Is Cristiano Ronaldo the Best No. 9 in World Football?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured Columnist IVApril 17, 2017

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League 1st leg quarter-final football match FC Bayern Munich v Real Madrid in Munich, southen Germany on April 12, 2017. 
Security was ratcheted up in Munich, one day after three explosions rocked the team bus of German football club Borussia Dortmund minutes after the bus set off to a planned Champions League game against Monaco on Tuesday night (April 11, 2017). / AFP PHOTO / Christof STACHE        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
CHRISTOF STACHE/Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo's second-half performance at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday was central to Real Madrid's quarter-final first-leg win over Bayern Munich in more ways than one.

The Portuguese forward netted both goals in the 2-1 win, taking him past the 100-goal mark in European competitions and giving his side a fantastic chance of reaching the semi-finals once again in the process, as they look to defend the UEFA Champions League.

With Ronaldo's role in the game nominally the same as it has been all season—left of a front three but with ample time spent centrally—it gave rise to the question of whether he is among the best on the planet once more, but this time in a new role: centre-forward.

 

  

Changing Role

There have been games in which Ronaldo is the striker for Madrid—none standing out more than the derby against Atletico Madrid, during which he notched three goals, was a great outlet and beat his team's rivals in the final meeting between the sides at the Vicente Calderon.

More often, though, it has been a case of Ronaldo being the left-sided forward of three but drifting into the middle in open play and being a support forward for Karim Benzema or the other way around; Ronaldo moves up through the middle and Benzema drifts deeper or into the channels.

Ronaldo could have had another hat-trick if not for Neuer.
Ronaldo could have had another hat-trick if not for Neuer.LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Ronaldo's positioning, not just for his goals against Bayern but also for one or two chances that were brilliantly saved by Manuel Neuer, showcased how he is gravitating more and more toward being stationed centrally in general phases of play, though he is also working hard to get back into shape on the left when out of position.

It poses a tough challenge for defences on how to track his movements but also for Real boss Zinedine Zidane on how to set up his team to not be overloaded down the flank, not to crowd the centre of the pitch and to ensure the actual striker, Benzema or Alvaro Morata, is not marginalised.

  

Numbers

"Best in the world" is quite a claim. How do Ronaldo's numbers stack up against the other candidates?

Ronaldo vs Rest of the World. League form only, 2016/17
PlayerGoalsMins/goalShots/gameKey passes/gameAssists
Cristiano Ronaldo191115.71.06
Karim Benzema91742.31.34
Alvaro Morata11882.20.72
Antoine Griezmann151712.61.67
Luis Suarez24973.41.711
Romelu Lukaku231192.81.36
Harry Kane191013.11.34
Diego Costa171523.21.05
Zlatan Ibrahimovic171434.31.85
Robert Lewandowski26904.11.04
P-E Aubameyang25923.70.92
Andrea Bellotti241023.51.64
Gonzalo Higuain211143.30.82
Edin Dzeko241064.90.94
Mauro Icardi201303.41.38
WhoScored.com

Caveats must be applied: Most of the above are guaranteed starters as lone strikers, not players with dual roles.

 

  

Expert Opinion

What about the onlookers, those who watch Cristiano take on La Liga on a weekly basis?

To gauge the feeling of how his transition is coming along and whether he can rightly claim (or have others claim on his behalf, more accurately) to be among the world's finest, we spoke with a range of regular viewers, starting with Sky Sports Liga commentator Rob Palmer.

"I hear what Guillem [Balague] is saying," Palmer said. "Ronaldo no longer has the turbocharge and stepovers to leave full-backs for dead and cut in with velocity."

There's a difference between changing and being the world's greatest in such an important—and hotly contested—role, though.

Palmer continued: "He's trying to reinvent himself, as Ryan Giggs did and Lionel Messi is also doing slowly. He still has the presence and reflexes to score goals in the penalty area and is proving this.

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi reacts during the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg football match Juventus vs Barcelona, on April 11, 2017 at the Juventus stadium in Turin.  / AFP PHOTO / Marco BERTORELLO        (Photo credit sho
MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

"I hate the term 'No. 9.' Is he a potentially a centre-forward? Yes. Can he prolong his greatness by playing there? Yes. Is he the best centre-forward in the world? I don't think so."

Real Madrid supporter Lucas Navarrete, chief editor of fansite Managing Madrid, believes it's not just down to Ronaldo how long the move to the middle will take on a permanent basis.

