A man who needs no introduction and who is regarded as one of the best footballers of his generation, the ageless Cristiano Ronaldo is Serie A’s second top goalscorer this season and has scored a remarkable 16 goals in his last 12 league games for Juventus.
Under coach Mauricio Sarri’s tactics, Ronaldo is utilised predominantly on the left side of an attacking front three in a 4-3-3 formation. Ronaldo has reached 21 goals this season in just 22 games for Juventus averaging 0.9 goals per 90 minutes and a 0.71 xG (expected goals). With a reputation for scoring thunderous free-kicks and stunning goals from outside the box, this season, Ronaldo has become a deadly poacher scoring all his goals from inside the box. 14 goals have come from open play, two of those being headers in addition to seven penalties.
This scout report in the form of a tactical analysis is part two of a three-part analysis on the top three scorers in Serie A attempting to dissect the goalscoring situations these three strikers have scored from in open play. Each piece will conclude with a finishing practice for coaches to use with their players. The focus of this piece will be around Ronaldo’s dynamic, yet intelligent movement which begins from outside the box, to manipulate the defender before arriving into the box to finish.
Positioning, shot attempt location, shot target distribution
As evident in the heat map below, Ronaldo largely operates on the left wing and half-space (space between the central area and the wing). If the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch, this normally leaves Ronaldo in a lot of space as defenders shift across. Once play is switched, he comes alive and can drift inside onto his favoured right foot. Additionally, we can see a significant orange mark which reflects his positioning within the box primarily between the six-yard box and the penalty spot. This has been largely coveted as the ‘golden zone’ where 80% of goals are scored from in one or two touches. Statsbomb analyst Michael Goodman describes what separates the best strikers ‘is their ability to find and take lots of good shots,’ something Ronaldo clearly demonstrates here.
This season Ronaldo has attempted 5.61 shots per game with 40.5% on target which is more shots, at a less efficient rate than top scorer Ciro Immobile. However, when analysing shot attempt location (pitch distribution – see below left), it is evident Ronaldo has significantly higher attempts from outside the box than Immobile which is regarded as a lesser quality shot when taking xG into account. In regards shot direction (see below right – on target distribution), similar to Immobile, Ronaldo attempts to keep his shots low, which accounts for 55% of his shot attempts, with a majority of 16.7% placed centrally.
Something that is not always noted when exploring Ronaldo’s brilliance is not only how and where he finishes his chances, but how he arrives into those areas in the first place. As a result of numerous expertly timed forward runs which start as early as the entry point to the final third and even half-way line, more often than not the damage is done before Ronaldo arrives into the box. An ability to manipulate defenders creating separation, getting across them, and ghosting in from behind gives him a huge advantage when finishing his opportunities.
Ronaldo, living life off the shoulder
Ronaldo’s ability to ‘show’ himself to the defender highlighted in the image below, gives them a false sense of security and almost lulls the defender into thinking he is in control. Upon recognising there is an opportunity for a cross, he begins to pull away off the shoulder of the defender putting them in a difficult position as they must follow the ball and Ronaldo whilst moving at speed.
As he enters the box Ronaldo immediately pulls away from the defender who is following the flight of the ball and finds himself with a significant amount of separation (yellow line) and space to attack the ball.
After initiating his move from over 15 metres outside the box, Ronaldo enters a position we have seen him in so many times before (image below), taking his opportunity to open the scoring. Another example of this can be seen in Juventus’ home game vs Napoli earlier this season. Ronaldo plays on opposing defender Koulibally’s blindside, who follows the ball for a split second whilst Ronaldo decelerates creating separation between them and dispatches of a cross that has been pulled back to the penalty spot.
A key component of this type of run is the timing of Ronaldo’s movement. The difficulty for all defenders in this type of situation is that they must follow the ball and their man whilst running back towards their goal at speed. Ronaldo is able to recognise when the defender has looked away (towards the ball), and then make his move putting him on the front foot as he arrives into the box to finish. By playing on the defenders ‘blindside’ as Ronaldo does when he pulls away from the defender, this problem becomes even harder as they are unable to see where Ronaldo is without taking their eye off the ball.
A trailing Ronaldo turns an inch into a mile
One of Ronaldo’s great strengths is his ability to detach himself from the ongoing phase of play, staying away initially, and arriving late to finish anything that falls his way.
In the above photo, Ronaldo (circled) is located between two defenders with very little space to receive the ball and is not really perceived as a threat as Leonardo Bonucci attempts a long through ball (red line) to Paulo Dybala.
