Ronaldo we know today is a goalscoring machine. Efficiency and unmatched positioning make him one of the most prolific strikers even at the tender age of 34.
But how does he do it?
To explain this phenomenon, we have to go all the way back to 2003. This is the year when Sir Alex Ferguson decided to pull a youngster named Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting and give him the number seven shirt previously worn by Beckham, to show just how much he trusts the 19-year-old winger.
It didn’t take long for Ronaldo to set the league on fire – each moment with the ball was electrifying and each run was terrifying for the opposing side.
In his early days at Manchester United, Ronaldo was a creative outlet from the wing; he provided scoring chances out of nowhere by cutting inside from the left and providing a counter-attacking option with his speed. However, it was obvious back then that Ronaldo wasn’t just any big talent – he started providing end product. In his true breakout 2006/07 season, he scored 17 times while adding 15 assists in the Premier League. The following season he became more a consistent goalscorer. The Portuguese won the Golden Shoe award by scoring an incredible 31 goals in a single season of Premier League, tied for 2nd most in the 21st century. Unsurprisingly, this is the year in which Ronaldo also won the Ballon d’Or. Once he felt how it was to amongst the best in the world, he made sure to stay there.
In this period, Ronaldo played as a winger cutting inside, just like in his earlier years at Manchester. However, he wasn’t just the creative outlet now. Cristiano’s mental strength caught up with his incredible physical gifts. The team could rely on him for terrorizing defence, as defenders left one-on-one with Ronaldo stood almost no chance at all.
Cristiano’s transfer to Real Madrid caused a lot of upset. The price tag of £80 million at the time was unprecedented, and the pressure was as big as ever for him to perform. Luckily, as we said earlier, Ronaldo’s mental strength was elite at this point, and he knew he was born for the biggest stage.
Mourinho was tasked with ending Barcelona’s dominance in Spain. The most luxurious gift for Portuguese was his countryman, Ronaldo. These two were a match made in heaven – Mourinho’s counter-attacking football mixed with brutal directness unleashed probably the best football we’ve seen from Ronaldo. Mourinho provided Ronaldo with plenty of space to attack into, as the defence was perfectly organized to attract opponents high up the field and strike them with counter-attacks. Ronaldo scored for fun; free-kicks, left-foot, right-foot, header – you name it.
In season 2011/12, Real Madrid finally won the league with a whopping 100 points, fueled by Ronaldo’s 46 league goals. It’s worth pointing out that Benzema was the perfect “partner in crime” as he dropped back very well to open up space in the middle for Ronaldo to attack while receiving through balls from Ozil and Di Maria. This is the point in Cristiano’s career where he was an equal threat both with the space in front of him, as well as when he was required to break the opponent’s defensive structure.
Seasons went on, and Ronaldo kept breaking records; the competition with Messi was on, as was Madrid’s with Barcelona. However, genetics were inevitable. While Messi was a natural talent you don’t see often, Ronaldo was a physical specimen, and there wasn’t escaping the fact that he was ageing.
His dribbling became less efficient, long-range shots weren’t as precise as before and the free-kicks weren’t falling. In the season 2013/14, Ronaldo only appeared 30 times in the league due to a couple of injuries that haunted him. Those injuries proved to be crucial, as the biggest breakthrough came season after, in 2014/15. Ronaldo realized that he could prolong his career at the top level by changing his role; he wasn’t the explosive kid from the left-wing anymore, he was cold hard mercenary ready to punish every mistake from the opponent’s defence. Over the years Ronaldo improved his positioning, and now he was tasked with looking for space in the box and converting his team’s crosses. This worked perfectly with Benzema adapting yet again, and constantly filling in on the wing, drawing away defenders or dropping back in the no. 10 role, doing everything possible to open up space for Ronaldo.
The result? Four Champions Leagues in the span of five seasons and tons of “clutch” goals as if he was born to be the ultimate fox in the box.
It’s very rare for a superstar of Ronaldo’s quality to understand that he has to make a change in his game. Sure, Ronaldo could’ve stayed on the wing, could’ve demanded ball to feet more, but he realized that the best way he could help the team (and himself) is by putting his trust into teammates getting the ball to the opposition’s box. Ronaldo regularly took it from there and left no prisoners; goal after goal when his team needed him the most.