How should Allegri use Cristiano Ronaldo?

Juventus were one of the best sides in Europe before Cristiano Ronaldo was even liken to the Turin based club. They have twice made the Champions League Final in the past four years, failing to win it all as they fell to Barcelona and Real Madrid in 2015 and 2017 respectively. The Old Lady were favorites to win the Serie A once again this year though the signing of Ronaldo has ended the conversation before the season could begin. The Champions League and Coppa Italia are harder to predict given that knockout competitions are always known for their unpredictable surprises. Regardless, by bringing in one of the greatest players of all-time, they are among the favorites to win them all.

The biggest question coming into this season was how Allegri would make use of the talismanic Number 7. He has transformed over the years and has maintained an ever dominant presence in the game. From the dynamic winger who graced Old Trafford, CR7 had his best years at the Bernabeu where he was goal scoring forward. Ronaldo will turn 34 this coming February and clearly lost a step. He is still faster than 95% of the players in Europe but has become a more static player to maximize his opportunities. How Allegri plans to mold the Juventus is something we are still yet to see. The season is early, though Ronaldo has looked somewhat out of place in most of his 180 minutes with La Vecchia Signora.    

Allegri’s dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that Ronaldo is an unorthodox player. He does not have a defined role and often changes his function with the progression of the game. N’Golo Kanté and Romelu Lukaku have defined positions and thus makes it easier to their managers to fit them into a formation. Ronaldo relishes with freedom on the pitch. His best position is that he does not have one. The Madeira native reads the game and plays accordingly. Instead of wrestling with the opposition defense; he smirks at them, knowing that his arsenal is full of tricks. For much of his time the Meringues, he lined up on the left wing though he mostly played as a mobile second striker. Gonzalo Higuaín and Karim Benzema acted as a fulcrum from which he functioned. Ronaldo had his best years when he paired up with the Frenchmen. During his first six years in Madrid he was in the peak of his powers. Featuring as a wide forward, he would often pick up the ball in the middle of the park before taking on multiple defenders. Ronaldo would rely on his quick first step and perpetual athleticism to beat defenders. He savored in his ability to draw opposition players to him, spending nearly 60% of his time on the pitch on the left flank.

Things changed during 2014 and he was forced to change the way he played the game. While Real Madrid won La Decima and Copa del Rey, Ronaldo was suffering with patellar tendinitis in his knee and a series of hamstring injuries. This hampered him during the latter part of the 2013-14 season and during the summer as Portugal got knocked out of the group stages in the World Cup. Ronaldo was forced to redo his physique, sacrificing a few pounds to maintain his athleticism on an aging body. He even changed his play to extend his prime. He transformed from a wide forward to a more central striker. Ronaldo would continue to drift out wide even though he would spend more time centrally – transforming into a poacher in the box. Under Zidane, Real chose to employ more of a counter attacking style. Here, Ronaldo would lead Madrid’s frontline from the right flank. The varying movement created an increasing number of mismatches that he can always take advantages of.  He still can overpower any fullback and outrun any central defender in the world. The injury forced him to adapt to changing circumstances and thus broadened the horizons of his game.  

Allegri’s has to decide between allowing Ronaldo to play in a familiar role or to put the needs of his side ahead of his new No. 7’s comfort. Juventus only have two players who are capable of playing as a center forward: Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic. Against Chievo, Allegri chose to debut Ronaldo as a sole striker. Mandzukic reprised as a super sub – a role he has mastered since moving to the Serie A. Ronaldo was supported by Paolo Dybala in a No. 10 role with Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa planking the two in an orthodox 4-2-3-1. This was the plan for the first hour of play. There were obvious reasons for this and it played into the strengths of Juve. Ronaldo’s aerial supremacy can be maximized by plenty of service from either flank. Dybala would be the general that wound the attacking play together with his creative prowess. This could work should a two-man pivot in the midfield comprising of Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira (or Matuidi and Emre Can) provide enough defensive cover to allow the front four to play without the burden of tracking back - especially when Alex Sandro and Joao Cancelo like to venture forward and provide width.

This can work. Cristiano Ronaldo has the skillset of being an out-and-out center forward. He is one of the best player in Europe in the air. His footwork and movement make life hell for any defenders. And when he is on song, Ronaldo’s finishing it outstanding. That being said, he does have some flaw that have come under criticism. It is hard to remember when he last tracked back to provide cover for his fullbacks. And when he goes through a barren spell – like he did during the first half of La Liga last season - there is not much that he can offer at the age of 33. Per 90 minutes, Ronaldo’s goals and assists (1.38) is far superior to that of his predecessor, as Juve’s striker, Gonzalo Higuaín (0.87). Though, their expected goals per shot is fairly comparable with both player hovering around the 0.143 range. And this accounts for Ronaldo’s favoring of his long-distance and off-angle shot while Higuaín has been a poacher. In layman’s terms, Ronaldo does not score simply because he takes a ridiculous number of shots. He scores because he takes good shots from great positions.

