Is Cristiano Ronaldo in decline? Opta Joe examines the numbers
By Duncan Alexander aka Opta Joe
Last Updated: 30/08/16 11:45am
Cristiano Ronaldo had a standout year in terms of trophies but is he in decline? A new book by Duncan Alexander, known by his pseudonym @OptaJoe, examines the stats to get to the truth. The following is an extract from Opta Joe's Football Yearbook 2016...
A reported 85,000 people crowded into the Bernabeu to see Ronaldo unveiled as a Real Madrid player in early July 2009. Madrid had made many forays to the Premier League in the 2000s to acquire players, from McManaman to Beckham, Woodgate to Gravesen, but this was a different level altogether, both financially and theatrically. Ronaldo's sheer menace meant that great things were expected once he reached La Liga. He didn't disappoint.
Ronaldo's first four league games for Real saw him score once, once, twice and once respectively, leaving him with a goals to game rate of 1.25. It has barely dipped since.
As the table below shows, he played fewer than 3000 minutes of league and Champions League football in his first season in Spain, an ankle injury in the autumn leading to a rare spell in the treatment clinic for the usually perma-fit forward. Even so, Ronaldo still managed more than a goal per 90 and his rate of 7.49 shots per 90 is a career high (level with the 2012/13 season). Perhaps in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his new team-mates, Ronaldo's chances created per 90 rate of 2.59 goals per game is the best he has ever registered in his career. The man who arrived at Real was a goalscorer, yes, but also a supplier.
Ronaldo's first four seasons at Real Madrid
|Season||Mins played||Goals / 90||Shots / 90||Assists /90||Chances / 90||Chances / shots|
The consistency Ronaldo showed in his first four seasons in Spain is remarkable. As the figures above clearly demonstrate, if you went to a game in this period you could roughly expect to see a Ronaldo goal and seven shots in your allotted 90 minutes of action. 'Selfish Ronaldo' still assists at a rate that all but a handful of players in world football would be delighted with. Between 2009 and 2015 he produced 65 assists, behind only Lionel Messi, Mesut Ozil and Cesc Fabregas in the top five European leagues.
It's genuinely difficult to thread a way through the records Ronaldo set once he had his feet under the table at Real (so numerous they are), but his two Ballons d'Or at Madrid (in 2013 and 2014) are almost numerically equal to the number of league titles and Champions Leagues he has won in his entire time there (one league in 2012 and European titles in 2014 and 2016 respectively). Yes, he has had to play in a division against a Barcelona team experiencing their own holy peak but, even so, he won more leagues/Champions Leagues in his final three seasons at Manchester United as he has in seven seasons in Madrid. He was the cherry on the cake at Old Trafford but often at Real he has had to be the sponge as well, soaking up both opposition attention and the criticism of the famously intolerant fanbase.
However you look at it, his goalscoring has come at a rate that was once deemed the preserve of the 1920s and 1930s when balls were heavy and pressing was light. The similarly extravagant returns by Messi at Barcelona has created a rivalry that will live on for decades, and almost certainly pushed both men to greater heights. Twenty-six goals in 29 games in his first La Liga season was followed by 40 in 34 in 2010/11, the first time any player had hit that number in a single season. A year later Ronaldo pushed the mark to 46 and finally claimed the league title, although Messi responded with 50 goals in 37 league appearances.
Ronaldo back in training
Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to training with Real Madrid after his knee injury at Euro 2016.
One trend that is interesting to note is the rise and fall of La Liga and Champions League goals in relation to each other. As Real finally landed their 10th European Cup in 2014, Ronaldo set a Champions League record by scoring 17 times in a single campaign, while at the same time recording 'only' 31 league goals, his lowest total since his first season at the club. It also seemed that the 2015/16 season for Real Madrid was a write-off, with Barcelona seemingly unstoppable. But when an energetic Zinedine Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez, and Barca went four games without a win (losing three in a row), the gap at the top tightened. The La Liga title was only decided on the final day of the season - with Real finishing only a point behind their rivals. There was also a more concerted effort in Europe, which is once again reflected in the gap between Ronaldo's goal totals in each competition.
The most recent three seasons Ronaldo has played at Madrid have seen his latest, perhaps final metamorphosis. This time he is a less dynamic but arguably more dangerous forward, one who doesn't necessarily instigate counter-attacks but who will still punish any mistake and gobble up virtually any chance.
