Cristiano Ronaldo: More Lethal With Age?
This season has been tough for Real Madrid: no £50m+ player to integrate in the summer, Rafa Benitez gone by Christmas, Karim Benzema in a world of trouble and Zinedine Zidane channeling Harry Redknapp. The Champions League they won has been called fortunate, the solitary point they finished behind Barcelona not representative, they only scored 110 league goals and the more-shots-than-anyone-in-the-big-five-European-leagues they took were probably from the wrong part of the pitch: I dunno. Sometimes out in the tactical and analytical world, it feels like haphazardly assembling a lopsided squad full of some of the world's best players isn't as respected as filling up half spaces with tricksy midfielders and eschewing centre backs.
In amongst this malaise, hiding his light under a bushel once more has been Cristiano Ronaldo. The hands of time keep moving and in football terms, he's getting old. Not to suggest he's disappearing any time soon but at 31, the question of how many more years he stays at Madrid or in the top leagues before either retiring or wandering into sterile semi-retirement in a lesser league has started to be asked. One might hope that for the sake of his legacy and his ego, he calls it quits somewhere near the top. He's not as popular as his eternal nemesis Lionel Messi either and it seems that there are a queue of commentators gladly waiting to proclaim his decline. Criticism is rarely far away, as we saw just last week:
- “He did nothing in the final” (He was likely half fit)
- “He chose to take the fifth penalty, the GLORY penalty” (Wouldn't you want your star striker on a pressure penalty?)
- “He shoots too much when he should pass” (This is not unique among goalscorers)
- “He is such a twat” (It's a game of opinions, Trev)
The preening peacock routine grates and the petulance when his teammates have the audacity to score when they could have passed to him is tough to like too, but when you have consistently created the goal output Ronaldo has, foibles are far more readily accepted, at least within his personal environment. Thanks to the vagaries of knockout football, he once more stands at the pinnacle of the game, with his third Champions League medal-- and second in three years-- clutched firmly to his bronzed torso. Also on the plus side, if we’re to round out the story a little, his wikipedia page does not have a section on “legal issues” and in a world drowning in horrific body art, that he rejects tattoos so he can consistently give blood should get significant credit.
Back in September, over at the much missed Grantland, Mike Goodman did a fine job of describing how Ronaldo's style of play had evolved under then coach Rafa Benitez. Part of the thrust of that article involved how Ronaldo’s game had changed as he had aged; no longer was he the marauding left forward that blew past players at will, no longer did he give and go like in his younger days. At least partially, this is because the two things he has maintained require him to be high up the pitch: shot and goal volume. Maybe he's sticking around a while?
This is where I start to become perplexed at attempts to dismiss him or his impact.
Shots and goals
Aging Ronaldo is still the highest volume shooter across the big European leagues. In each of his seven seasons in Madrid he has taken more shots than anyone else in the top five European leagues. In the earliest of these years he was averaging well over seven non-penalty shots per 90 minutes played and in apparent decline through 2015-16 he still averaged 6.4. His shot volume is down; his shot volume still exceeds everyone else.
Okay, so what? If he's declining, then maybe he’s greedier than before, pulling the trigger and wasting shots from unrealistic positions to keep his volume high. Maybe? Well actually, no.
Over time, we can see that his shot locations have moved. Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, he took 345 shots inside the box (48%) and 377 outside. The following and most recent three seasons have seen significant change, he took 378 shots in side the box (59%) compared to 263 outside. That's a big increase in efficiency for an aging player, and in fact his in box rate has risen from 3.45 to 3.85 shots per 90 and (+0.40) and the out of box rate has fallen from 3.78 to 2.68 shots per 90 (-1.10). Since 2011-12, the average distance of his footed shots has reduced every season. Students of expected goals will understand what this means: he's reduced the low probability hit and hopes from range and is getting in the box and getting closer chances more often. This gif shows the difference between the middle seasons here 2011-12 and 2014-15, there's a clear move to closer in:
La Liga, square=goal, circle=other shots, colour=blue to red ->scoring probability of shot
Anyway, let's strip out those free kicks and the ambitious efforts from range and look at what's left, to get an idea of his irrefutably valuable production. The 3.8 shots per 90 he took in 2015-16 from inside the box alone list him as a top 20 shot volume forward in the big five leagues. So to relate: Harry Kane's entire shot volume was 4.1 per 90 in 2015-16, Alexis Sanchez put up 3.9, Luis Suarez in a season for the ages hit around 3.7. These are high quality forwards! Romelu Lukaku and his seemingly desired and no doubt expensive shooting boots? 3.3 per 90. All extremely solid totals and you get that output from Ronaldo, every year, just from inside the box.
So having ascertained that his overall shot volume had marginally declined yet was still ahead of everyone else, we now know that it hasn't affected the quality of the chances he is getting, and in fact as a striker, he has become more efficient with age.
Of course the derived currency is goals, and in no way is he looking like he has taken his foot off the pedal there. His 2015-16 return of 0.82 per 90 still lands him firmly in the elite--7th among players with over 50 shots and is broadly alongside expectation (he ranks 4th in the big five leagues with around 0.9 xG/90). In fact, if we look at the players that surround him for both actual and expected goals--Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Luis Suárez, Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Lionel Messi--and consider the praise most of them have garnished for this last season, we can see that familiarity has maybe brought contempt, Ronaldo's always part of this group, and hasn't fallen back.
