There can be no doubt about the biggest and most high profile transfer of last summer, the deal that took the Portuguese international forward Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid to Juventus was worth a reported £99M and represented a significant investment from the Italian side, especially in a player who turned 34 in the second half of his first season at the club.
The age profile of the player however and the willingness of Juventus, one of the smartest clubs in Europe in terms of player recruitment, to spend such a significant fee on an ageing player speaks volumes of the quality and durability of the player. Indeed, more than possibly any other top level player of the last decade Ronaldo possesses the ability to constantly reinvent his game in order remain relevant at the top level and maximise his physical attributes.
Consider the ‘original’ version of Ronaldo when he emerged at Manchester United following his transfer from Sporting Lisbon, more style than substance his tricks and flicks brought the crowd at Old Trafford to their feet but his end product was often lacking. Fast forward to the end of his time in England and we see a multifunctional forward whose finishing was often incisive and decisive, a rare blend of power, pace and technique that was key in the success of his club towards his move to Spain and Real Madrid.
In Madrid, we saw the further evolution of Ronaldo as he emerged as a leader at club and international level. He still played predominantly from the wide areas initially but gradually he transitioned into more of a traditional central striker as he became the firm focal point for the attacking structure of the club.
All of this led to questions surrounding how Juventus would use the Portuguese forward following his club record transfer. There was a clear plan from the Italian side to recoup a percentage of the transfer outlay with commercial deals in place and shirt sales likely to account for a large percentage of the initial outlay. On the pitch, however, there were still questions surrounding whether Ronaldo would play from the wide areas or the central area?
The Story so Far
So far this season we have seen a couple of different configurations from Juventus as they look for the best way to use his attacking resources. In some matches, they have used two forwards in Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic playing centrally with the Argentinian forward Paulo Dybala behind them as the ’10’.
In this image, you can see the movement patterns that we see from the Juventus forwards in this orientation. The Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic plays as the fixed focal point in the central area whilst both Ronaldo and Dybala have the freedom to move around in and around the final third. Ronaldo, in particular, will drift out into wide areas to pick up possession of the ball before moving back inside diagonally towards the penalty area.
There are similarities in this system to the way that we saw Ronaldo play during the latter stages of his time at Madrid. With Mario Mandzukic taking the role of Karim Benzema as the forward who sacrifices himself to create space for Ronaldo to move into. If anything, however, the movement profile for Ronaldo in this structure for Ronaldo offers the Portuguese forward even more freedom as he drifts right as well as left at will.
The second attacking configuration that we have seen utilised by ‘Juve’ this season resembles a more traditional three-man attack although the two wide attackers are orientated into more central positions in the half spaces.
The three attacking players are the same as before but this time Mario Mandzukic adopts a more fixed central position with Ronaldo playing off of the Croatian forward to the left with Dybala to the right. The three forwards are supported by two ‘8’s in the centre and the two fullbacks who move high to occupy the wide areas. These vertical movements from the fullbacks are key in allowing Ronaldo and Dybala to occupy more central positions.
With these two slightly different structures we have seen they be creative in the way that he has used Ronaldo to this point. Although both examples allow Ronaldo the same structure and movement it is the orientation of the players around him that alters the way that Juventus build their attack.
Ronaldo in action
We have looked above at the different structures that Juventus have looked to use this season so far but now we need to drill down further into the positioning and movement of Ronaldo in an individual sense.
The structures and the system of Juve to this point in the season have been created to allow Ronaldo to operate more and more in pockets of space in which he can be isolated against an opposing defender.
Here we see Ronaldo having picked up the ball on the right-hand side with the Empoli defender having to move across to close down space. What is interesting is that on the opposite side of the field we see Dybala having switched to the left when Ronaldo drifted over to the right. The tactical intelligence of Paulo Dybala allows Ronaldo the freedom to move across without unbalancing the side. From this position, we sill see Ronaldo immediately look to engage the opposition defender 1v1.
Once again in this example, we see Ronaldo wide on the right isolated against a Sassuolo defender. The closest defender is focussed purely on engaging the ball and closing Ronaldo down. The central striker is pulling off the back shoulder of the central defender and this, in turn, creates the space for Ronaldo to run with the ball and engage the defender before beating him.
This time we have an example of when Ronaldo takes up a more central position. With Juan Cuadrado on the right side of the final third we see space created centrally and when Ronaldo takes possession here he is in a pocket of space between the defensive players. Once again though as soon as Ronaldo takes the ball he is single-minded in his desire to drive straight at the heart of the defensive line.
Finally, we see Ronaldo on the left side of the penalty area as he collects possession of the ball. This time Juventus are in a sustained attacking phase as you can see from the number of players from both sides concentrated in and around the edge of the penalty area.
Once more though as the ball comes across the face of the penalty area Ronaldo takes the ball when isolated against a single defensive player. The inherent danger of a player like Ronaldo is that there is no truly effective way to defend against him in a 1v1 situation. If you stand off then he will turn and attack you inside or out and if you get too close, as the defender has here, then he will turn you and drive past you into the penalty area.
There was no doubt when Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Juventus that their coaching staff would go out of their way to adapt their tactical structures to play to the strengths of the Portuguese international forward.
Juventus are a club that knows how to integrate established and experienced international players as they have done over the years time and time again. The tactical intelligence of the likes of Paulo Dybala and Miraljem Pjanic, in particular, allows Ronaldo to play in the style that he is accustomed to.
It would be a brave person that would bet against Ronaldo firmly establishing himself as a key player for Juventus both on and off the field by the end of this season. There is no doubt that with him in their ranks Juventus have positioned themselves as one of the clear favourites for the Champions League this season.