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Why has Cristiano Ronaldo not fired in Saudi like Lionel Messi has in MLS?

“The Saudi league is better than MLS.” Even before his long-time rival Lionel Messi had a kick of the ball in an Inter Miami shirt, Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to have the word out. “I opened the way to the Saudi league, and now all the players are coming here. In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year, the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league.”

There was another proclamation at the end. The doors to a European comeback have been shut. ‘100 percent’. But that was where the problems had begun to surface. A second stint at Manchester United. At 36. Was there enough fuel left in the tank to play across four competitions? Was there enough pace to cope with a young sides in the English Premier League? Can he find those spaces and make those surging runs that once split top-tier European defences? Could he dip those free kicks right? Could he press as relentlessly as his manager wanted him to?

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Cut to the beginning of the 2023/24 Saudi Pro League season. Ronaldo is set to kickstart his first full year at Al Nassr and those questions are still hovering around the club captain. The former Sporting, United, Real Madrid and Juventus man had come to the middle-east with much fanfare, with expectations to take the Saudi league by storm. The reality has been vastly different with no top of the table finish for Al Nassr or a berserk goal-scoring rate from their new captain. Is the Ronaldo magic fading or was this the case of first-season syndrome? An in-depth look at the Portuguese’s iconic traits and how they have served him, in Saudi or in recent times.

Not the goal poacher he once was?

On paper, Ronaldo’s 14 nettings off 16 games don’t look bad for a 37-38 year old forward. But when you consider that the Portuguese had 2.09 shots on target per 90 minutes and more than double in total per 90 (5.02), the percentage of chances missed is noticeably bigger. There have been instances when the once-fabled predator in front of goal has fumbled while volleying from 12-yards out or attempting tap-ins from even closer. It was obvious when Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr that he’d be at the receiving end of most passes. Former Al Nassr midfielder Fahad Al-Huraifi had this to say on his Twitter, “I swear to God, I did not want Cristiano to come to the Al-Nassr while we still had Talisca, because if both players say ‘Give me the ball to score’, it’s a disaster.” It’s been one.

Days of dribbling well behind?

Another aspect of his play that Al-Huraifi would highlight was that Ronaldo “is no longer able to dribble or rely on himself. He always wants an assist.” There are a bunch of YouTube fail compilation videos that drop on your screen of Ronaldo’s half season at Al Nassr. The step overs and turns have gotten slower and sloppier, with instances of the opposition snatching the ball off his feet as the Al Nassr captain looks a shadow of the teenager who forced Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand into bringing him at Old Trafford in 2003.

Speed a detriment for CR7 in Saudi?

Known for making searing runs in behind the defence at the precise moment so as to not get caught offside, in Saudi, Ronaldo’s timing has been off. With his teammates trying to feed him up with the perfect pass, the talismanic striker – already on his way, anticipating it – has been often caught offside. It was a prevalent issue during his second spell at United as well, having been caught in an offside position 25 times in his first seven months during the 2021/22 season. While then it seemed to be an issue of beating quicker and more agile defenders, the flip side now is the pace of the Saudi league – slower than the European football Ronaldo has been more so accustomed to.

Cristiano Ronaldo Man United demise Ronaldo’s reluctance to press and dipping workrate forced Ten Hag to bench him for the majority of the half season at United ahead of the World Cup. (Reuters)

What is the pressing problem?

During Ronaldo’s brief time at United under Erik Ten Hag, a problem arose during off-the-ball periods that was credited for his eventual exit from the club. The Dutch technician plays a possession heavy game which needs a striker to link up play. Ronaldo’s last season with United did not offer any of that. His reluctance to press and dipping workrate forced Ten Hag to bench him for the majority of the half season ahead of the World Cup. In October 2022, Manchester United club broadcaster Rob Blanchette would share CR7’s pressing percentage on Twitter. A mere 7.28 percent in contrast with Marcus Rashford (14.92) and Bruno Fernandes (15.70).

Has Ronaldo’s free-kick conversion dipped?

Another facet of Ronaldo’s game that has been on the decline is his conversion rate from free-kicks. The Portuguese suffered with a three-year drought, having last scored from the set piece for Juventus back in July 2020. A 43rd attempt which finally bore fruit in Turin. Ronaldo’s one and a half seasons at United ended without a direct goal from a dead-ball situation outside the box. Ultimately in March, he finally ended the wait as he scored a stunner for Al Nassr against Abha. Before that aforementioned Juve goal in July 2020, the free kick conversion rate was already going down a steep hill. After scoring six free kicks in his first year at Real Madrid, the next 8 seasons saw him score five, four, three, five, two, three, three and one free kick goals respectively for the Los Blancos. The drastic drop off was seen from 2014, when he picked up a muscle injury in his left thigh and Patellar Tendonitis in his left knee. As Ronaldo has aged the tendonitis has had a gradual but visible effect on his game.

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Hope for 2023/24?

Two of his recent goals and the way they were scored, beautifully set up the upcoming season for Ronaldo in Saudi. The trademark leaping header that helped him surpass Gerd Muller for most headed goals. And the left-footed first-time shot from the edge of the box in the Arab Club Champions Cup. Both characteristics of an all-round finisher, who can dig up other avenues to score against a tightly marked opposition. The addition of Sadio Mane in the forward-line may also bode well for CR7, with the former Liverpool winger’s nature to adapt on both sides of the field upfront. Mane can be the final third player – with more pace and dribbling nous – to take the attention away from Ronaldo as he tries to make those runs into dangerous territories.

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During his claims in the pre-season, Ronaldo wouldn’t shy away from terming himself as a ‘machine’ being ‘fine tuned’ for the business ahead. In Europe, that was part of the theatre that made him a serial decider of games. Can he follow suit in Saudi in what is supposedly the final club football act of his career? We shall find out soon.

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