Serie A is a much more physical league than La Liga. Defenders here could not care less about the flair and finesse that has enraptured this generation of Spanish defenders. Italy is full of rugged, uncompromising, and blunt defenders. This can easily slowly down a soon to be 34 Cristiano Ronaldo. If he is to take the brunt of the abuse from defenders, he will break down at some point during the season and become a shadow of himself during the knockout phases during the Coppa Italia and Champions League. Even the likes of Empoli and Parma put Ronaldo to the test as they will not show deference to the five time Ballon d’Or winner. The lesser Serie A sides will be annoying pests as they will do look to nullify all of Juve’s advantages. It is not that he is not capable of wrestling with center backs. While it may not be his forte, he should be more than up for the task. He can do almost anything at the pitch better than this fellow football players. The again, the risk of injuries, bookings, frustrations, and barren scoring spells is not something that Allegri will want risk jeopardizing their $100 million-plus investment. It will be a lot more worthwhile if the club decides not to gamble with Ronaldo’s debut Serie A season.

There is also the under talked about point: Ronaldo’s preference. There is a reason he has rarely featured as the lone striker during the extent of his career. He never saw himself as the second coming of Thierry Henry would may be the game’s best example of being able to transition from a vibrant winger to cutthroat striker. Over the years, the word around him as grown to the point where he simply does not see himself up front; unless he is to feature as part of a front two.  

Allegri’s alternative is to play with a 4-3-3, something that Ronaldo has plenty of experience with. He would start off on the left flank and would naturally drift into the box. Juventus played like this during the final 30 minutes against Chievo and in their first home game of the season when they faced a robust Lazio side. Allegri could easily add Matuidi into the midfield three who would link up well with Pjanic and Khedira. Mandzukic can start as the lone center forward though Juventus would no longer have any backup forwards. While this would make sense as the veteran Croatian is more than capable of being a tireless physical presence, it is a big ask to make him lead the frontline on a weekly basis. Mandzukic can complement Ronaldo’s play, just like Benzema did when he played with Real Madrid. Nonetheless, too is an aging striker who had his preseason cut short with international duty. The two will always excel during the big games though Allegri will have his hands tied should either player miss a game with injury or suspension. Moise Kean is the only center forward on the Juventus roster but he is 18 years old. He has been linked with a loan move though he will be needed. I’m not sure whether he has it in him to lead one of the best teams in Europe. Allegri’s options upfront are paper thin. 

Another problem that arises with a 4-3-3 is the third forward slot upfront. An obvious argument would be to have Dybala play on the right wing. He has already established himself as one of the best young players in Europe and is touted as being a future Ballon d’Or winner. Unfortunately, he has never looked comfortable when he played on the flanks. Allegri has tried to implement him in a wide role to try and mix up his lineups. It has never worked in the past and it is hard to think that it will work in the future. And why take the risk of upsetting you player of the future when he has already been linked with a move away. Cuadrado, Federico Bernardeschi, and Douglas Costa are all capable wingers who are eager to prove themselves. Rotating between the three for that one forward spot will ensure that nobody is happy.

While this may seem like an unsolvable dilemma with no clear winner, this problems rests on the shoulders of one of Europe’s most brilliant tacticians. Allegri is a pragmatic yet creative manager and amongst the best in the world. He has shown throughout his managerial career that he is not hell-bent on sticking with on system. Allegri has molded his systems to get the best out of his squads. He thrives under experimentation and will do what it takes to get the job done. He has a philosophy of winning and has the résumé to back that up. I would not be surprised if Dybala was to feature in some games as a ‘false nine’ or if one of the winger would play as a second striker playing off Cristiano Ronaldo.

Juventus’ goal is to win the Champions League. It has twice escaped from their grasps after heartbreaking loses Barcelona and Real Madrid. Adding Ronaldo as thrusted them into the conversation. They finally have a player who is capable of a moment of individual brilliance when the game comes to a lull. Regardless, Allegri might only have until December to tinker with his XI and formations before the knockout stages begin. Whether it is a different formation or simply catering to Ronaldo’s tendencies to get the best out of their new No. 7; there is time for this squad gel together. If all else fails, Ronaldo could return to his once favored position where he hugged the touchline on the left wing. Juventus can always bring an additional player during the transfer window. They do not need another Ronaldo or even a Higuaín replacement. A hardworking and selfless striker is all that is needed, someone who can backup Mario Mandzukic and can complement one of the best players in the world.   

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