Cristiano Ronaldo’s bench press made Manchester United better. Will Portugal follow suit at the World Cup?


Cristiano Ronaldo played his 941st professional game last week in a secondary tournament he was trying to avoid and at the aid home of a Soviet-sympathetic club from an unrecognized breakaway state bordering two of Europe’s poorest countries.

Ronaldo obviously never expected or wanted his waning career to get this far, but here we are.

He dueled with Sheriff Tiraspol on Thursday because Manchester United, whose season was doomed to wreck last month, benched Ronaldo and immediately bounced back. The Red Devils buzzed through Old Trafford in his absence, beating Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester City and Arsenal and showing what team success looks like in modern football.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, has been relegated to Europa League duties and uneventful late-game cameos. Two months ago he applied for a transfer implying he was better than Man United; It has now become clear that United – like the dozens of clubs who have declined to sign Ronaldo this summer – are better off without him.

Thus, at the age of 37, in his 21st professional season, Ronaldo is forced to open a final chapter that he does not yet want to write. The gap between his fame and his influence on the field widens by the week. He was viewed as a burden and a burden by a sport that is increasingly outstripping him. His days in the club game’s elite have seemingly come and gone.

But in November, the club game is paused. Curtains will spread. A final stage will present itself.

And Ronaldo will enter it in his fifth World Cup with one last chance to rise to one last big event – unless Portugal decide they’re better off without their biggest star, too.

Ronaldo’s decline

Cristiano Ronaldo built most of his legend, evolving from a flashy winger to a ruthless assassin in the box. In his nine years at Real Madrid, he scored 310 of his 339 open goals from inside the box. He scored 80 left footed and 70 headed, in all phases of attacking play, against all types of opponents.

For all his glamor and showmanship, he became a relatively easy superstar for simply mastering football’s most valuable skill. At the helm of a buzzing Real Madrid squad, he dropped tertiary tasks from his repertoire and focused on the all-important one, scoring goals. He kept chasing shots. Since 2010, he’s taken about 400 more of them than Lionel Messi and 900 more than Robert Lewandowski – the two players who come closest, if not at all, to his tally, according to Stats Perform via ESPN.

Cristiano Ronaldo has captained the Portuguese national team and three World Cups for over a decade. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Along the way, football began to phase out one-dimensional players. However, Ronaldo’s primary dimension remained incomparable and therefore invaluable. Juventus paid over $117m for it and Man United craved it. Because of this, according to popular opinion, Ronaldo was still considered the top 5 players in the world in 2020, and last year it was considered the top 10 players.

But as his early 30’s faded into his mid-30’s, otherworldly production quietly faded to elite production and then to just very good production. His non-penalty goals per 90 rate fell from 0.90 at Real to 0.56 at Juventus. His assists-per-90 also fell from 0.29 to 0.16 at Juve and then to 0.08 last season at Man United.

And that’s when the lack of anything else became glaring. Over the last 365 days, Ronaldo ranks in the 43rd percentile for completed dribbles, 32nd percentile for assists, 9th percentile for tackles, and bottom, compared to his position-mates across the 98 clubs in Europe’s five major leagues, according to FBref data on the entire list of prints.

He’s a combination of unwillingness and inability to press and that’s why Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag can’t use him. That’s why the countless Champions League clubs he’s been offered didn’t want him. It’s one of many reasons why Juventus and United fared worse after his arrival.

The question now is whether Ronaldo’s country, which he has managed for over a decade, will seek to forestall its own demise by minimizing his role.

And the answer is very likely no.

“I’m absolutely not worried about Ronaldo’s lack of playing time at Manchester United,” said Portugal head coach Fernando Santos last week. “I don’t think anyone doubts that Ronaldo continues to be of great importance to the national team.”

Why Ronaldo will still lead Portugal

Ronaldo clearly still has qualities that 99% of clubs would welcome. He can still hit a ball as well as anyone. His prescient instinct is still elitist, even if his first step has slowed down.

His obstacle to a starting role at Champions League contenders is that the top 1% of clubs can recruit strikers who have the same qualities and many more. However, national teams cannot do that. Santos has to work with what he has. And what he has is a roster unmatched by any other true No.9.

He has Diogo Jota but prefers to play Jota on the left wing.

He has Joao Felix, but Felix prefers to play as a second striker, under someone like Ronaldo.

He has Andre Silva, but Silva has only scored 11 goals in 40 Bundesliga games for RB Leipzig. Santos didn’t even call Silva to Portugal’s last training camp, the last before the World Cup.

Santos will ride with Ronaldo because he doesn’t have a replacement and also because his system will hide some of Ronaldo’s mistakes. It rarely requires a coordinated high press. Far more conservative than Ten Hag’s, it represents an implicit admission that international football is often less about systems or patterns and more about moments.

Despite all his mistakes, Ronaldo remains a magician of moments. He’s an individual who can liven up a stale game and that’s so often what World Cups call for.

“Cristiano is always Cristiano,” Felix, 22, said during a Zoom call with US reporters last month. “Even if he doesn’t play for the club – playing for the national team is always different.”

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