Analysis of recent criticisms of the Portugal and Manchester United star

The more things change, the more they stay the same…so it goes with Cristiano Ronaldo. Every goal defies time, historical precedent, and much of the negative press about him. But it is as if two eternally bound, symbiotic edifices remain: Ronaldo’s conquests and the shadow of discontent permeating the football universe in its wake.

Seleção correspondent, Nathan Motz, has long respected the fascinating career of football’s Alexander-the-Great. In this exposé, he dissects the genre of Ronaldo criticism and its latest evolution. Just how well do the latest criticisms survive examination with respect to elementary standards of logical and statistical analysis?

“…Cristiano Ronaldo, a player whose past generates this incredible, ominous aura around him, a latent menace that makes defenders panic a bit and earns him an extra yard. Without that aura, he is just an oiled 36-year-old man with a stepover.….” The Guardian

I read that quote recently and had a nice chuckle about it. That this was written following the latest UCL match against Villareal - when Ronaldo scored the first goal and contributed heavily in the build-up to the second in a 2-0 victory – made it seem silly.

Except it was articulated with a straight face by a legitimate writer.

I wondered about what that meant. Oh, I understand the insinuation. But what does it mean that now, in 2021, in light of how Ronaldo has played, not only in the past, but this very season…. that these statements are sent to press in credible football periodicals and newspapers?

How often is this breed of topical journalism graded by empirical facts? Whether or not Ronaldo is or has ever been a world-renowned player, or whether he is or is not a detriment to his team are empirical questions, not mere philosophical speculations in the mind of football elites. There are facts and there are opinions. I can deal with both as long as the latter is strictly identified as such.

With Ronaldo, however, fact-impoverished presumption and passive-aggression reign among a football intelligentsia feeding on the massive appeal generated whenever they peck out his name on their keyboard and smack it up on the internet. I am not talking about all the fanboys. I mean the know-it-alls, the holier-than-thous, and self-anointed holders of divine football erudition. Those whose scholarship obliges them to treat the football illiterate masses with their complicated stat-laden rants about Ronaldo, and whatever other abstract theory bewitches them at the particular moment.

The problem

Ronaldo’s newest handle, “the problem,” owes its origin to the alleged tactical dilemma he creates for Manchester United due to his unwillingness to press the ball.

“Ronaldo may score plenty of goals but his reluctance to press is causing big problems at United.” – Manchester Evening News

These suggestions are becoming more common. Data scientists and even math experts joined the fracas after a statistical graphic was circulated in early October from an article in The Athletic showing that Ronaldo pressed fewer times per 90 minutes than any other forward in the Premier League. A “pressure” is defined as closing down within 5 yards of an opposition player carrying, receiving, or releasing the ball.

What does it all mean? The “Ronaldo is a problem” motif adorning the pages of respected media outlets needs to be seriously examined.

Decontextualizing

To begin, is the criticism valid within its usual framework, or was it isolated from its normal or expected context?

A few themes emerge. One is the rigid imperative that forwards must press in order to afford genuine value. Otherwise, a forward necessarily obstructs the team’s strategic execution – a declaration made ex ante rather than ex post. Another is that this argument focuses almost exclusively on Ronaldo, a sign it may have been cherry-picked specifically to ensnare the Manchester United forward.

I ran a statistical comparison over the last 365 days between Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović just to be certain. Cristiano Ronaldo does indeed occupy the 2nd percentile – on a scale from 1 to 99 - across Europe’s top five leagues with 6.36 pressures per 90 minutes. Zlatan? The third percentile with 7.49 pressures p90. AC Milan is second in Serie A behind Napoli. Manchester United is 7th in the Premier League. Both players are their respective club’s top goalscorer. In summary, little difference in pressures p90, big difference in club standing.

I did a few more such comparisons over the same period. Here are just a few interesting statistical disparities between key forwards across Europe’s top five leagues as of Friday, 3 Dec.

- Ronaldo is in the 91st percentile in pass completion, Zlatan 61st percentile, Erling Haaland 56th, and Romelu Lukaku 39th.

- Robert Lewandowski is in the 66th percentile in progressive carries – bringing the ball 5 yards nearer to the opposition goal or any carry into the penalty area – Karim Benzema is in the 90th percentile, Lukaku 59th, and Erling Haaland 51st. Ronaldo is in the 96th percentile in this category.

- Ronaldo scores higher than Karim Benzema in the much-celebrated, non-penalty expected goals metric which indicates not only the quality of chances with which a player is presented, but also the positional awareness to consistently arrive in such situations.

There are many other statistics in which Ronaldo does not excel – assists for example, in just the 47th percentile – but what I want to know is how powerful any one metric is as an indicator of a forward’s value to their respective squad. And what is that preferred metric? Is it pressures p90, is it shots on target, completed dribbles, or duels won? Something else?

