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The calculus of Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo’s transfer drastically changed the shape of two of the world’s biggest clubs. Here’s how Real Madrid and Juventus have adapted to a legendary transfer.

This summer, Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Juventus by Real Madrid for a reported $110 million. In the aftermath of the transfer, both clubs have had to remake themselves because of the addition and subtraction, respectively, of one of the greatest attacking soccer players to ever live. A month into the new season, here is how both clubs are adapting to this new world.

How Real Madrid learned to live in a world without Cristiano Ronaldo

In a just few seconds against Roma, Real Madrid proved it knew a way forward without Ronaldo.

It happened two minutes into the second half of the Champions League, after Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro tried to send a through ball to teammate Karim Benzema. The ball was too far ahead for Benzema and went to Roma’s goalkeeper.

The keeper collected and waited until Roma’s players got into the position to try and play out of the back. Real Madrid, however, did something novel ... it played a high press.

You can see it below. Real Madrid faced Roma with three forwards in Benzema, Gareth Bale, and Isco. As Roma’s keeper looked to play out, Bale took up a position between the center back and right back. Benzema went with the other center back standing in front of him and to the side of the defensive midfielder, who was dropping deep to get the ball. Isco stood just as high as Bale and Benzema on the right. They were pushing high up the field, trying to pressure Roma all the way back to their goalkeeper.

Real Madrid’s attackers were being asked to defend, and defend all over the field.

Real Madrid vs. Roma
Real Madrid’s high press.

As the ball was played, Luka Modric and then Toni Kroos joined in the pressure as Roma tried to find a way forward.

Real Madrid vs. Roma
Toni Kroos running to pressure the right back.

The sequence may not have seemed like much — lots of big teams run a high press, and Roma were ultimately able to create a chance from the sequence by playing a series of one-touch passes — but it was noteworthy nonetheless, because Real Madrid could never have done it while Ronaldo was on the team.

Any time a great player leaves a team, that team faces an identity crisis. Great players, for all of their efforts to help their teams and elevate their teammates, also force their teams to revolve around them. Real Madrid under former coach Zinedine Zidane, who left the club before this season, was built in service of Ronaldo. The team was designed to get him the ball in space and let him run at defenders. If those same tactics were applied to a lesser player, Real Madrid might have faltered. But because Ronaldo is the best at what he does, Real Madrid were able to win three consecutive Champions League titles.

And when a highly dependent relationship like that ends, the team has two choices: It can try to replicate that system with someone who isn’t quite as good, or it can do something radical and change the way it plays entirely. Had Zidane stayed on after Ronaldo left, Real Madrid might have pursued the first option. But new manager Julen Lopetegui has opted for the more radical approach. He’s chosen to change Real Madrid into a high-pressing possession team, in the model of the Spain squad he used to manage.

In his later years at Real Madrid, Ronaldo was asked to score goals, and score goals only. He was given the luxury of abdicating his defensive work. Out of everyone who played more than 1,200 minutes on Real Madrid last season, Ronaldo pressed the least. Such a defensive hole meant Real Madrid couldn’t press as a team. The forward line would be disjointed. So instead the midfield, especially Casemiro, was asked to make up for Ronaldo’s lack of effort.

Without that defensive hole, Real Madrid can now start sequences as they did against Roma, pressing so high that their forwards start at the edge of Roma’s box as the keeper tries to play out. There were several instances in the game when Sergio Ramos, the center back for Real Madrid, was standing on top of the center circle, in Roma’s half. Roma spent the entire game quickly giving up possession and absorbing the shots that came because Real Madrid constantly had the ball in their half. Real Madrid ended the match with 61 percent of possession, 30 shots attempted, with 11 of those shots on goal. They won 3-0.

Ronaldo-less Real Madrid looks different beyond the pressing. With their newfound freedom from Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, and whoever the third forward is — Isco or Marco Asensio — are being more expressive and showcasing their full powers. They have been allowed to interchange and trade playmaker and striker responsibilities. Benzema’s ability to drop deep and create chances for others makes Real Madrid a perfect environment for him to succeed, and Bale has a history of doing well when out from under Ronaldo’s shadow. Before this season, Bale had played 27 games without Ronaldo, and scored 22 goals in those matches.

Bale scored against Roma, a goal that came after the team pressed up, forcing Roma into a long ball that Casemiro won, passed off to the left to Isco, who then sent it to Modric in the middle. Modric, who just won FIFA’s player of the year award, split the Roma defense with a wonderful through ball for Bale, who was running on from Ronaldo’s traditional left wing. It only took Bale one touch to get into the box, then his shot went across the keeper and into the bottom right corner. It was his fourth goal in six games.

Benzema has scored five in seven games. Last season he only managed five league goals, and now after six games, he’s only one goal away from matching that. Even Isco’s goal against Roma came from a free kick — one that a year ago, Ronaldo almost certainly would have taken.

It would make sense to think that Real Madrid will be worse off without Ronaldo. He is, even at 33, still a league above almost anyone else on Earth. Every win this season will seem like a declaration that Real Madrid have moved on from him, and every loss will be an indictment that there’s no life after Ronaldo.

Real Madrid could have tried to play as they did before, just without Ronaldo, and the result might have been middling. Instead Lopetegui’s Real Madrid is something much different from the old team — something more vibrant, fun, and based on teamwork. In turning Real Madrid into a high-pressing, passing, and possession team, Lopetegui has dared the players left behind by Ronaldo to show that they are more than what they were. He’s letting them loose, and, so far, the players are responding. Real Madrid are even doing the unheard of and out-passing Barcelona in the league.