With the back four and the two central midfielders focused on the ball, Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain; Ronaldo ghosts in late from a deep position (see above).
The ball breaks loose on the edge of the box (pictured above) and with a perfectly timed run Ronaldo drives the ball into the corner of the net on the half volley. Once again, Ronaldo is able to recognise when the opponent may have taken their eye off him and anticipates the possibility of the ball dropping out to the edge of the box as a potential opportunity.
The image above highlights this once again as Ronaldo starts his run on the half-way line behind 11 opposing outfield players, none of which are aware of where he is.
Above, Ronaldo arrives into the box to score with one touch. This further highlights the constant threat Ronaldo possesses from any area of the pitch and the amount of groundwork he puts in to earn his chances in the ‘golden zone.’
Triggers to run in behind
Another type of run which Ronaldo has found success from this season is in behind the opposition centre backs. Predominantly three triggers are utilised by Ronaldo to initiate this movement: opposition high line, counterattack, and no pressure on the ball, all of which afford Ronaldo time, and/or space to utilise his speed and power and make his move in behind the opposition. Ronaldo is a huge asset in these situations giving Juventus a valuable forward outlet resulting in scoring opportunities.
In the picture above Verona play with fire as their high line is exposed by a penetrating Ronaldo who runs on to a through ball and open the scoring.
The picture above highlights another trigger which Ronaldo uses to initiate forward runs in behind. Higuain carries the ball centrally and with no pressure on the ball Ronaldo makes his move in behind the two centre-backs.
Finish like Ronaldo
When analysing Ronaldo’s movement off the ball, what becomes evident is he possesses a variety of expertly executed forward runs which allow him to manipulate the defender before arriving onto the ball. By playing off the shoulder, Ronaldo is able to toe a fine line between ‘showing’ himself to the defender, and playing on their ‘blindside.’ This allows Ronaldo to be on the front foot when attempting to create separation, get across the defender, ghost in from behind, or hold his run.
Additionally, it is clear that the damage created by these types of runs does not start in the box, but in fact, begins from 10-20m outside the box. In order to recreate a representative practice, we must take this into account. As evident in the picture below in a Juventus counterattack which was initiated from just inside the final third, there is a significant amount of space between Ronaldo (yellow), the defender, and the goal.
The picture below shows Ronaldo who was initially on the defenders ‘blindside,’ has now made his move across the defender to the front post in an attempt to meet the cross and score.
The distance between the attacker, defender, and the goal, must be preserved in our practice when considering the start position of our players. This, in turn, will afford opportunities for the attacker to manipulate the defender, and find the line between ‘showing’ themselves to the defender and playing on the ‘blindside’ before arriving into the box. Additionally, this will recreate the problem for our defenders of trying to follow the ball and their man whilst running back to their goal at speed.
In picture one (above – left), the central blue striker passes the ball to the two blue wide players (full-back/winger) who will engage in a 2vs1 with the aim to release their teammate down the wing for a cross. Once a blue player in the wide-area touches the ball, the red defender can engage.
Picture two (above – right), the ball has been released down the wing for the blue winger to run onto. The blue striker’s aim is to manipulate the central red defender in the red zone, toeing the line between ‘showing’ themselves to the defender, and playing on the ‘blindside’ before arriving into the ‘golden zone’.
Picture three (above – left), the blue striker attempts to move onto the red central defenders ‘blind side’. The blue winger has broken the red line (dotted) and must now attempt to cross the ball into the ‘golden zone.’
In picture four (above – right), the blue striker comes back across the red central defender and arrives onto the cross towards the front post.
Picture five (above – left), the blue striker attempts to finish into the goal. Once he/she has finished, players return to their positions. This can be repeated on both sides of the pitch and could be progressed by adding two strikers and/or two centre backs, in addition to allowing the red full-back to follow the blue winger and apply full pressure to stop the cross.
Picture six (above – right) provides a second scenario where the goalkeeper starts with the ball and aims to find the red full-back in the wide area. The full-back aims to protect the ball for as long as possible; on their first touch, the two blue wide players attempt to press and win the ball back. Once the blues win the ball back, a counterattack is on. The central blue striker must come alive and make a forward run into the box whilst a blue wide player is be released down the wing for a cross.
Not much that has been left to be said about Juventus striker Cristiano Ronaldo as he continues to prove he is one of the best strikers in Serie A, and world football. Behind the countless goals and variety of finishes inside the box however, lie fine details that separate him from the rest. With Juventus currently sitting one point clear at the top of Serie A, there is no doubt Ronaldo will play an integral part in their efforts to win their ninth straight league title.