to be careful and considered when reflecting on what the future will look like. You can use historical trends and insights along with observations to create an estimation of the future but you can never 100% predict it. So no matter how good the guess is, it is still a guess. It was a guess for anybody to have suggested that Zidane would be a failure; or that Real Madrid would not win with Casemiro at the base of the midfield; or that one of the greatest players in the history of Real Madrid and reigning Ballon d’Or winner would stop being the metronome we’re accustomed to in 2016-17.

Bertrand Russell is attributed with the above saying. While the statement is certainly strongly worded and likely to touch a nerve, the idea that there is a lack of wisdom in being sure about something that is not known is not entirely false. “Confidence [can be] a sign of fraudulence.”

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