Stay with me because this is the point. Self-anointed, tactical savants, data merchants, journalists with an axe to grind, and others hoping to monetize off Cristiano Ronaldo have decontextualized the pressures p90 statistic in order to sell a particular theory. That Manchester United’s failures as a club this season have resulted not so much because of poor management, although that is a factor. Not necessarily because of horrible defensive miscues, although these too are at times begrudgingly acknowledged. But in large part due to the inability – nay, blatant refusal – of one man to press a sufficient number of times over a given 90-minute spell. Simply exchanging Ronaldo with Cavani, as one such tactical expert informed me on Twitter, would dramatically reverse United’s fortunes for the better.

I respectfully disagree.

Decontextualizing or removing critical background from statistics such as this to make sweeping generalizations may inspire fanboys. Yet it is an atrocious and unprofessional enterprise. Can I say Haaland is a scourge to Borussia Dortmund because his passing completion is bang average or that Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a giant of the modern game – contributes nothing because he is in the 18th percentile in dribbles completed? Want to know who else is in the bottom percentile in pressures p90 this season? PSG’s Kylian Mbappé.

Decontextualization is a common statistical error, but there are many whenever the football intelligentsia opines about Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Correlation is not causation” is the golden rule of statistical analysis, yet it is so frequently violated in order to assassinate Ronaldo’s reputation in the game. Zlatan hardly presses either and AC Milan seem have thrived. Harry Kane is in the whopping 16th percentile in pressures p90. Why then do Tottenham struggle so much? Enes Ünal presses more frequently than any other forward in Europe’s top five leagues. Why then are Getafe in La Liga’s relegation zone?

Because individual player metrics do not in and of themselves interpret the cause of the downfall or success of a given team. What I especially want you to observe with Ronaldo in the case of the pressures p90 metric is this: not only is causation unproven, but even correlation has not been truly established. In other words, the pundits, sages, and high-brow statisticians first neglected to prove correlation between Ronaldo’s pressing and Manchester United’s performances then proceeded to declare causation anyway. I find that incredibly lazy.

There is no empirical fact which links a forward’s poor pressing to their team’s poor performance, as I have attempted to show. Results vary widely. Some players press a lot and their teams struggle. Some players press rarely and their teams excel. Or vice versa. Yet football theorists the world over have declared a priori the root cause of Manchester United’s dysfunction is Ronaldo’s indolence.

Prima facie

One of the dangers in evaluating statistics is the tendency to accept a position based on first impression and refuse to change in spite of later revelations. This is the prima facie or first glance method of constructing arguments. To the self-anointed visionaries in football journalism, especially the UK, team pressing is apparently the singular most important component of the modern game. Therefore, any one player who does not press is harming the collective, period. If that is the case, then knives out for Zlatan and all the other players I have listed, and many I have not, who do not press.

But these players do not receive criticism and Ronaldo does because at first glance this metric appears to provide functional validity for the grandest of all visions for football academics, abstract fact-producers, and agenda-driven columnists – that Ronaldo is not only harmful to his present team, he’s not that great a player at all. A bench option, nothing more. This contrivance is so ubiquitous in the lexicon that Ralf Rangnick – who presided over his first match on Sunday - had to confirm to the United board that Ronaldo is in fact a key player in his plans. These “fake speculations” as Rangnick called them are loud and emanate from influential elitists touting what they still somehow consider to be a hot-take on Ronaldo – that behind the goals he is quite ordinary.

Graham Hunter, a respected journalist, wrote in 2016 that Ronaldo did not even belong in the same conversation as Gerd Muller, Zidane, Van Basten, and Michel Platini, let alone you-know-who. Hunter may be an ideological Barça-phile, but he is not a fanboy. There is a penetrating and insatiable appetite for any shred of evidence, no matter how small, to finally prove Ronaldo has always been a fraud. A con-man who somehow - despite no meager supply of towering, pedantic, and patronizing feats of verbal ingenuity to discredit him – scored his 801st goal last Thursday at nearly 37 years of age.

I want to recognize some of these journalists simply fall into common traps when analyzing statistical data rather than intentionally raise a false narrative. There is so much data now, in my opinion, statisticians are struggling to learn how to interpret and apply it. The lag between availability and understanding of avant-garde data arrays is obvious. What does “expected goals” actually tell us about a player’s worth? I believe even the best statisticians are still working that out.

Yet in this age of big data, a player’s value can become strangely binary. You are either good or bad based on the metric du jour, which is little more than a fad. Years ago, dribbles completed was the metric du jour. For years, whichever team dominated possession was expected to win despite no causal link having ever been established though correlation does exist. Writ large, because many top sides in the modern game employ active pressing, a player is often marked good or bad depending solely on how well and how often they press. Even for a striker, this has become the paradigm. At least, it is for Cristiano.

