April 16, 2017

LEE | Playing Without the Ball

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When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average … So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.

     – Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff may have passed away a year ago, but his influence on the game of soccer lives on. And perhaps the biggest and most obvious influence he retains today is in Spanish giant Barcelona, which has dominated the European soccer landscape for the better part of a decade. It was Cruyff who first proposed the idea of La Masia, Barcelona’s legendary youth academy that produced the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, and it was under Cruyff that current and former Barcelona managers Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola learned their trade.

It is also with the above-stated quote that Cruyff characterized the player which most threatens Barcelona.

When Cristiano Ronaldo first burst on to the scene at Manchester United, he was a flashy dribbler and a blur of speed and skill down the wing. Trusted with the legendary number 7 jersey — a shirt worn by the likes of David Beckham and George Best — he spent his tenure terrorizing full backs, spinning them in circles and leaving them for dead. Then, under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo blossomed into a complete product, developing the goals and assists to match his flair. Ronaldo’s development, combined with a deadly attack comprising of Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, would help him go on to officially claim the title of best player in the world, with his first Ballon D’Or in 2008.

Despite a fine career in England, Ronaldo sought greener pastures. And in 2009, he gained his wish, when Manchester United sold Ronaldo to Real Madrid for an eye-watering 80 million pounds, an amount which represented the highest transfer fee ever at the time. In his newfound Spanish sunlight, Ronaldo morphed into a different kind of player. Whereas with Manchester United he was known for his flashy playing style, romping up and down the wing with the ball at his feet, with Real Madrid he became synonymous with his deadliness on the ball. Ronaldo became the ultimate penalty box weapon, scoring an incredible 279 goals in only 260 appearances.

However, at the same time it is true that Ronaldo no longer dazzles quite like he used to. He has lost much of the eye-catching dribbling ability of his Manchester days, and certainly appears much less entertaining than his number one rival, Lionel Messi.  There are those who take this criticism even further, with claims that Ronaldo is now a stats-stuffer, always looking for the easy goal off penalties and tap-ins and profiting off of his teammates’ selflessness.  It also doesn’t help that the Portuguese have always been ripe for criticism, with a reputation for exaggerating contact and pouting when calls do not go his way, and commonly perceived to be selfish and arrogant.

But to traverse this path is to discredit a legend in the making. On Wednesday, with two finishes against Bayern Munich, Ronaldo became the first player to score 100 goals in European competitions. And the game perfectly highlighted what truly makes Ronaldo stand out. While Messi receives the ball, and then uses his magic to bring it under his spell, weaving in and out of traffic and toppling defenders like logs, Ronaldo is the exact opposite. He lurks without the ball, always eyeing space in the box where the play is developing and then he pounces: a flash of movement, a shot of unerring accuracy.  It means that he only catches the attention for a brief moment, but it is those moments that win matches. It is this careful look at his play which refutes claims that Ronaldo’s success comes from his teammates and can be achieved by anyone in his position.

After all, if what he did was easy then why are we only witnessing such greatness now?