Cristiano Ronaldo is 36 years old. He's hit age where strikers are supposed to be well into their decline. But, not only is Ronaldo still playing for Juventus, the reigning champions of Serie A, he's doing it better than he ever has. Ronaldo's form never dipped much, but to the extent he seemed to be in decline over his first two seasons at Juventus, his third is an Italian renaissance.
You might miss it if you just looked at his total goals, where he is averaging 0.98 goals per 90 minutes on the field, almost identical to last seasons 0.96. You might even miss it if you looked at plain old expected goals where again his 0.87 xG is below last season's 0.88. But, if you look further under the hood, there are signs that Ronaldo's game has markedly improved.
Here are three stats which show just how efficiently Ronaldo is scoring.
1. He's not leaning on penalties
Key stat: 0.67 Non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes
The gold standard for measuring scoring production is non-penalty expected goals for 90 minutes, and Ronaldo's 0.67 is the best of his three seasons at Juventus. That's up from 0.57 last season, and 0.59 the season before. The last couple of seasons Ronaldo leaned a lot more on getting to take spot kicks to keep his goal tally high. That's not the case this season. The difference is even more pronounced when you look at just goals from open play. Take out the direct free kicks, corners, and free kicks that he's on the end on and you can see a marked improvement in his game. His first season in Italy he was only averaging 0.39 xG per 90 from open play, last season it increased to 0.45 and this season it's up to 0.56. For a player who, as he aged, seemed to rely more and more on dead ball situations to score goals, this season, Ronaldo has turned back the clock and returned to getting a lot of his goals from open play situations. Now, to be clear, these numbers are still significantly below his prime years at Real Madrid where he was above his current level of open play xG seven of eight seasons, but for a player who looked like he was increasingly having trouble finding scoring opportunities from the run of play the last several years, that trend has been well and truly reversed.
2. Shooting: Less is more
Key stat: 5.30 Non-penalty shots per 90 minutes
One the one hand, 5.30 non-penalty shots per 90 is a lot of shots. In fact, there is only one other player who has played 900 minutes this season and taken more, and it is (surprise, surprise) Lionel Messi. On the other hand, 5.30 shots is decidedly not a lot for Ronaldo. It's not only his lowest average shot total at Juventus, it's lower than any single season average he had at Real Madrid. So, how is it that despite shooting less, Ronaldo is both scoring more, and has a higher xG than in past seasons, suggesting that his scoring is not a finishing fluke. The reason is that the kind of shots he's taking have changed.
The first thing to notice is that the percentage of headers Ronaldo is taking has declined precipitously. His first two seasons at Juventus 15.8% and 15.9% of his shots were headers. It's only at 11.1% this season. The last time he took this few headers as a percentage of his total shots was 2012-13 with Real Madrid. And yet despite that shift, defenders have not been able to keep him from getting good shots with his feet. He hasn't been forced to take more shots outside the box, he still takes 51% of shots with his feet inside the box, in line with 50.6% last season and 51.7% the season before. In fact, the average distance of shots with his feet hasn't changed hardly at all. It's 18.7 yards this season, down from 19.2 last season and 18.8 the season before.
The bottom line is that what Ronaldo has done is trade contested headers for good shots with his feet. The fact that that means he's taking slightly less shots overall is well worth the tradeoff, because as good a header as Ronaldo is, he's even better with the ball at his feet 18 yards away.
|PER 90||2018-19 (Serie A)||2019-20 (Serie A)||2020-21 (Serie A)|
% of shots (headers)
% of non-headers in box
Courtesy of TruMedia
3. More efficient passing
Key stat: 37.56 Pass received per 90 minutes
Ronaldo's passing profile is similar to his shooting profile. That is, he's doing less of it but at an impactful rate. He's on the ball less than ever before, with 37.56 pass received per 90 being almost a full five passes per 90 less than the 42.21 times he received the ball per 90 last season. And similarly, the number of passes he's played has dropped a significant amount, going from 34.47 to 37.12 to 32.75 this season. But two things have more than offset that dip. First, he's playing more passes into the final third, 3.58 this season vs. 2.81 last season and 2.61 the season before that. And he's also playing the ball forward more than he did in previous seasons. This season, 23.1% of his passes are forward, last season it was 18.2% and the season before 18.6%.
Just like with his shooting Ronaldo is doing a little less, but what he's doing is more valuable and the tradeoff means he's doing more for Juventus than he ever has before.