"I do think his best role is in the middle, but it's a problem considering that Benzema and Gareth Bale have to play also," Navarrete said. "It's hard to fit Cristiano in the centre if those two are on the field. Furthermore, I think that he does not want to leave that left-sided role just yet."

The transition from one role to another means not just a technical shift but a mental one, too, for Los Blancos' No. 7. There must be an appreciation, from fans in the stand and those commenting on the sidelines as much as from Ronaldo, that centre-forwards are less likely to be involved in open play and buildup. It's already noticeable in his game, as Marca'Joseph Sexton told us.

TOPSHOT - Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo kisses the ball bvefore taking a free kick during the UEFA Champions League 1st leg quarter-final football match FC Bayern Munich v Real Madrid in Munich, southen Germany on April 12, 2017. / AF
ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

"For a player who was so devastatingly fast in his earlier days, he's becoming a lot more measured in his movements and runs, looking to get on the end of things rather than be central to a passage of play," Sexton noted. "I thought the Bayern match was a good example of this where he did nothing—except all the stuff that mattered—during the game.

"I think he'll still nominally start wide left for the remainder of this season, but he's becoming more and more of a No. 9 all the time."

As for the future, Real Madrid's summer signings might give a clear indication of how they see Ronaldo progressing. His contract means he'll be at the club until his mid-30s, so it's not as though they can go out and add another young player who only features at centre-forward to the ranks if Ronaldo is expected to fill that role.

Yahoo's Liga guru Andrew Gaffney noted that the rumours surrounding the club might indicate exactly that: "His diminishing pace in the past two or three years means a move to the centre makes sense on many levels. Despite his natural fitness levels and strength, without that extra yard of velocity, he's reduced to stepovers and cutting inside to shoot.

"You sense Cristiano knows this, too, as he often drifts up alongside Benzema and the Frenchman is forced to drop deep instead. It's also no coincidence that every target linked with Real Madrid so far this summer is a wide forward: Kylian Mbappe and Eden Hazard being the main two."

TOPSHOT - Monaco's French forward Kylian Mbappe Lottin reacs after scoring during the UEFA Champions League 1st leg quarter-final football match BVB Borussia Dortmund v Monaco in Dortmund, western Germany on April 12, 2017.
The match had been postponed af
SASCHA SCHUERMANN/Getty Images

But what of being the best? Ronaldo has, after all, plenty of experience playing through the middle, but he's also used to being in the discussion for No. 1 in the world.

"The transition won't be easy," Gaffney said. "He slips into old habits, even when used as a striker this term, in going wide and leaving no outlet through the middle. He does play as a striker for Portugal, but that's more due to the lack of attacking options available.

"He struggled against the better sides in that role, too. It's important Cristiano realises less is more. Chances will come, but he doesn't need to create them anymore. A 'limited' striker role would ensure he plays a crucial part in Real Madrid's future successes."

If that's the case, perhaps the shift in emphasis at Madrid will be toward bringing in the scheming options, wide or in midfield, to allow Ronaldo to bloom as the focal point of the attack.

  

Ronaldo v3.0?

We've had Ronaldo the tricky, flamboyant yet underproductive winger. We've had, for a far longer period, Ronaldo the unstoppable inside forward.

Next up, the central focal point on a more regular basis?

It seems premature to suggest he's the best in the world. While Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski tick every box for experience, incredible form, relentless goalscoring and the natural movement as strikers who give defenders nightmares, Ronaldo is still in transition here.

TURIN, ITALY - APRIL 11:  Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona looks on during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final first leg match between Juventus and FC Barcelona at Juventus Stadium on April 11, 2017 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

The goal threat remains, but his approach play hasn't always been of the same high standard—even as he does clearly look to have changed his game to a more team-centric, creative approach.

There's a balancing act for Ronaldo to strike over the next year or two, realising that if he does play more centrally, he'll see less of the ball—and that's still an issue of frustration for him. He's self-confident enough, diligent enough and determined enough to make it happen, though.

Aritz Aduriz of Athletic Bilbao has won plaudits over the past few seasons for suddenly turning his experience and power into a productive source of goals even at 36, which goes to show that Ronaldo—a superior player, athlete and overall talent—could yet have an awful lot to offer for years to come.

It's another change, so a minor downturn over an adjustment period could be inevitable, but maybe, just maybe, Ronaldo can go from being the best wide threat in the world to the best No. 9—but he's not there yet.

   

All quotes obtained firsthand unless specified.

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