The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2018 put forward a series of epic challenges for Real Madrid; they not only had to replace their greatest ever goal scorer, but had to figure out how to reconstruct an offense that had been completely oriented around one generational player for close to a decade.
As Ronaldo moved past his physical prime (accelerated by injury in 2014 and 2016), Madrid shifted from basing their attack on a do-it-all winger to a raumdeuter who made most of his impact inside the penalty box.
Real Madrid’s crossing reliance increased by about 6.5 points on average after 2012/13, as Ronaldo transitioned to his new, more limited role. Irrespective of this stylistic shift, Madrid continued to churn out all-time great attacking numbers — they never failed to eclipse 100 goals in the league until Ronaldo’s final season.
Unsurprisingly, Madrid have struggled to replicate those historic feats in his absence. In a season where Florentino Pérez found no adequate replacements and a weary squad suffered from a mixture of bad luck and poor coaching, Los Blancos posted a pitiful 63 goals in La Liga — a figure that will be outdone by 10 goals in 2019/20 if the current scoring pace is maintained.
Much of Real Madrid’s offensive boost when compared to last season is coming from Karim Benzema, who had to wait a bit before he finally saw the “benefits” of playing without Ronaldo. Contrary to popular belief, the French striker did not see an immediate uptick in shot production or shot quality following his new role as the leader of the attack. In 2018/19, his mark of 0.50 non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes (NPxG90) in the league was actually lower than his figure in 2017/18, and both his NPxG90 and shots p90 were worse than his 2016/17 figures [understat.com].
It was Benzema’s finishing that changed, as he finally got over his crisis of confidence in 2019 and began to convert above expected levels. This season, Benzema’s La Liga NPxG90 is up to 0.58 (better than the last two seasons, though not 2016/17) and he’s taking over 4 shots p90 — something he hasn’t done since 2015/16 [understat.com].
Still, these numbers are in line with some of his best efforts with Ronaldo in prior seasons, which makes it hard to pin too much of Benzema’s renewed production on the absence of the Portuguese star. Thus, it’s apparent that the Benzema-Ronaldo relationship was more of a symbiotic connection than a parasitic one, explaining why Madrid has experienced a massive decline in team-wide goal production.
The signing of Luka Jović was supposed to change this, but the Serbian has only featured sporadically and has struggled to integrate into a system that is more attuned to/reliant on Benzema’s style of play. As a result, Madrid’s attack is a one-man show. Per C-Trick’s recent article: “Benzema has scored or assisted 43% of Real Madrid’s 58 goals in the league and CL to date.”
When looking at the tape, it’s not hard to see why. If you recall the earlier mention of Madrid’s crossing reliance, you’ll notice that the figure has only decreased slightly after Ronaldo’s departure. In fact, with Zinedine Zidane’s return, the percentage has reverted to almost exactly the same levels that were seen in 2017/18.
Maintaining this strategy without the most voracious penalty box predator in the history of the game has led to numerous dead sequences where Benzema is isolated and outnumbered in crossing situations.
Even in instances where there is help, there is a lack of qualitative advantage (Isco trying to win a header) and a distinct lack of the dynamic movement that made Ronaldo so dangerous.
Where things have changed for the better offensively, is in the ability for Madrid to deploy better ball carriers and creators out wide. Eden Hazard would have been a tough fit next to both Ronaldo AND Benzema (do you play the Belgian on the right or go for a diamond?), but is now a natural selection (when fit) on the left. And, though, Hazard’s individual league production has been poor and stymied by injury (0.13 xG90 & 0.15 expected assists p90), his still obscene dribbling numbers and contribution to other phases of play has provided a different dimension that Ronaldo stopped offering as he aged.
Vinícius Jr is another player who’s getting chances, too, even if he still needs polishing. Seeing someone pull off these types of sequences on the left-wing just wasn’t that common in the post-prime Ronaldo era:
The availability of Hazard and Vinícius has also paved the way for a future in which Real Madrid can be less reliant on Marcelo (the Brazilian owned the left-wing as Ronaldo gravitated towards the box). Now, a more defensively skilled player — like Ferland Mendy — can feature more often. However, with Vinícius not playing reliably and Hazard spending more time in the sick bed than on the pitch, Madrid, admittedly, haven’t truly seen the balanced benefits of a Hazard-Mendy/Vinícius-Mendy duo, yet.
Regardless, the ability to deploy a more defensive-minded player post-Ronaldo links to a wider trend of Real Madrid looking better against the ball without their best ever attacker. This wasn’t visible in the numbers in 2018/19, thanks to the multitude of factors that contributed to Madrid’s disastrous campaign, but it is noteworthy that Santiago Solari’s only real tactical achievement (on occasion) was his high press — something he was not famous for at Castilla.
This season, despite another mediocre looking offense, Madrid’s defense has looked extremely good. They are second in the league in xG allowed per game and much of the credit has gone to Casemiro, Fede Valverde, and Zidane.
All are worthy of praise, but an underrated factor has been the absence of Ronaldo — who contributes next to nothing defensively. In Serie A, Ronaldo is in the 1st percentile in pressure regains and in the 0th percentile in pressures. Consequently, Maurizio Sarri has been unable to construct his usual elite high press, leading his side to concede 1.16 xG per game, which is “only better than ~75% of teams since 2014/15.”
The presence of players like the ancient Gonzalo Higuaín certainly don’t help matters, but Higuaín is largely necessary in order to accommodate Ronaldo up top. The same goes for the much-maligned Blaise Matuidi, who starts on the left of Juventus’ midfield (despite being a poor fit for Sarriball) to make up for CR7’s absent work-rate.
While Ronaldo’s distaste of chasing after the ball was more of a personal decision in his prime, it is now a necessity to ensure that he stays in tip-top form in front of goal. Sarri has openly freed his star of all defensive responsibilities in order to help Ronaldo get back to his best.
And it has worked (sort of). Cristiano has scored 10 non-penalty goals in his last 10 Serie A games, after notching only 3 since the start of the season. But, his NPxG90 across the former period stands at 0.58, a definite improvement over the 0.43 NPxG90 from the latter period, but still far lower than the 0.80-0.90 he was consistently racking up at Real Madrid. There is a lot of over-performance driving Ronaldo’s current run of form, which feels unsustainable given that he hasn’t beaten his xG in the league since 2014/15 [understat.com].
CR7 also only seems to play well in bursts at this stage of his career — a trend beginning in 2015/16, where he has struggled to find the net in the first half of his campaigns. What he produces at the turn of the year is still valuable, but that production — and, therefore, that value — is declining. At the moment, Juventus are stuck with having to make vast accommodations (lack of an efficient high press and having to play Higuaín and the out-of-place Matuidi) for a waning force.
And, while, Real Madrid would probably still benefit offensively from doing the same for a 35-year-old Ronaldo, they are freed up to utilize more dynamic players who will be beneficial down the line (Hazard when he’s fit; Vinícius when he can finish). Perhaps, more importantly, Zidane now has the liberty to put out a lineup that has no weak links when pressing and one that is fully committed against the ball in all phases of defense.
Currently, that is proving to be enough to offset the big offensive dip that has been the defining feature of the post-Ronaldo era.