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Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus, 2018–Present

Cristiano Ronaldo was signed by Juventus in 2018 to transform them from the dominant team in Italy – they had just won their seventh successive Serie A title – to the finest in Europe, ultimately by delivering a long-elusive Champions League. Twelve months on, a further league title has followed – but the quarter-final defeat by Ajax that ended their most recent European campaign has inspired more change in Turin.

Complementing the return of Gianluigi Buffon and the signings of Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax, Aaron Ramsey, Adrien Rabiot and more, Massimiliano Allegri has been replaced as manager by Maurizio Sarri, who represents the antithesis of Juve’s long-term approach of recruiting a coach whose approach is to win at all costs.

Yet it is still Ronaldo who will be expected to make the difference where it counts – as he threatened to when his hat-trick eliminated Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 last season. Now working under Sarri – arguably one of Europe’s most tactically rigid managers – potentially presents the 34-year-old with the further challenge of the need to adapt.

Role during 2018/19
Ronaldo was Juve’s top goalscorer during his first season in Italy, in which he scored 28 goals across all competitions. All but one of those came from inside the penalty area and most from his right foot, as Allegri used him mostly on the left or through the centre of a front three. There was no shortage of headers, either directly from set-pieces or from the second phase of a set-piece, and he remains as potent as ever from the penalty spot.

Even considering the Portugal captain’s advancing years, which have made it necessary for him to operate in fewer areas of the pitch, his goalscoring instinct remains impressive. He regularly succeeded when anticipating where the ball was likely to be played (above), even before the execution of the relevant shot or cross. Ronaldo’s reactions and alertness also make him highly effective when pursuing rebounds and second balls from close range.

Role during 2019/20
In their pre-season friendly against Tottenham, Juve lined up in the 4-3-3 shape Sarri has long favoured, featuring Ronaldo on the left (above), Federico Bernardeschi on the right and Mario Mandzukic through the middle.

Their midfield – they have significant strength in depth, on this occasion starting Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi and Emre Can – had been instructed to play within a close distance to each other (below), tempting the opponent to match that three and make the central areas congested. This would leave large spaces out wide for Ronaldo to exploit, either by running in behind or receiving to feet and attacking one-on-one.

If that temptation to press their midfield is resisted, Sarri’s team can be expected to use that central overload to advance possession forward to create opportunities in the final third. In a central striker’s role Ronaldo, as with Olivier Giroud and occasionally Eden Hazard at Chelsea, and also Dries Mertens at Napoli, will likely be asked to drop towards possession (below). Should he do so, the long-term threat he poses in behind might be sacrificed.

Through withdrawing from the last line of the opposition, Ronaldo would instead be in a position to set possession with a pass; that potentially then invites him to make late, fast runs into the penalty area (below) and to attack crosses with his head – which has long been one of his key strengths.

Out of possession, Ronaldo can expect to again be spared making lengthy sprints and recovery runs by Sarri’s three-strong midfield. Against Tottenham, Matuidi was deployed on the left of that three and pressed high with Mandzukic as Ronaldo covered behind; the Frenchman also sprinted back to track the right-sided midfielder or full-back if that press was bypassed, thereby freeing Ronaldo up to remain high and offer a threat in transition.

The Portuguese’s sprints out of possession are therefore limited, inviting him to make his trademark runs in transitional moments and potentially have a greater influence. It would also ultimately be logical to instruct him to remain further forward instead of tracking an attacking full-back.

One feature of Sarri’s teams is that his full-backs play in advanced roles to support attacks. This in turn encourages Ronaldo to attack both inside and outside the defending full-back, from where he can cut inside on to his favoured right foot or remain outside and create.

At 34, the question must be whether he can maintain his levels of fitness and form enough to wield the influence he has throughout his glittering career. If a new-look Juve are going to challenge for European football’s biggest prize – they are without a Champions League win since 1996 – then he will surely have to.

Cristiano Ronaldo

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