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Retro visual analysis: Remember Cristiano?

A look at how Cristiano Ronaldo’s game changed over the years at Real Madrid while maintaining a very high level of performance.

Real Madrid v Sevilla - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

“When Cristiano plays, we start at 1-0. You could think it’s a joke but that’s the reality” - Carlo Ancelotti during the press conference before Real Madrid faced Liverpool in the Champions League group-stage, 2014-15.

Real Madrid Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images

In his nine years at the club, Cristiano Ronaldo became Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer and 2nd highest assist provider (Karim Benzema broke his record for most assists not too long ago). It’s unlikely any player will hover around those two records anytime soon. With Cristiano, things have become slightly polarizing recently. His Juventus stint was pretty good by the standards of any ordinary player but perhaps not up to the mark for an all-timer such as the Portuguese captain. Since leaving Juventus, his decline has been remarkably steep.

The phenomenon of retroactively projecting Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-Real Madrid career onto his time at the club has become prevalent among some fans and pundits. However, such a practice is not entirely accurate or fair. He is Real Madrid’s best-ever player by some distance. In a vacuum, if we intend to strictly talk about the footballing side of Cristiano Ronaldo, his Real Madrid career has layers of excellence that should be celebrated more often.

In this article, we’ll focus on Ronaldo’s performance during three different timelines - 2011-12 under Jose Mourinho, 2013-14 under Carlo Ancelotti, and 2016-17 under Zinedine Zidane. The analysis aims to identify changes or improvements in Ronaldo’s game across different managerial stints.

Pass receptions

During the 2011-12 season under the leadership of Mourinho, Ronaldo’s receptions were primarily concentrated on the left wing. However, under Ancelotti’s tutelage in 2013-14, his receptions became more central. Under Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo’s receptions reverted to being primarily on the left wing once again in 2016-17. Zidane actually got him to drop deeper than any other manager and to be more involved in the build-up.

Visualization by Mehedi Hassan (@mhassanfootball) for Managing Madrid.


Ronaldo’s game time in La Liga in 2011-12 was significantly higher than that of 2013-14 and 2016-17.

via Fbref

However, the drop in the take-ons completed is significant considering he played similar minutes in 2013-14 and 206-17. Apart from the natural factor of age, Ronaldo had shaped his game on a different set of strengths by 2016. The elite off-ball movement started to eclipse the blitzing dribbling prowesses.

Ball Progression

Ronaldo was such a good goalscorer that no one really remembers his playmaking, which was perhaps the most underrated part of his game. With game time, the passing volume reduced but he was ever so crucial in the final third for Madrid with his verticality in both half-spaces as demonstrated below with his progressive passes, progressive carries, and passes into the half-spaces and zone-14.

A caveat: Ronaldo’s progressive carries gradually shifted from left to right over the years, which was pretty evident with the eye test as well for those who have followed him and Real Madrid over this timeline.

Ronaldo was a different beast in the Champions League. He remains the greatest club competition’s highest-ever goalscorer in the present day. Without 92:48, there is no La Decima. But without Ronaldo’s 16 goals leading into the final, there is no 92:48. Without his hat-trick vs. Wolfsburg in 2016, there is no La Undecima. Real Madrid could not have been the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles in 2017 since the change of the format if Ronaldo hadn’t scored a staggering 10 goals from the quarter-finals to the final of the 2016-17 edition. Without his ice-cold penalty vs. Juventus in the 2nd leg of 2018, perhaps, there is no Champions league threepeat.

In conclusion, Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at Real Madrid was marked by his remarkable abilities on the field, which persisted in different ways even during moments of relative underperformance.

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