But this is nonsense. That many of these same journalists celebrate other players who are hardly adept at pressing bears testimony. See where Messi checks out on pressures p90 if you do not believe me. I have chosen not to post that here.

The question I have after my own statistical analysis is not about whether elite forwards should press more often. It is - what are these elite forwards doing, and what exactly makes them so elite, since they are clearly not pressing very often? Could it be their off-the-ball work includes such difficult-to-quantify tasks such as concentrating energy to make the right type of run, or keeping the backline honest – a quality which the introductory quote in this article suggests Ronaldo does very well? I will leave it to the deep-thinking football philosophers to provide that answer.

A trade-off mentality

Player value is about trade-offs. What does a player offer across the spectrum of individual performance characteristics? How do their strengths balance their weaknesses? If a forward presses continuously, does that offset his poor finishing, passing, or lack of pace?

It is about understanding the exchange you must accept - what you get minus what you do not. What you get with Ronaldo is goals, and lots of them, in addition to other factors which are conveniently ignored. Ralf Rangnick actually praised Ronaldo’s work off the ball after the match against Crystal Palace, for example, revealing that work off the ball must indeed entail more than closing the ball down.

But fair enough, what you do not normally get from Ronaldo is pressing. In the language of trade-offs, the discussion about Ronaldo can be intellectually compelling and leave room for respectful disagreement regarding his value. In the vernacular of binary assessment – where a player is good or bad based on one metric – genuine intolerance to regard a player’s holistic value will persist.

Too often players may be viewed in terms of the ultimate solutions they provide. But no one player has ever been or ever could be the fix-all for a team’s problems because there are no ultimate solutions, only trade-offs. It is early December: twelve goals, two assists, and near singlehandedly securing UCL knockout round qualification seems about the right price to pay for a guy who just doesn’t press very much.

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Ronaldo has now provided 801 reasons – the most in the history of the game – to put faith in him. For many ivory tower football intellectuals, no amount of goals will ever be enough.

I am not unaware bad statistical analysis has made politicians, journalists, and others with ulterior motives a lot of money. Ronaldo has that effect – the Midas Touch - if you will. I do not presume to stop it as I do not presume to stop any other foolish mischaracterization of phenomena in the world. But I do think it is worth trying to understand and at times oppose the inane libel directed toward one of the game’s greatest ever players.

In today’s football writing culture, derision, slander, and subversion toward certain players, managers, clubs, and nations is big business. For that reason, I want to remain cognizant of my own tendency to reprimand others too harshly.

But before he walks off the pitch for the last time, and the keyboards finally silence. And the pall lifts off the scene. And the greedy awaken to the realization their bread-winner has departed. I would like to remind not just a fanbase, but the international football community at large that what Ronaldo has done we may in fact never see again in our lifetimes. Our children might not ever witness it. Cristiano Ronaldo is a legend. The name means serial winner. His teams win. His supporters win. Even his detractors win as money pours in, followers pile up, and influence expands, merely at the mention of his name.

My facts for that conclusion? Do not just take my word for it. They are but a Google search away.

Until next time… Força Ronaldo.

by Nathan Motz

 

Comments (5)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Majestic article. How can a guy who guaratees 30+ goals a season ever be "the problem"

Mark
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

The majority of unbiased fans are now starting to see the favoritism towards Messi and the creative rationalization to downgrade Ronaldo's achievements. The Balon D'or has shot themselves in the foot. Their award is becoming more and more...

The majority of unbiased fans are now starting to see the favoritism towards Messi and the creative rationalization to downgrade Ronaldo's achievements. The Balon D'or has shot themselves in the foot. Their award is becoming more and more meaningless , in the end when it's all said and done , Ronaldo will be viewed as the greatest to ever do it. Great article

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Gee Dee
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Yes this years Balon D'Or showed everyone how bias it all is, The guy who deserved it the least wins at the expense of Lewandowski, Mbappe, Salah, Jorginho who all won WAY more than Messi.

Its all a farce.

Excellent article as always Nathan.

Val
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Balon d'or is decided exclusively by journalists votes. No disrespect to the profession, but it doesn't seem like an appropriate crowd to decide who is the best player. I think now the award with more value is the fifa player of the year award,...

Balon d'or is decided exclusively by journalists votes. No disrespect to the profession, but it doesn't seem like an appropriate crowd to decide who is the best player. I think now the award with more value is the fifa player of the year award, where coaches and players have a say.

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Samuel
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Great article, really nice piece of investigation/study. This one I can proudly share with my friends. Good to see there still are soccer journalists who bother to look deeper into the matter instead of just rolling their eyes every time Ronaldo...

Great article, really nice piece of investigation/study. This one I can proudly share with my friends. Good to see there still are soccer journalists who bother to look deeper into the matter instead of just rolling their eyes every time Ronaldo touches the ball.

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Samuel
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