The end of the 2013-14 season was when the world started to witness the transformation of one of it’s greatest ever players from a winger to a striker. In the next few seasons, especially the 2015-16 season, the transformation became more and more apparent until he started to be classified as a striker altogether. The days of Cristiano Ronaldo bombing down the wings, using his incredible pace and skills to get past his marker and unleash a venomous strike were over. He started to play closer and closer to the opponents area. The number of long ranged goals decreased while the number of bullet headers went up exponentially. His underlying stats went down as well. In between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 seasons, Ronaldo’s dribbles completed dropped from 2.5 per 90 minutes to 1.3, chances created dropped from 2.5 to 1.69 per 90 and passes completed dropped from 35.61 to 28.79 per 90. However, the number of shots he took per 90 slowly increased from around 4.9 a game to almost 7 a game during the same period of time. In fact, he shot 5.5 times from within the area alone in the 2017-18 season.
The primary reasons for this drop off in actions outside the box were age and injuries. As players get older, they get slower and get tired more easily, everybody knows this. But age did not have as much of an effect as injuries did. Until Zidane came along in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Ronaldo consistently had 50+ game seasons. His speed didn’t decrease much as well. According to official FIFA statistics, contrary to popular belief, the fastest recorded speed at the 2018 world was Cristiano Ronaldo who was clocked running at 33.98kms per hour and not the ridiculous, and false, speed of 37km by Mbappe vs Argentina. However, unlike before, Ronaldo could not produce these gut busting sprints on a regular basis. Moreover, injuries played their part. His left knee was vitiated during the 2013-14 season. An injury obtained on his left thigh against Almeria in the 2013-14 season was the start of it all. Since then, small, niggling knee problems bothered him for the next couple of seasons. Then the infamous Payet tackle came in the 2016 Euros final. His left knee suffered ligament damage due to the tackle and he was out for 8 weeks. This injury forced him to play even more conservatively in the seasons to come. But injuries and age were not the only reasons he adopted a new role.
During the Mourinho era, Real Madrid was a much different team than what it is now. The main aim of the team then was to soak up pressure and obliterate teams on the counter. The team more often than not lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Khedira, Mesut Ozil occupying the no.10 role, Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria on either side of him and Benzema or Higuain leading the line. This team could not keep possession of the ball as well as the current crop of Real Madrid players could. It’s main strengths were transitions because of it’s wingers. Ronaldo or Di Maria (mainly Ronaldo) would latch on to an Ozil or Alonso pass and would run forward would the ball. There were no natural ball carriers in the team and play started much closer to the Real Madrid box so it was their responsibility to progress the ball. This wasn’t much of a problem because of their incredible pace and dribbling abilities. However, it was very reliant on Ronaldo, a fact that was particularly clear during the 2012-13 season when the whole team under performed and Ronaldo had to do almost everything. Ronaldo is great, even the greatest of all time for a lot of people, but he can’t do it all as this system required him to. The system was flawed, especially in the Champions League. It’s a testament to Ronaldo’s ability that he consistently scored over 50 goals in a system in which he had to progress the ball and provide the end product. The build up play of this team consisted solely of running down the wings with an intermediary (Ozil or Benzema) switching up play during counters to create unpredictability and relying on Ronaldo’s superhuman abilities to get on the end of everything. Ozil, as good as he is, is not a controller. Di Maria is a winger. The two of them could not aid Alonso in cotrolling the ball. The beginning of the 2012-13 season was also the beginning of the end for this system because of two reasons; the signing of a certain long haired Croatian and the fact that it was Mourinho’s third season at the club.
Ancelotti arrived the next season and his very fist signing was Isco, an exceptional dribbler and creator who could hold on to the ball. Soon after, Gareth Bale arrived, a player who was incredibly similar to Ronaldo with respect to his speed and ball carrying abilities on the counter. The system changed as well. Di Maria, Modric and Alonso became the midfield three in a 4-3-3 and Bale started on the right wing. This midfield could control the ball because of Modric and Alonso. Both set the tempo of the game and very rarely lost the ball. Having Di Maria in the three created a numerical superiority as well. In addition to this, playing Di Maria in midfield was a stroke of genius by Ancelotti. His ball carrying abilities shone in this role as he constantly broke the lines with his dribbling. Bale also contributed to this as he progressed the ball on the wings. Behind Bale was Dani Carvajal, a much better attacker than Arbeloa. With Di Maria and Modric in the middle of the park, Real Madrid had two players who could carry the ball forward. Even though Di Maria left the next year, this role was carried out by other players such as Isco, James (who did it more with his quick passes than his dribbling), Kroos with his long passes, Marcelo etc. Ronaldo no longer needed to start counters. He could wait for the ball further forward and just score.
Furthermore, the main ideology of the team changed with Ancelotti and later Zidane. Ball possession was the name of the game. With the arrival of Kroos, Real Madrid had more control of the ball than ever. A midfield of Kroos, Modric, Casemiro and Isco with Benzema acting as a false nine increased the amount of possession Real Madrid had while progressing the ball. The plays started higher in the pitch and Ronaldo did not have to run as much. Benzema, as selfless as ever would float to the wings to create space for Ronaldo. With a midfield of such quality behind him, coupled with supreme fullbacks, chances kept on coming and he kept on scoring. The amount of chances he got and his efficiency was so great that the team won 4 out of 5 Champions Leagues. He alone outgunned Pep’s Bayern, MSN, broke Atletico’s and Juve’s supreme defences while breaking almost every possible record on the way.
The reasons for Ronaldo turning into the greatest striker in history can be summarized to the results of injury, age and a change in system, but in truth the reasons are much deeper. A lot can be said about this change, but no one can deny the fact that which ever role he played, he was the best in it.