Against Juventus in last season's Champions League quarter-finals, Cristiano Ronaldo scored one of the best goals in his goal-laden career. He celebrated by running to the nearest corner flag, fully expecting to once again feed off the antipathy of a jealous opposition crowd. But, rather than jeers, the roar of the Real Madrid fans was followed up by a healthy round of applause from the home support. The Portuguese icon looked slightly taken aback by it all.
Months later, Ronaldo signed for Juventus in a reported £99.2 million deal that broke the Italian transfer record. At 33 years of age, he is now set to embark on another exciting chapter in his career. "The time has come to open a new stage in my life," he told the press upon signing.
Juventus have won Serie A for seven consecutive seasons, and the signature of arguably the finest goalscorer in football today cannot hurt their chances of extending that run to eight in 2018/19. However, it remains to be seen exactly how Ronaldo will fit into their tactical plans this season and beyond. Here, we at Tribal Football do our best to assess what the Ronaldo-Juventus partnership could look like.
A BRIEF TACTICAL RECAP
Ronaldo made his name as a winger, though in recent seasons he has transitioned into a more central role. Last season he spent the majority of his time playing up front as one-half of a two-man strike partnership with Karim Benzema. With this in mind, he can be expected to play as a lone striker or part of a two-man frontline at Juventus, depending on the whims of his new head coach, Massimiliano Allegri.
Allegri is an extremely versatile tactician who is completely unafraid to change systems on a match-by-match basis. Indeed, last term he used eight different basic shapes according to WhoScored. However, he tended to prefer a 4-2-3-1 or, in games against more talented opposition, a 4-3-3 that offered greater numbers in the centre of midfield.
The 4-3-3 would have suited the old Ronaldo, as he could have cut in from the left as an inverted winger. However, the current version prefers to operate closer to the centre and the last line of defence. Out of the two systems Juventus favoured last season, then, the 4-2-3-1 is the one best suited to their star summer signing. However, there are a few other options they could consider, which we will get to later in this article.
WHAT RONALDO BRINGS, AND WHAT RONALDO NEEDS
Since he first emerged at Manchester United, Ronaldo has been a consistent finisher of chances. He possesses a powerful shot with both feet and is excellent in the air, though he has also grown into a more intelligent forward as he has gotten older. Like all greats, he has adapted to the declining physical capacity of his own body, relying increasingly on mental attributes to maintain his performance levels.
His movement and anticipation are outstanding. He knows how to distract his marker and he also knows where to be to get on the end of crosses and through balls. All of this allows him to create or find space even in congested penalty areas. An individualist as well as an opportunist, he is entirely focused on getting a shot off, at times to the detriment of his team's scoring chances. With this attitude, along with quick reactions and his other aforementioned qualities off the ball, he is a supreme poacher.
But Ronaldo, like all footballers, does not exist in a vacuum. In order to play to his best, there are certain things he requires from those around him. At Real Madrid he was able to feast on the quality crossing of attack-minded full-backs in Marcelo and, to a lesser extent, Dani Carvajal. He was also given defensive freedom, meaning he didn't need to over-extend himself when the team were defending.
Juventus will need to adapt to Ronaldo, because it is unlikely – especially at this late stage in his career – that Ronaldo will adapt to them. So, while Allegri usually asks his strikers to be involved in pressing, he may need to change this going forward. At the same time, he will need to ensure his team includes full-backs and/or wingers willing and able to open the pitch up and whip in accurate crosses.
Finally, as discussed above, Juventus will need to fit Ronaldo into a striking position within the system they eventually decide upon. This will have a knock-on effect on their pre-existing forward options.
HOW RONALDO'S ARRIVAL IMPACTS JUVENTUS' ATTACKERS
Gonzalo Higuain was Juventus' first-choice striker last season. The Argentine played in all bar three of his team's league games and was one of the few players who Allegri played no matter the system chosen. However, Higuain is also the closest player to Ronaldo out of all Juve's current forward options.
Higuain is, or was, the player Allegri asks least of from a defensive standpoint. Generally, he is asked to track back and maintain a central position to cut off passes into midfield; at times he is asked to be more aggressive and press the opposition centre-backs. But, in order for Ronaldo to start and Juventus to remain as effective when pressing, they probably need forwards alongside the Portuguese who are willing and able to press and cover intensely for 90 minutes each week. Higuain is not one of those, so his chances of starting just went down.
While his tally of 22 goals in 33 league outings may suggest otherwise, Paulo Dybala wasn't always a nailed on starter last term. There were times, particularly when Juventus went to a 4-3-3 featuring wingers and an out-and-out centre-forward in Higuain, where Dybala didn't seem to fit the system. In this respect, Dybala is very similar to Ronaldo – he plays his best football when the system adheres to him, not the other way around.
There is, however, a reason to think that Dybala and Ronaldo could work well together. Firstly, Dybala likes to occupy the right half-space; Ronaldo, on the other hand, likes cutting inside from the left-hand side. Simply put, they won't get in each other's way. Furthermore, Dybala thrives when playing off a No.9. Despite one impressive season leading the line for Palermo, he has always relished having the freedom to drop deep, get on the ball and create. Ronaldo, on the other hand, is as pure a finisher as can be.
Mario Mandzukic is someone who is able and willing to fit in wherever he is needed. This has been evident throughout his time at Juventus. In his first season, he played up front in a two, often alongside Dybala. Then, when Higuain arrived, he shifted out to the left wing. That his switch of position had no detrimental impact on him or his team's form is a testament to the player's versatility and work ethic. He remains, at the very least, a sound squad option despite Ronaldo's signing.
RONALDO AND JUVENTUS: A POSSIBLE SYSTEM
Of Higuain, Mandzukic and Dybala, the latter is the player most likely to fit in alongside Ronaldo. A front two of Higuain and Ronaldo would involve two players looking to attack the penalty area simultaneously, and would also likely result in a decline in the team's pressing activity. Last season, only Federico Bernardeschi averaged fewer tackles per game than Higuain's 0.5, and no Juve player made less interceptions than his 0.2. Ronaldo, however, made the same amount of interceptions and averaged just 0.3 tackles. Juventus can't really afford to play both at the same time.
As for Mandzukic, his chances are going to suffer for systemic needs of another type. A front two of Ronaldo and Dybala needs quality width – the latter needs it to stretch opposition defensive blocks and create gaps for him to move in; the former needs it as – as discussed earlier – he thrives on good crossing.
Mandzukic's aerial ability, hold-up play and intelligent use of space are effective in many situations, but he doesn't have the skill, pace or temperament to hold a wide left position, beat his opposite man and whip in good supply for Juve's new star striker. For that reason, his position may be under threat.
Ronaldo and Dybala could work well as opportunist and creator/scorer within a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 system, both of which have been used by Allegri in recent seasons. In the former shape, width could be provided by Douglas Costa and Bernardeschi; in the latter, it could come from attacking wing-backs Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro. With this in mind, the below graphic is how Juventus could line up next season.