Cristiano Ronaldo, who may or may not be cultivating his appearance to look like a goat, scored his fourth goal of the 2018 World Cup in the fourth minute of Portugal’s game against Morocco Wednesday, when he got his head on a corner kick. In real time, the play seemed strange — why were Morocco not marking Ronaldo, the best player on Portugal?
Here’s the thing: Morocco were marking Ronaldo. He just made such an incredible move off the ball, and timed it so perfectly, they had no chance to mark him. Let’s dive in and explain why.
Here is the goal:
Watch the first time to see it, but stick with the video above to see the replay, and see Ronaldo’s movement off the ball as it happens. Here, five quick observations on that run.
1. Ronaldo sets up in a clump of players, which makes it difficult for the man marking him to pick him up. This is a pretty standard set up for a corner kick, but it means his man is marking him from about a yard away, as opposed to right on him. This will matter in a moment.
2. While Ronaldo is set up in that clump of players, he delays his run at first. Portugal takes the corner kick short, then passes back and whips in a cross. Ronaldo hesitates because it might cause that defender to ease up, maybe just a bit. This is why it’s important he’s got that yard of space, too, because when the man finally does pick him up, Ronaldo is already moving a bit at speed. This would normally be a nightmare, but his defender does stay with him at first, and it all appears OK, because it seemes pretty clear what run Ronaldo is making — a hard run to the near post. Ronaldo loves this run, because it allows him to elevate and meet the ball early (he can jump very high) and flick it on toward net. At this very moment, the cross is now being sent in the air.
3. So Ronaldo is making that near post run, and the ball is now airborne, but here’s where this play becomes something beyond a normal soccer play, into something you can’t teach: As the ball is served, literally as it’s played in the air, Ronaldo changes his run. He waits for his defender’s weight to shift forward to track him on that nearside run, and then Ronaldo cuts back, hard, which sends the Morocco defender flying forward. Again, the ball is already in the air.
4. Now Ronaldo has shed his man, who again is flying forward, splay footed, unable to deal with the sudden change of direction, and Ronaldo takes a hard step to the center of goal, all while keeping his eye on the ball which, again, is flying in the air. This entire set of motions takes about half a second. He timed it all so it would happen in the time it takes a whipped in ball to travel about 25 yards.
5. Now Ronaldo is free, alone, inside the six, somehow shedding his man and meeting the flight of the ball in the time it would take you or I to even recognize that a pass has been played. He ignores the other Morocco defender’s foot coming straight at his face and puts his forehead to the ball.
From there, all he has to worry about is the celebration.
It’s moments like that which make us so admire Cristiano Ronaldo, and what separates him from so many players. He’s brilliant on the ball, yes, but it’s his movement off the ball that sets him apart as one of the greatest of all time.