There will naturally be growing pains during Real Madrid’s distancing from Ronaldo. Against Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid looked like it was still trying to play around a superstar, and Bilbao made it difficult for Real Madrid to pass around them in a 1-1 draw. Real Madrid will even lose a couple games when the players seem overwhelmed by what they’re asked to do, as they did Wednesday when they fell to Sevilla, 3-0. That’s normal, and no reason to panic yet.

We’ll see if Real Madrid can be as successful as they were with Ronaldo, especially in the big games that Ronaldo used to relish. A change of identity takes time, and it’s not without pitfalls. But so far, this Real Madrid team, more than anything, is different, and that in itself is exciting. Losing a player of Ronaldo’s caliber would usually cripple any team, but Real Madrid are no ordinary team, and the players are showing that there’s much more to them than the world has seen.

UD Las Palmas v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
Karim Benzema celebrates a 2016 goal with Gareth Bale.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

How Cristiano Ronaldo came to be Juventus’ everything

Ronaldo will score goals for Juventus. Ronaldo is better at scoring goals than almost anyone else in the history of the sport. And Juventus needs goals if they want to achieve their dreams. Winning Serie A is almost an afterthought for them at this point; they’ve won it seven years in a row. What they want is to win the Champions League.

No one is better at scoring in the Champions League than Ronaldo. He has the most goals in Champions League history with 120. He has the record for most goals scored in one season, with 17. He’s been the Champions League top scorer the last six seasons. He’s won the competition three times in the last three years. If there’s a secret ingredient to winning the Champions League, it’s Ronaldo. Signing him automatically vaults Juventus to among the favorites.

What Ronaldo offers is clear. But so is what he doesn’t offer, and that’s what makes his transfer to Juventus an awkward marriage.

Again: Ronaldo doesn’t defend. He was a goal machine in Madrid, but that’s all he was asked to be, and his supreme ability there, combined with his age and his defensive inability, meant the team had to be built for him. And now with Ronaldo, Juventus is working to incorporate him, without somehow sacrificing their foundational defensive identity.

Juventus has always defended as a team. Everyone works to win the ball back, or at least, everyone drops down to defend and prevent opportunities when necessary, including forwards. Mario Mandzukic, the striker, is known for his defensive tenacity. Juventus can’t completely compromise their identity for one player, but, with Ronaldo, it’s impossible that they remain the same. Instead, the rest of the team has to work harder to cover for him.

In the 52nd minute of Juventus’ Serie A match against Frosinone, Ronaldo got the ball on the left wing and engaged a defender one-on-one. He feinted once, then twice, then a third time before pushing the ball inside. The defender stayed with him. Ronaldo stepped on the ball to stop it, tried another move, then lost the ball.

Ronaldo turned and watched the defender dribble away, only managing to walk slowly after him. Rodrigo Bentancur and Alex Sandro, who were above Ronaldo on the left, ran back and overtook Ronaldo, who only started lightly jogging when he saw his teammates were side-by-side with him.

Fortunately, Juventus midfielder Emre Can was able to cover for Ronaldo, and dispossess the Frosinone player before there was any real danger, similar to how Real Madrid midfielders used to cover for Ronaldo when he was in Spain.

In contrast to Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala lost the ball in Frosinone’s box a few minutes before, and immediately ran after the defender to win it back. In his effort, he committed a foul to give up a toothless free kick in the attacking third and slow down a potential counter attack. Though Dybala has also been known to be lackadaisical on the defensive end, he knows what is asked of him at Juventus and still reacts the right way. Ronaldo, however, is long past falling in line.

Juventus is willing to make the compromise because, as good as they have historically been, one thing has eluded them.

The European Cup was rebranded the Champions League in 1992, and the last time that Juventus won it was in 1996, 22 years ago. They’ve lost five finals since then, including two in the last three years. Last year, Ronaldo helped eliminate Juventus in the quarterfinals by scoring a ridiculous bicycle kick that even the home fans couldn’t help applauding.

Juventus has a reputation for being kings of Italy, but that’s not enough for them. They want to be a global brand, and that comes through winning the Champions League and becoming a European power. Ronaldo can be a gateway to a new identity.

There is an anxiety here. Juventus spent a lot of money in the belief that Ronaldo’s liability on defense is worth the potential benefit at the end of the season. And Ronaldo is, of course, an older player. What he has done in the past speaks for itself, but he’s playing at Juventus at the tail end of his career. The four years in his contract aren’t really about the next four years; Juventus and Ronaldo expect to win immediately.

Their shared ambition to win a Champions League is held together by the hope he can keep beating the effects of time. That hope was challenged when Ronaldo went goalless in his first three games with Juventus. As Ronaldo tried to force goals over and over — he had logged 28 shots before he finally broke through against Sassuolo — frustrated fans groaned out of fear that he wasn’t what they paid for, that, at last, he was in decline.

Since then, any worries should have been put to rest. Ronaldo scored against Frosinone and now has three goals in six games. Juventus looks destined to win another league title, and even managed to win a Champions League group game after Ronaldo was shown a red card.

It’s a promising development, but Serie A success and some Champions League wins are not good enough for Juventus and Ronaldo. The real test of their marriage will be the knockout stages, when Juventus faces big teams and Ronaldo is asked to be the difference. He has shown throughout his career that he’s perhaps the best ever player for the job, but unless Juventus wins a Champions League under Ronaldo, there will be a simmering concern that his best days are behind him.

That’s why when Ronaldo finally did score his first goal against Sassuolo, he celebrated as if he had scored in the Champions League final. And, in turn, the crowd roared with him. It was a reassurance to both parties that he was still the same man he had always been. That even if you can live without Ronaldo, you choose to live with him when you can, because for however long it lasts, no one has known greatness like him.

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