All good, still good.
For a guy that regularly gets slated for his selfishness, Ronaldo sure does create a lot of goals. The last five seasons he's managed ten or more assists and has averaged 12. Through 2015-16 his rate of assisting shots has been around 1.4 per game, which pales compared to his shot volume, so it's easy to understand where the perception comes from, but still, his attacking prowess is not just one dimensional. There's even an argument that he is managing to create better chances as he ages, the chances he creates are clustered more towards the centre of the goal than they used to be, by on average approximately two metres. Again if we use 2011-12 to 2014-15 as representative of this evolution, the contraction is clear:
line=pass, circle= pass destination, red= goal, white=shot (props to all who have built similar)
Evolution of role, the others
Madrid's current system is somewhat tricky to define. With Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo a three pronged forward line with little responsibility to defend, their precise positions can be hard to pigeonhole, and that comes out in the data. Bale played slightly behind the other two under Rafa Benitez but Zinedine Zidane's throwback "run-around-a-bit" style of coaching returned him to start from the right flank and the two forward positions of Benzema and Ronaldo have been far less strict. Once more we can see this in the evolution of Ronaldo's shot maps, this time via a comparison between 2013-14 and 2015-16:
viz credit, Ted Knutson and Marek Kwiatkowski, using Opta data
Again, a comparison across seasons reveals changes, and with further detail in this visual, we can spot greater nuance. As a reflection of his well-known left forward role, the 2013-14 map clearly shows a bias towards that side in comparison to the far more centrally balanced 2015-16 shot map. What else? Evidence of his more forward role can be seen in an increase in attempts from throughballs (triangles), specifically in the left channel, and a trebling in goal expectation from this type of chance. The conclusion that he's getting better chances closer in is reflected by the average expected goals per shot, up significantly from 0.107 per shot to 0.123. All in all, his shot charts are looking better over time and his 2015-16 total expected goal volume exceeds previous seasons. Thirty-one year old Ronaldo isn't an all round forward, he's an elite striker and that has contributed to an interesting knock on effect: Benzema and Bale have completely ripped it up this last year.
Benzema has recorded over a goal per 90 minutes played (which places him second among Europe's top tier leagues behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic's renaissance in the one-team Ligue Un) and is shooting at a career high rate of 4.4 shots per game. Bear in mind it's four seasons since he exceeded 0.6 goals per game for Madrid, his goalscoring this season--when fit-- has been phenomenal.
Bale is a player with a history of exceeding expected goal contributions (most notably in his last season at Tottenham- 2012-13 and the following year in Madrid) and he has once again achieved that and even allowing for mega club overachievement, almost doubling a goal expectation is crazy, as we can see here:
Tons of goals arriving at the back post. I wrote about his season for ESPN Insider recently and one thing to note is the sheer volume of headed goals- 9.
This is the third season of the Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale axis and quite clearly the one with the widest output, for all that injuries for the Frenchman and the Welshman have contributed to them missing a large volume of time. More time may have led these outputs to cool somewhat but we have to consider that the three players have learned to function together at a new peak level. Does Ronaldo's move towards a more central attacking role higher up the pitch occupy defenders more than his former role? And if so, is this allowing his teammates to exploit the spaces defenders leave behind when double or triple teaming him? The evidence certainly suggests it's possible.
What next for Ronaldo?
Ronaldo's lifetime shot and goal contribution is so high as to measure alongside any scorer in the history of the game. As such even with an adapted game, he is proving as lethal as he ever was. It is not yet a question of his decline as core outputs are still extremely high and while it's impossible to state how much longer he can maintain such a level we can see with a lesser talent such as Ibrahimovic, at 34 and still providing huge output, that he should be able to maintain for a while longer. Indeed, it can be presumed that Ronaldo will keep scoring well as long as he is playing.
So what should Real Madrid do to plan for a succession?
It's too soon. With Bale at 26 and Benzema at 28, Ronaldo is the only of the three who is an age usually presumed to be beyond his best, and we've shown that that isn't the case. It's perfectly feasible that they are set with a front three--court cases notwithstanding--for at least another two years. With James Rodriguez bench bound and seemingly out of favour and an aging defence, it seems likely that the smart thing to do for Madrid would be to recruit further back through the team, but with the Euros due and new stars likely to shine, one suspects that flipping James for the next big thing may be their limit; after all it's their style.
Ronaldo has played an immense volume of football in his career while being fortunate not to suffer with severe injury, and the common thread looking towards the Euros in that it's his last chance to find glory with his country. However there may well be a further World Cup and Euros left for him beyond this one--he's on record as saying he may retire in "four or five years". While Portugal may fundamentally lack the strength in depth to challenge deep into a continental or worldwide tournament, it's far from implausible that Ronaldo could run hot and give them a chance. As long as his fitness is up to scratch, Euro 16 could still be his tournament and while young pretenders will look to impress to secure big moves, the player Madrid most need in the coming years is already on their books and is ever more efficient in his play as a goalscorer. He remains the best player likely to take part.
Thanks for reading!
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