Why Real Madrid goal-machine Cristiano Ronaldo cannot be considered a true great

Alex Netherton

Yes, Cristiano scored a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid, making Real Madrid’s path to the Champions League final close to certain. Some people have talked of his quiet genius, and commented on his remarkable ability to make his game ever more efficient, so as his body ages, he can still contribute goals. In 389 appearances for Real, he has 399 goals. He is the club’s top scorer by some distance, and has achieved a scoring rate which will conceivably never be broken. Has three Champions League titles – so far – one Liga title and three Premier Leagues. In his current condition, it is more than likely that more trophies will come.

Of course, the problem with this is that Ronaldo is comically overrated. People look at the goals, but they notice none of the drawbacks, the kind of thing that prevents him from ever really be considered a true footballing great. He is a modern footballing charlatan, no better than John Fashanu. The true football intelligentsia understand all this, with only a cursory look at his statistical talent wheel. The buffoons of the game, those obsessed with obvious things like goals, and trophies, might never understand, but it is they who are missing out.

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As a notable football tactics expert, and undisputed genius, noted a few years ago, Ronaldo is ‘tactically toxic’. His contribution and obsession with goals has dragged down the side consistently. Without Ronaldo, there would have been more time on the pitch for more tactically aware players, like Javier Hernandez. He doesn’t commit to a full, vertical high press in the high box. Some of the very best players in the world are able to follow the instructions of great managers, without question. These are players like Lucas Leiva, Philip Cocu and John Obi Mikel – those are the kinds of players that you go to war with.

Not Ronaldo, though. With his dedication to staying near the goal, he forces the full-backs, central defenders and midfielders to defend and clear up the mess he leaves for them. Dani Carvajal has to make tackles instead of taking his rightful place as the star of the team. The same situation is replaced across the pitch, as his match-winning hat-tricks take all the glory and attention away from a side which could be so much more tactically complex.

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Ronaldo has consistently taken the easy way out in his career. He jumped from Madeira to Lisbon as soon as he could, just before becoming a teenager. From there, still a teenager, he left for the luxury of Old Trafford, with the best manager in the world, Alex Ferguson. He moved to the most powerful club in England, a flat-track bully able to hoover up all the trophies available with ease. And then, as soon as he could persuade his boss to release him, he went to La Liga, a place that makes the SPL look competitive.

A real legend of the game would have taken a different path. Lionel Messi has offered so much more, given he has invented his own position, the false nine. At the start of his career, too, he played as an inverted winger. Luis Suarez, his teammate at Barcelona, was put in the position that he made his own, described by an intellectual colossus, Brendan Rodgers, as a reverse-seven-and-a-half-tucked-in-around-the-corner.

Also, Ronaldo has made sure that he has enjoyed an easy ride throughout his career. Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti and Ferguson are all coaches who offer only rudimentary advice to their players about the tactical approach. Jose Mourinho spent most of time telling the defenders how to position themselves (because they had to make up for Ronaldo’s shortcomings, after all). He avoided the revolutionary approaches to football of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. He has, to our knowledge, displayed no open admiration for Marcelo Bielsa. He has not written any monograph at all, not even one about Valeri Lobanovsky.

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Is there any hope for Ronaldo to finally earn some respect from the tactical expert crowd? Can he convince us that he truly understands the game, and that he truly knows how to be an effective team player? Well, there is one possibility. He can reinvent himself as a deep-lying inverted false number 10. Instead of sitting behind the striker, the deep-lying inverted false number 10 floats high up against his own back 10, pulling the strings and shielding the defence from attacks. To the uninitiated, this might sound like a defensive midfielder, but this is obviously a very shallow reading, perhaps even a less incisive observation that pointing out that it is an advanced libero/sweeper hybrid.

But then you look at Ronaldo, and all he’s done. All the goals, all the time in central attack, and all the time on the wings. All he does, with the goals from the left foot, right foot and head. All the time spent just being good at that one, single thing, and you realise. Ronaldo will never be special, or effective: Ronaldo is a one-trick pony, with nowhere else to go.

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