Ronaldo's last three seasons at Real Madrid
|Season||Mins played||Goals / 90||Shots / 90||Assists / 90||Chances / 90||Chances / shots|
His goals per 90 rates in 2013/14 and 2014/15 were 1.22 and 1.25 respectively, which are by some way the best he has recorded in his career. Season 2014/15 is particularly telling as his shots per 90 fell to its lowest level since his final season at Manchester United yet the goal rate has never been higher. Let us not forget that football is a team sport, and it remains so even in the era of Ronaldo and Messi. When Ronaldo criticised his team-mates in February 2016, the contrast with Barcelona was stark. While Messi has dovetailed perfectly with Neymar and Luis Suarez, the very definition of being greater than the sum of their parts, Ronaldo has often appeared to be the one constant in the Real side, with injury and the club's often haphazard transfer policy preventing him striking up productive relationships. He was particularly critical of the club when they sold Ozil and Angel Di Maria to Arsenal and Manchester United respectively. By the end of the 2015/16 season, Ronaldo had posted his lowest chances created per 90 figure, his transformation from a creative player to a finisher finally complete. His last action of the club season was to strike home the winning penalty in the Champions League final shoot-out, a special moment for a person who, if he was in the NFL, would now be a special teams operative rather than leading the offence.
One final note on Ronaldo's goalscoring record, and it's something that comes up frequently on social media where his fans battle seemingly endlessly, and usually witlessly, with Messi supporters in a footballing cold war. Any mention of the Portuguese is guaranteed to elicit the taunt 'Penaldo' referring to the belief that the Madrid man's voluminous goal total is hepped up with penalties, as if somehow these are lesser goals.
The truth is less clear, with Ronaldo's total of 11 penalties in the Champions League indeed a record number, but only two clear of Messi, with both men having missed three each (a competition joint record along with van Nistelrooy, Muller and Hazard). Indeed, what is noticeable about both players' penalty records is that they're really not that impressive, with both missing at rates that in lesser men would have seen the duties handed to someone else.
Identifying plateaus and declines in footballers is something that clubs spend a lot of time doing, both when assessing their own players or weighing up potential signings. Identifying it in someone like Ronaldo, undeniably one of the most effective and talented players in the history of the sport, is both difficult and probably unfair. That said, looking for signs of it can still be an interesting exercise, and there definitely are some in this instance. The table below shows Ronaldo's touches and passes per game in La Liga and both have generally declined throughout his time at Madrid, with 2015/16 a career low in both metrics. Whether it's more down to a change in role, the ageing process or, more likely, a combination of both, the truth is that the great CR7 is slowly becoming more peripheral at Real Madrid.
Ronaldo's involvement in games
|Touches / game||68.2||61.5||60.2||51.6||53.6||53.9||46.8|
|Passes / game||38.6||36.9||37.0||31.9||31.8||33.7||29.7|
But, you cry, who cares about touches or passes? Ronaldo isn't about touches or passes, he's a goalscorer, he's a goalscoring machine and the goal rate is showing no significant decline. Well, that's both true and not true. As you can see below, in 2015/16, only a run of goalscoring in his final 10 games of the season prevented it being the first season where Ronaldo had scored in fewer than half of his league appearances. He also failed to trouble the leading teams, scoring eight times in two matches against struggling Espanyol but registering just a single goal against Barcelona, Atletico and Villarreal. He still has the numbers but rub at the surface and it's not quite as shiny as it used to be.
Ronaldo % of games scored in
|La Liga||Games played in||Games scored in||Games not scored in||% failed to score in|
Wherever Cristiano Ronaldo ends his career, be that at another European club, the MLS or even China, his place in the game's pantheon is assured. His goalscoring rate between 2006 and 2016 is one of the wonders of the modern game, a rapidly increasing crescendo that helped Real Madrid to become European champions for the 10th and 11th times. The Galactico era that Real ushered in with the signings of Luis Figo and Zidane in the early 2000s never really led to the dominance of European football that those in charge of the vision thought it would. However, it did establish the club as the team that would go out and pay the galactic transfer fees, of which Ronaldo was the ultimate purchase (hence the guilty fudging of the higher Gareth Bale fee to prevent their star man taking offence). He has repaid the faith in him by a huge margin but, as the data has hinted, there probably aren't going to be more than a couple of seasons left at the very top level. Soon the Ronaldo era will have passed into legend, a legend where, if you so wish, you can watch more than 500 goals from the man on YouTube. Dixie Dean, sadly, has to go without.