When Barcelona’s 29-year-old midfielder Paulinho scores more goals in the league than a 5-time Ballon d’Or winner, you know there’s something weird going on. Cristiano Ronaldo has only scored 0.4 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes (NPG90) this season. Not ideal for someone who’s famous for wrecking goalscoring records every year.
Ronaldo’s shot volume, however, has only gone up – Ronaldo has taken 6.8 shots per 90 minutes this season, which is his highest shots per 90 tally since 2014. Moreover, he has taken more shots in the box than he ever has in his Real Madrid career, with 5.3 shots in the box per 90. While his xG/shot has taken a small hit this season, his overall non-penalty expected goals per 90 (NPxG90) has actually increased this season from 0.69 to 0.78 as per Understat.com.
Just with this information, my kneejerk hypotheses would be the following:
- He’s scoring less because he’s 32 – he might just be human.
- This is just a temporary blip; he’ll regress to the mean and start scoring more soon.
Both the assumptions are almost certainly correct, but neither aging nor variance can explain this large a decline in goals. There have to be other reasons for Ronaldo’s lack of goals. So, I sifted through the data and video and came up with some other possible reasons.
- Is Ronaldo getting into positions where he has little room to shoot?
This season, Ronaldo seems to be getting into a lot of situations in which he’s surrounded by many defenders who apply pressure on him, which often results in bad shots. Take a look at this video (as well as the rest of the thread) by the wonderful Tiago Estêvão and see for yourself:
The data confirms this. Stratagem Technologies collects data on the amount of defensive pressure the shooter is under on a scale of 0-5. Last season, only 31.5% of Ronaldo’s chances were in situations in which the pressure on the shooter was rated as 3 or more. However, this number has increased to 48% this season. As for chances with very light pressure (with a rating of 1) and chances in which Ronaldo wasn’t under pressure at all (rated as 0), there has been a noticeable decrease this season, from 50.3% in the 2016-17 season to 24.6% so far this season.
- Has Ronaldo’s shooting deteriorated?
There aren’t too many players who can kick a football better than this Portuguese forward. However, this season, Ronaldo seems to be timing his shots badly and applying either too much or too little power. He often shoots with his first touch of the ball, instead of controlling it first, and his shots are usually either in the reach of the keeper or way off the mark (only 35.3% of his shots are on target; the lowest in his Real Madrid career). Sometimes, he loses balance while shooting and does this:
Stratagem collects data on the quality of the shots taken, with a rating that ranges from 0 to 5. So a shot rated as 0 or 1 is bound to be very bad, 3 is the standard shot, and a shot rated 5 is the perfect shot that is powerful and out of the keeper’s reach.
Ronaldo usually scores blinders like the one here at 3:45 (that’s what a shot with a shot quality rating of 5 looks like), but that has reduced this season. 70% of his shots have been rated with a shot quality of 2 or less, and the percentage of well-taken shots too has gone down for him this season.
- Is Ronaldo less suited to the type of chances he receives this season?
While Ronaldo has been evolving into an excellent predatory forward over the last couple of years, he has made a presumably permanent switch to a center-forward role this season. Wingers and strikers get their shots in different ways, and this might be a factor in Ronaldo’s decrease in goals.
Firstly, here’s Ronaldo’s individual chance creation Sankey chart for last season:
Now compare that with his chance creation Sankey for the 17-18 season:
While Ronaldo created most of his chances last season himself, by dribbling past a defender or winning the ball back, he hasn’t created as many chances on his own this season. The absence of French striker Karim Benzema has meant that a higher share of Ronaldo’s assists have come from midfield this season.
Moving onto the action that led to Ronaldo’s chances, here’s his chance creation treemap for last season:
And now compare that with this season’s treemap:
Although the main source of chances for Ronaldo still is open play passes, there’s a significant reduction in unassisted chances (as mentioned above) and there’s also been an increase in the proportion of high crosses and set pieces he gets his chances from. A higher percentage of his chances are headers this season (26%) compared to last season (18%), too. This doesn’t look like good news considering the fact that he has only scored 1 headed goal from 22 headed shots this season. Ronaldo might just be more comfortable doing the things he did last season as a winger, rather than being on the receiving end of higher passes.
Putting the pieces together
A move to a central position has meant that Ronaldo has fewer opportunities to ghost into the box and score goals from areas in which there’s plenty of space. He’s less skilled at doing what traditional number 9s do, like receiving passes with his back to the goal and being on the end of crosses, and should be re-deployed as a winger/center-forward hybrid. Ronaldo doesn’t look too keen on playing as a striker, as Diario Gol reported he told Chinese media the following:
“I definitely have not ever viewed myself playing as a striker. I’m a different player to a decade ago when I started out at Sporting and even when I played for Manchester United I was an out-and-out winger who took on defenders and crossed.
“As I developed, I started to view the game differently and thought to myself that I have the ability to do more than just that.
“I recognized I had to play closer to the goal as I would have more chances to score and whilst it may seem like I play as a number nine, I don’t see that – I enjoy having freedom on the pitch.”
Furthermore, the absence of Benzema has hurt Ronaldo as well as Real Madrid. While Benzema used to take up a decent proportion of the creative work and acted as the receiver for passes from midfield in the final third last season, those duties have now fallen on Ronaldo’s shoulders. This is evident from the fact that Ronaldo’s xA90 and xGBuildUp90 numbers have increased this season. If Benzema plays as the lone striker in a 4-3-3 in the same way that he did last season, I’m sure Ronaldo will start to get into better positions to score.
Another factor is that Real Madrid aren’t as good at counter-attacks now as they were last season. Very often, their counter-attacking moves seem devoid of width and spacing, and Ronaldo and Benzema are frequently isolated up front. Changing their team shape back to the 4-3-3 (with Ronaldo on the left) that was so successful last season, some work in the training ground from manager Zinedine Zidane, and the return of Gareth Bale could change this, though.
I think Ronaldo will soon start scoring more goals as a result of regression to the mean. He already scored a brace in Real’s 7-1 thrashing of Deportivo Alaves on Sunday, and the reuniting of Real’s dangerous frontline of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano (aka BBC) is good news. After all, you wouldn’t expect one of the greatest of all time to disintegrate at the age of 32.
Find me on Twitter: @thefutebolist
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.