There is not much about Cristiano Ronaldo that football fans are alien to, anymore. Despite criticism in the press over his ‘slumps in form’, he remains virtually the same, formidable player that he was 10 years ago. That, by itself, says a lot about his undying spirit and drive to excel.
While Ronaldo is certainly not the speedster that he was in his younger days, his goalscoring tally remains virtually identical to what it was in the recent past because of a number of adjustments that he keeps making to his game.
Today, Ronaldo thrives best in one-on-one situations, and now refuses to go for extravagant dribbles. Instead, he focuses on making his impact on the game with more intelligent work, both on and off the ball.
Ronaldo has faced a lot of flak from all quarters in the recent past because of some of his comically inaccurate free kicks in the last 2 years or so. From a time when he was the world’s bonafide best freekick taker, this is a steep decline in his reputation.
That is part of the reason why his converted free kicks receive less attention these days, apart from the increased competition he has at present. Despite scoring really important free kick goals in the last 6 months or so, he is no longer counted as one of the best in the business.
Why he changed his technique
One of the bones that Ronaldo has to contend with, from time-to-time, is his abysmal conversion rate. In the 2014-15 season, Ronaldo scored his career’s highest tally of goals for Real Madrid (61) in all competitions but was able to convert only 2 out of 54 attempted freekicks.
In any team other than Real, which has the luxury of having other world-class freekick takers in the playing XI in Bale, Kroos and Modric, apart from James Rodriguez (who takes less freekicks because he gets fewer minutes, but has the best conversion rate in the team), Ronaldo would have been removed from freekick duty after such an inglorious number of gaffes.
But because he is Real Madrid’s greatest ever goalscorer, and because of his past reputation as the world’s very best freekick technician, Ronaldo held on to the duties and has duly made a comeback into freekick scoring form.
Ronaldo has used a number of freekick techniques over the years and has always been open to using techniques other than the rather unpredictable knuckleball method, which was the chief technique he used to trouble Premier League goalkeepers. He seems to have gone back to the drawing board and come up with a different free-kick taking tactic.
His current technique
Ronaldo is now focusing on getting the ball in at the near post. This is in contrast to his rather ambitious attempts to blaze the ball into the goal from setpieces - a methodology he used earlier last season. He does not strike the ball on the valve for a knuckling effect anymore. Instead, he lets the ball take a natural right-footer’s curve.
The freekick he scored against Sporting in the Champions League group stages was sublime, in all senses of the word. It went over the wall and swung into the near post – international teammate Rui Patricio made a full-length dive to rescue the ball, but it was all to no avail as the bail sailed into the net.
A similar strike was the one he scored against Wolfsburg in the return leg at the Bernabeu last season – it was the goal that proved to be the difference between both sides. It kicked off Real Madrid’s end-of-season run to the Champions League title, and yet, it was based on a simple change of technique from a footballer who is a proven expert at it.
Throughout the length of his career, Ronaldo has been a comparatively ‘wasteful’ taker of freekicks, statistically speaking. But his superior technique has always separated him from the rest of the playing field, and he gained a lot of confidence from his consistent flow of goals for 6 seasons, maybe even more!
His wastefulness is the result of his expansive approach: he aimed at the far post during his best free-kick taking years. He used the whole of the goal for aiming shots, often taking goalkeepers by surprise – many of them had to watch the ball land into the net without being able to do anything from wrongfooted positions.
Another of his famous freekicks directed at the far post was against Real Sociedad in the 2012-13 season, in which Claudio Bravo was left clawing in the air for the ball.
Bravo anticipated Ronaldo to go to the near post, but Ronaldo beat him in the psychological battle by putting the ball just over him. Unable to judge the amount of dip, Bravo could only watch as the wall went over his outstretched hands and then dipped back into the far corner.
Knuckleball techniques allowed him to strike the ball with an emphasis on the unpredictable dip, while his practice allowed him to perfect his shot-taking abilities. Ronaldo would then aim the ball with straight shots and gamble on the ball’s unpredictability to beat the goalkeeper, letting his accuracy slide.
Gambles like these are rarely taken by elite players when they are out to succeed in important games. Ronaldo would do well to keep following his current tactic, which has yielded statistically better results for him.
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