What's wrong with Cristiano Ronaldo?
It's rare to see people wondering what's going wrong with a player who has six goals and two assists three months into the season. But that's perfectly par for the course when the player in question is Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Juventus star was substituted for the second consecutive game this season, against Milan. On both occasions, the Bianconeri were chasing a winner.
It seems preposterous that you would sub off Ronaldo when looking to score. But unfortunately for him, the substitute scored the winner in both games.
Anyone who has watched Ronaldo this season will tell you that he hasn't been at his best. Let's delve into the possible reasons for his dip in form.
The former Chelsea manager was appointed by Juventus this season in the hope of instilling a positive and possession-oriented style while aiming for success in Europe. This is the same manager who finished 2nd (twice) and 3rd with Napoli while playing enterprising football, albeit on a much smaller budget compared to Juventus.
Additionally, while not all Chelsea fans may be happy with his tenure, finishing 3rd in the EPL, winning the Europa League and reaching the EFL Cup final is in no way a failure.
But Juventus's performances this season have left a lot to be desired. They may be top of the league and their group in the Champions League, but that has more to do with their sheer force of will rather than them playing their opponents off the park. There has been a recurring pattern in their play this season, with predictable circuits and sterile possession.
This is the same criticism directed at Sarri while he was manager at Chelsea as well.
Unlike Allegri before him and Zidane at Real Madrid, Sarri is not a serial winner who is used to managing players who have won consistently during their career. That is what Ronaldo is used to and respects. He responds to the manager accordingly. You only need to look at Benitez's short tenure at Real Madrid and his attempts at giving tactical instructions to Ronaldo to see how that ends.
Tangible progress with regard to Sarri will need to be made before the end of the season, otherwise the Juventus hierarchy will be forced into a rethink.
At Real Madrid, Zidane had set up the whole team so that they would create chances for Ronaldo to finish, making full use of how lethal he could be in the right conditions.
Marcelo and Dani Carvajal pinged crosses from both sides while Toni Kroos and Luka Modric dominated the midfield. It was the perfect set-up for the current version of Ronaldo, who isn't a fleet footed winger that can dribble his way out of danger anymore.
The Portuguese has adapted his game by polishing his finishing and staying closer to the box to conserve energy for when that half-chance does arise. That worked wonderfully for him and Madrid, leading to an unprecedented hat-trick of Champions League titles and equaling Lionel Messi with five Ballon d'Or titles.
But it's a completely different story in Turin, especially with Sarri at the helm. Gone is the flurry of crosses in the box, and it has been replaced by a patient possession game. Ronaldo is also expected to be part of the build-up and not just a finisher.
As good as the Juventus squad is, it does not match up to the Real Madrid of two years ago in terms of sheer quality and experience. That is just another challenge of moving to a new team in a different country, compounded with a change in manager after the first season.
Higuain is no Benzema
Karim Benzema may be a forward, but make no mistake about his position for his role. He was never a finisher for the Real Madrid team; he was merely a facilitator for Ronaldo.
Benzema's movement and decoy runs created space for Ronaldo to exploit, and the Frenchman's link-up play was sublime. A few months after Ronaldo's departure, he stated in an interview that he was enjoying life at Real Madrid because he could play his "true football" rather than continually serve the Portuguese forward.
The stats, in this case, don't lie. Since his departure, Ronaldo has 34 goals and 11 assists while Benzema has 41 goals and 15 assists, having played 12 games more.
At Juventus, Ronaldo usually plays up front in a 4-3-1-2 formation with Gonzalo Higuain alongside him. To put it simply, Higuain is a different kind of player. For any number of reasons, he has not given up his instinct and desire to be on the score sheet to accommodate Ronaldo.
That may be by design, or by happenstance. But it doesn't change the fact that it affects the output of the Portuguese star.
It's not often that a 36-year-old Fabio Quagliarella playing for UC Sampdoria, a side that finished 9th in the league, outscores Ronaldo, arguably the main man at Juventus.
Patrice Evra once famously said, 'If Cristiano Ronaldo invites you for lunch, just say no.' He was referring to the incredible regimen followed by the Portuguese to ensure that he stays in top shape and prolongs his playing career.
On more than one occasion, there have been reports of how fit Ronaldo is for his age. His devotion and commitment to fitness have ensured that he has avoided any serious injury in his career.
Be that as it may, Ronaldo turns 35 in February 2020. He has played 817 games for club and country, and that is bound to take a toll. Even after the game against AC Milan on Sunday, Sarri mentioned a niggling knee injury which was affecting Ronaldo's performance. It is more difficult to recover from these knocks as you grow older.
Zidane perfected the way to manage Ronaldo by ensuring he rested adequately during a season, so that he was firing on all cylinders by the business end of it. That is probably missing at Juventus.
But knowing Ronaldo, he will likely use the criticism as fuel to come back stronger and perform even better. As he has done so often in the past, he could yet again make us eat some humble pie and deliver the Champions League this season.