Cristiano Ronaldo conundrum: How should Max Allegri use Juventus' star?
Let's get the disclaimer out of the way first: Juventus were a very good team without Cristiano Ronaldo, and they will almost certainly be an even better one with him. They are overwhelming favourites to win Serie A, and while the Champions League -- like all knockout competitions -- is tricky to predict, they have to be among the favourites to win that too.
The question, though, is how much better they will be and, crucially, what manager Massimiliano Allegri -- with the collaboration of Ronaldo and others -- can do to get them to maximise potential. In other words, you got yourself a CR7 unit (or, more accurately the CR7 unit.), now what do you do with it?
It is not quite as simple as it sounds. Ronaldo, at this stage of his career, is not an orthodox player like, say, a Robert Lewandowski or a Kevin De Bruyne. You don't simply drop him into a predefined role that already exists because what he does is nearly unique and in any case, did not exist at Juve.
For nearly all of the nine seasons he spent at Real Madrid, he lined up on the left wing, wide of a mobile centre-forward (for a while it was a Gonzalo Higuain/Karim Benzema platoon, later the Frenchman took over full time). Ronaldo's style -- and his body -- evolved over the years, but his level of production remained high.
His first five years in Madrid were "peak Cristiano." He was a fixture as a wide forward, often picking the ball up deep, taking on opponents -- he averaged more than six dribbles a game -- and relying on his athleticism to get into shooting positions. Heat maps from that era show that he spent some 60 percent of the time in the left-side third of the pitch.
However, things changed after 2014. After suffering patellar tendinitis in his knee, he slimmed down, sacrificing muscle to maintain quickness even as he moved into his thirties. Moreover, his positioning changed: Heat maps have him at 44 percent on the left, 37 percent centrally and 21 percent on the right. In some ways, that increased movement enabled him to find more mismatches. He could -- and still can -- overpower most full-backs and outrun most central defenders.
The first issue for Allegri is whether to let his new No. 7 play the way he did in Madrid -- adjusting around him as a result -- or to find him a new role. Many projected Juventus lineups opted for the latter, as did the first hour or so of Ronaldo's Serie A debut vs. Chievo last Saturday. He lined up as a lone front man, with fast wingers either side in Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa, plus Paulo Dybala in the hole as part of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
You can see the logic: Plenty of service from the wings to exploit his aerial prowess and Dybala creating behind. It may yet work, though whether a two-man midfield of Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira (or Emre Can) provides enough defensive cover, particularly with attacking full-backs like Alex Sandro and Joao Cancelo, remains to be seen.
Make no mistake about it. Ronaldo has the trappings of a centre-forward. He is devastating in the air, his movement in the box is exceptional and his finishing is outstanding. The funny thing about him is that while his critics question the number of bad shots he takes -- during a lean spell in La Liga early last season, for example -- the numbers are pretty telling.
His expected goals per shot over the past five years is .143, which is comparable to Higuain, the guy he replaced and a prototypical penalty-box poacher. And that's with all the long-distance/bad-angle/low-percentage shots. In other words, Ronaldo does not just score a ton of goals because he is firing away all the time, he generally takes very good shots from very good positions.
But the issue is whether you want a player who turns 34 in February taking lumps on his own up front from nasty centre-backs and especially in a hyper-tactical league like Serie A, where even the smaller sides can be hugely annoying to play against.
It's not that he can't do it -- he can do most things on a football pitch better than most footballers -- but that the risk, in terms of injury, bookings and frustration, may not be worthwhile as Juventus look to protect and maximize their $100 million-plus investment.
Then there is the issue of what Ronaldo prefers. There is a reason why Real Madrid so rarely played him as a lone centre-forward and it's not because Benzema was the second coming of Marco van Basten. Plenty close to Ronaldo suggest that he simply did not see himself up front on a regular basis, except perhaps in a front two.
The obvious alternative is a 4-3-3, plug and play, replicating what he had at Madrid. Allegri can then add Blaise Matuidi and his driving runs to the middle of the park (or Can or Rodrigo Bentancur or whomever), put Ronaldo left and deploy Mario Mandzukic through the middle.
It makes a ton of sense given that Mandzukic has the physical presence, work rate and tactical awareness to complement Ronaldo the way Benzema did in Madrid. Alas, though, every rose has its thorn. Mandzukic is 32, has started more than 28 league games in a season just once and had his preseason cut short due to Croatia's run to the World Cup final.
As such, it is a big ask to for him to lead the line and do the grunt work week in, week out. Yes, you can have him in that role for big games, but that means finding someone else to do the job the rest of the time. There are no other centre-forwards with Serie A experience on Juve's books apart from Moise Kean, but he is 18 and could go on loan. That means there is no Plan B, other than a wholly different formation.
The other issue with 4-3-3 is the third slot up front. If your benchmark is talent, Dybala goes there, but it remains to be seen whether such a move gets the best out of him. Or you alternate one of the three remaining wingers -- Cuadrado, Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa -- which means there is a challenge to keep everyone happy in terms of minutes.
Too negative? There is some good news. Allegri is one of the most pragmatic and tactically creative managers out there. He is not wed to a system, he has played them all, and more than most, he is not afraid to experiment. As for keeping everyone happy, while he bristles at being called a "man-manager" because he wants folks to appreciate his tactical nous, he is as good as they come in that regard.
There might be other solutions, which seem far-fetched right now, but that Allegri could pull out of his hat. Dybala as a "false nine," for example, or Ronaldo playing in a front two with a winger recycled as a second striker.
If the real benchmark for Juventus this season is the Champions League, then the club's manager has six five months or so -- until the knockout phase begins -- to figure it out. Whether it is a different formation or simply building the chemistry required to accomodate Ronaldo, who tends to move around the pitch wherever his instinct takes him, albeit usually starting from the left wing, there is time to work on things.
And if all else fails and Allegri feels that only a 4-3-3 with Ronaldo wide works best, there is always the option of going into the transfer window in January. Juventus do not need a world-class striker, just a willing, hard-working, blue-collar body who can give Mandzukic days off.