The Tactical Evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo

Chapter 1: A Star is Born


Cristiano Ronaldo broke through at Sporting at the age of 16 under manager Laszlo Boloni, and it was clear from the very start that he was one of the best talents in Europe at that time. Initially, Cristiano played as a pure winger, attacking the byline and crossing the ball into the box.


Ronaldo had the pace, the agility and the dribbling needed to play as a wide man. But this flashy style came with a lot of criticism as he was often criticized or having no end product. To an extent, this was true as Cristiano only had 3 goals in 25 games, but this flashy style of play caught Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention as Lisbon won 3-1 in a friendly against United, convincing Ferguson to make him the most expensive teenager in the United Kingdom during that time. 


Chapter 2: Pre-2006 World Cup Ronaldo


During his first three seasons at United, he still used to play as a winger on the right, but this is a problem. He had moved to a better league but had not adapted his game and was still viewed more as a “showboat” even having a clash with teammate Ruud Van Nistelrooy off the pitch because of his showboating, and after a controversial 2006 World Cup, where he got club teammate Wayne Rooney sent off, he returned to United a different beast. 


Chapter 3: Post-2006 World Cup Ronaldo


Ronaldo increased his strength and pace; he was showboating less and focusing on the end product more. Sir Alex gave Ronaldo positional freedom cutting inside more often. In the 2007/08 season, Carlos Tevez joined United and the front three was usually Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo.


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Sir Alex allowed the three positional freedom, which resulted in incredible fluidity. This made Ronaldo harder to mark as he would often play centrally and on the left which left defenders confused. He was top assister in the 2006/07 season, earning a Balon D’Or nomination, and equaled the highest goal-scoring record the following season and went on to win the Balon d’Or at the age of 23, before earning a world-record €80 million move to Real Madrid in 2009.


Chapter 4: Transitioning into a Set Role


Whereas he was a more fluid attacker mainly playing from the right at United, Cristiano joined Real Madrid where he would play in a more set role. Madrid used a 4-2-3-1 during this time where Gonzalo Higuaín would play as the striker, Ángel di María on the right and Mesut Özil in the no.10 role, and Manuel Pellegrini and then José Mourinho utilized him on the left. 


The no.10 would draw out defenders, allowing Ronaldo to cut inside and play more centrally. When Ronaldo had the ball he would draw out defenders on the left creating space centrally for Özil to operate in. this would also create space for Di María on the right who would look to cross the ball into the box where Higuaín or Ronaldo would be waiting to head the ball into the goal. 


When defending, Ronaldo would only drop down when his team was under pressure, meaning that Madrid would often defend in a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond. This played into Mourinho’s favor as this gave birth to arguably the greatest ever counter-attacking side the game has ever seen. In these years, Ronaldo was being recognized as one of the best players in history as he won the Balon d’Or 2 times as well as finishing as runner-up 3 times. 


Chapter 5: Thriving in the 4-3-3


After Carlo Ancelotti’s appointment as manager in the summer of 2013, Özil was promptly sold to Arsenal whilst Gareth Bale joined for a world-record fee from Tottenham, meaning there was no more #10 in the hole as Ancelotti instead played with two central midfielders, thus allowing Ronaldo to play more centrally.


Bale would typically hold the width from the right flank, and his quality drew out defenders and allowed Ronaldo to cut inside, drift centrally and link up with Ronaldo, who would advance and maintain the width on the left flank. Benzema’s unselfishness meant Ronaldo could stay high as Benzema would often track back and help out the defense.


The arrival of Zinedine Zidane helped speed up this change as Ronaldo would often be rested to remain fresh for the bigger games, as the Frenchman switched to a 4-4-2 diamond with Ronaldo playing up top alongside Benzema, whose fluid movement would allow Ronaldo to play more centrally.


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‘El Bicho’ started higher and only dropped deeper to act as a link-up player rather than constantly dropping deep to aid in build-up as a means of conserving his legs. He would typically play on the defender’s shoulders to run into space or lurk inside the box for a cross, evolving from a deadly wide player to a clinical winger.


Chapter 6: The Final Transformation


At Juventus, in final stages of Ronaldo’s Career, we saw him morph into a striker. Max Allegri used a 4-2-3-1 where Paulo Dybala would play in the no.10 role or a 4-4-2 with both alongside each other, but it quickly became apparent the partnership between them was largely unbalanced as both players wanted to play a more free central role. 


This is why Allegri moved to a 4-3-3/44–2 hybrid with Ronaldo playing on the left moving inwards with Mario Mandžukić as his strike partner upfront and Blaise Matuidi as a wide midfielder on the left, creating a 4-4-2. At Juventus, Mandžukić would act as a main hub and others around him would play off of the Croatian striker.


It was here in La Vecchia Signora where Ronaldo became more involved in the team’s build-up play, and Mandžukić’s intelligence and versatility allowed him to move wider to allow the Portuguese forward to act as a striker in certain situations and play higher up the pitch, with the Croat typically acting as a #10 to cover the areas he vacated.


Ronaldo remained a constant threat in the box and continued his clinical finishing in Italy, and while he has since returned to Manchester United as a 36-year-old, he is still as deadly as ever. Playing as a central forward and spearheading Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1, Cristiano bagged a brace in his second debut against Newcastle United, proving why he is one of the finest players in football history.


By: Arhum Siddiqui / @MrArhumSiddiqui

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Peters / Manchester United