Ronaldo is an extraordinary and remarkable footballer, but does his way of playing become a weakness for opponents to exploit?
Real Madrid stand 11 points behind Barcelona in the league only 13 games into the season. They looked distinctly second best in taking just one point from two games in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund. Pressure is mounting, it seems, on José Mourinho: six previous Real Madrid managers have found themselves more than six points off the lead at this stage of the season; none have made it until May. Yet it may be that the criticism is being directed at the wrong Portuguese.
Cristiano Ronaldo's goal stats are preposterous: 165 in 164 games since he joined Real Madrid in 2009. Physically he is monstrous: he has an explosive pace but also balance and deftness; he is strong enough that many opponents simply bounce off him and he is good in the air. He is exceptionally gifted with both feet. He is an extraordinary footballer, by many measures one of the greatest handful the world has known. He may also be the reason this Real Madrid team never wins the Champions League.
To an extent, of course, such a statement is ludicrous. With a fair enough wind, anybody who reaches the last 16 can win the Champions League – hard though it is to imagine Ronaldo accepting a role as an auxiliary wing-back as Samuel Eto'o did for Internazionale in the 2010 semi-final or driving himself to exhaustion with the sort of selflessness Didier Drogba showed at times last season. The point is more that no side that contains Ronaldo can reach the level that Barcelona did under Pep Guardiola or Milan did under Arrigo Sacchi, or Liverpool did under Bob Paisley, or Ajax did under Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs – when they are so good that it's almost a bigger story when they fail to win the European Cup than when they do.
Those sides, who stand as the greatest club teams there have been in the past 40 years, share the fact that they were about the collective rather than the individual. Valeriy Lobanovskyi took the principle so far that he argued that the coalitions between players were more important than the players themselves.
For Marcelo Bielsa, whose theories have shaped the modern football environment more than anyone else's, this issue is clear. "We can't have anybody in the squad who thinks they can win games on their own," he said. "The key is to occupy the pitch well, to have a short team with no more than 25m from front to back and to have a defence that is not distracted if somebody moves position." After recent changes in the offside law he may revise that figure upwards but the basic point remains: the team is a system that is at its best when compact.
With Ronaldo, though, it's always all about him. Take, for example, the 2008 Champions League final. Ronaldo, playing on the left side of midfield, headed Manchester United into the lead. For half an hour or so he dominated Michael Essien, who was playing at right-back for Chelsea that night. But then Essien started running past him. Ronaldo didn't track him. One Essien surge led to Frank Lampard's equaliser. Chelsea had the better of the second half and extra-time, in part because Essien's advancement gave them an extra body in midfield.
Much has been made of the fact that Ronaldo ended the evening, having missed his penalty in the shootout, sitting and weeping alone on the halfway line while his victorious team-mates celebrated in front of the United fans at one end. Perhaps that does speak of a certain self-centredness, a need always to be the one who claims the glory; far more significant, though, was that it was his indiscipline that had allowed Chelsea back into the game.
That was why Sir Alex Ferguson used him so often as a centre-forward that season: there his abilities could damage opponents without his laxity damaging United. Wayne Rooney, a lesser player than Ronaldo in many ways – and less disciplined in terms of staying in shape off the pitch – could be trusted to track an attacking full-back. The last-16 game with Porto was emblematic: in the first leg Ronaldo played wide, Rooney central and the Porto full-back Aly Cissokho caused untold problems; in the second Rooney and Ronaldo switched and Cissokho was kept in check.
The lesson has not been learned. When Ronaldo comes up against a strong driving right-back, Real struggle. Dani Alves, for all his defensive flaws, has generally had the better of him in Clásicos over the past three seasons. Philipp Lahm, in the first leg particularly, was key as Bayern Munich won their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid last season – his overlap led directly to Mario Gómez's winner. Ronaldo was still good enough to score twice in the second leg; the question is whether the problems he causes the team shape are worth it.
It was a similar story against Dortmund this season. Essien, playing at left-back in the game in Germany, was widely blamed for his inability to handle Marco Reus but Ronaldo's failure to check Lukasz Piszczek's surges from right-back were just as much to blame. You wonder what might have happened at the Euros had the Czech Republic had the courage to attack Ronaldo with Theodor Gebreselassie.
In a world in which systematised football is de rigueur, Ronaldo is an anachronism. Collective pressing was devised in the USSR in the 1960s by Viktor Maslov, who culled from his Dynamo Kyiv team anybody who refused to fulfil their share of defensive work. That included a hugely popular and skilful but dilettantish left winger – Lobanovskyi; Ronaldo, it's fair to say, is unlikely to follow a similar path to the Colonel, beguiling as it is to think of him in 30 years glowering from beneath a leather cap in a dugout having redefined the use of science in football.
Only one player, the attacking midfielder Andriy Biba "retained full rights of democracy"; playing centrally he didn't have to attack the opposing full-back. Had Ronaldo moved into the middle, his lack of defensive work might have been possible to accommodate; by insisting on playing wide, it becomes, given the importance of attacking full-backs in the modern game, a liability.
To an extent, this is the Real Madrid way. Since the presidency of Santiago Bernabéu, it has favoured stars over system, something that led Sacchi to walk out after being appointed director of football in 2004-05, complaining about the insistence on "specialists" – that is, players who could function in only one way.
Ronaldo will continue to bully lesser sides and occasionally good ones. In a one on one with a defender he is formidable. He finishes magnificently. He is an awesome player. But at the highest level, against the best opposition, his way of playing becomes a weakness for opponents to exploit. He said recently that he thinks he doesn't get the credit he deserves because of perceptions about his personality; the problem is that, whatever he is really like in private, that perceived character pervades the way he plays. He should be a great strength for Real Madrid – he is a great strength; but he is also a flaw.