Whatever Became of Ronaldo?

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Allen Farrington tells us exactly what he thinks of the enigmatic Real Madrid star’s puzzling performances at EURO 2012 thus far…

Cristiano Ronaldo’s ineffectiveness against Germany was largely put down to that team’s work rate in defence and stifling of outlets for his creativity.  He was often double teamed, and always pushed wide.

But against Denmark, well, I frankly have no idea what happened. Much like the Netherlands, Portugal sliced Denmark to pieces. Unlike the Netherlands, Portugal took many of their chances, and ultimately won the game, but they did not have Ronaldo to thank.

For everything that was similarly wrong against Germany, I cannot think of a feasible excuse for Ronaldo’s failings against Denmark. He had time, space, possession, position, and these are the times he didn’t find himself in one-on-ones. He went where he wanted and did what he wanted, it seemed, until it came to contributing to a goal.

To top off his offensive ineptitude, he managed also to be awful in defence, leaving Coentrao to deal with up two or three opponents at pace on multiple occasions. Coentrao’s performance, a reasonable shout for man of the match, may ultimately have spared Ronaldo’s blushes just as much as Varela’s late winner.

Once again, I simply do not know why Ronaldo played so badly, when there is no real reason for him not to have scored at least three goals. I would, however, propose a solution. More discipline. Paulo Bento must resist the temptation to let Ronaldo do whatever he wants and plug him into a system.

Why? He is arguably the best individual player in the tournament, and astronomically superior to the rest of the players in his own team; why not let him run around and create havoc at will? The very worst that could happen would be the necessity of an extra defensive midfielder.

This sounds nice in theory, but I think this is more or less what has already happened, and I think it has failed dramatically. Whether physical, tactical, or even psychological, Ronaldo does not seem up to the Maradonna-esque captain superman role. Arguments may be made on all counts; he is fatigued from a particularly long season; his strengths are his power and pace in getting round defenders and he is far less effective deep in the centre of the park; regardless of all this, he fluffed clear cut one-on-ones,

Ultimately, however, I don’t think this particularly matters, Portugal need to perform against the Netherlands, will not win the group, and therefore may also need to perform against free-scoring Russia. There is also no doubt that Portugal play better when Ronaldo plays well. What then to do? Discipline, the value of which can be perfectly demonstrated by looking at both Real Madrid and Nani.

Firstly, his club. It is tempting to say that Ronaldo obviously plays better for Real Madrid because the players around him are far better, and that he has a greater responsibility for Portugal that he must step up to. But I believe this analysis to be very misleading. For Madrid, Ronaldo plays well because he sticks to his niche position, which in turn is because Benzema is better than him as a number 9, Ozil is better than him as a trequartista and Xabi Alonso is better than him as a Centre Midfielder.

However, the fact that Portugal are lacking in these departments does not mean that it is a good idea for Ronaldo to take up the mantle by playing every position. This comparison to Real Madrid is useful not as an excuse, but as a guide; a la Mourinho, force Ronaldo to play where he is most effective: discipline him.

Letting him play the positions he deems to be necessary is like arguing that since Ashley Cole is England’s best defender, he should play Centre Back. It’s not as obviously stupid, but it is very similar. The fact that Ronaldo and Cole are the best forward and defender on their teams, respectively, is not enough to justify moving them infield. Both play wide. It’s just the way things are.

Secondly, Ronaldo and Nani make a particularly apt comparison in this case because of the similarity in their playing styles, their personalities, and, in many respects, their careers, but it is not their skills I wish to evaluate, but rather how they have been used so far in this tournament. Against Germany, both were poor. Both sought to impose their flair without any notion of tactical relevance, and both were marked out the game.

Against Denmark, however, Nani was clearly put back on the leash. The result? He did nothing spectacular, he did the hard things competently, and he did the simple things brilliantly. He ran circles around  Simon Busk Poulsen in both attack and, believe it or not, defence. And yet he rarely, if ever, dropped deep to try to orchestrate an attack, swapped flanks for fun, or anything else distinctively Ronaldo-y. He stayed on his wing and terrorised the defence from his most comfortable position. He had one assist, but could have had four, including one defence splitting pass that Ronaldo was responsible for spurning.

This is what I think is required of Ronaldo. There is no reason to cut out the tricks, the sprints and the pouts, but there is a more and more desperate need to fit Ronaldo into the team, rather than the team to fit to him. He has been given ample opportunity to run the show by virtue of his sheer glowing brilliance, but with Portugal having played poorly twice, and potentially having one game remaining, this no longer looks like a gamble worth taking.

 

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