Thursday August 2 2018
Cristiano Ronaldo's rise at Real Madrid

In the first of four tactical analyses on Cristiano Ronaldo’s role at Real Madrid, Football Italia looks at CR7's start to life in Spain.

Words: Jon Driscoll

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season at Real Madrid was his least productive at the Santiago Bernabeu as injury, suspension and early exits from cup competitions restricted him to 35 appearances, the lowest since his breakthrough at Sporting CP. A reassuring statistic for any Juventus fan concerned at having paid so much for a 33-year old is that 2009-10 was the only campaign out of 15 in which he played fewer than 40 games.

There had been politics at play in Ronaldo’s transfer from Manchester United. with Florentino Perez returning as club president and taking over the deal put in place by his rival Ramon Calderon. You would be forgiven for forgetting than Ronaldo shared the spotlight that summer with Kaka, for whom Los Blancos paid Milan €67m. The different career trajectories of the men who had won the Ballon d’Or in the previous two seasons further highlights the roaring success of Ronaldo’s Real Madrid career.

Karim Benzema arrived from Olympique Lyonnais the same summer; Raul Gonzalez was already at the club and was the leader in the dressing room, while Gonzalo Higuain finished as Los Merengues’ top scorer in La Liga. This combination – and his own injury - influenced how Ronaldo was used that first season, one that was seen by Florentino Perez as transitional as he re-imposed his vision after three years away.

Manuel Pellegrini was in charge, nominally. The Chilean had been recruited after a successful spell at Villarreal, but Perez soon set his heart on replacing him with Jose Mourinho and Pellegrini found himself constantly undermined by the President’s supporters. The Coach lasted only that season after defeats in Europe to Lyon, to Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey and a second-place finish behind Barcelona. However, like Ronaldo’s personal form, it would be harsh to view Madrid as a failure that term – they did take 96 points from 38 games at the height of Spain’s duopoly.

Pellegrini had to get Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Higuain and Raul onto the pitch as often as possible, while maintaining some measure of team cohesion. He achieved it to a reasonable degree with an adaptation of the 4-2-2-2 he had employed at Villarreal. Ronaldo might have worn the No 9 that season, but he didn’t play as one. Higuain was the preferred centre-forward, while Benzema was a clear second choice – hard-working but less of a threat in the box.

Pellegrini had often played two strikers, but one of these would operate from wide as a false winger. This is the role Ronaldo is best remembered for in the early part of his career in Madrid. It shows the difficulty in defining tactical systems in terms of numbers on lines – the Portuguese didn’t stay wide, rarely crossed and almost never tracked back, so to call him a winger seems pointless.

But this wide role allowed a 24/25-year-old Ronaldo to flourish as he demonstrated his pace, power and skill. He was difficult to mark and, once on the move, almost impossible to contain, especially given his lack of defensive or pressing responsibility. This goal against Pellegrini’s old club was typical.

His free-kick conversion rate was superb (six of his 33 goals in 09-10 came from such set-pieces) and there were occasional glimpses into the future of his one-touch, penalty-box finishing and heading ability.

However, his trademark goal in that period was surely a run with pace and skill followed by a finish. This one against Osasuna came against Cesar Azpilicueta, in what was one of the Chelsea defender’s last appearances in Spain.

Kaka enjoyed his better days at the Bernebeu that season, before knee and groin injuries took their toll, but under Pellegrini the Brazilian and Portuguese masters did occasionally promise to be a great combination, with Kaka setting up Ronaldo for a number of one-touch finishes, in a style later more closely associated with Benzema.

Ronaldo’s first injury came with Madrid top of the League with a perfect record after five matches. Pellegrini believes if he had been able to field his best line-up for longer, it would’ve been him and not Pep Guardiola celebrating the championship that season. Instead, Jose Mourinho was soon charged with polishing Ronaldo’s talents as he tried to adjust his system to best player he’d ever coached.