Kaustubh Pandey analyses Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at Juventus and reckons the Bianconeri lost more than they gained.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s last action for Juventus on the pitch saw him score a delightful stoppage-time header, only to see it disallowed for offside. That game in Udine ended in a 2-2 draw not because Ronaldo did anything wrong, but because a (former) teammate, Wojciech Szczesny, came up with howlers to cost Juve three points.
What stands out is quite simply the fact that, in some ways, Juventus’ transfer decisions held the footballing side back throughout the time that Ronaldo was at the club. Disturbances, tactical instabilities, and strange choices marred a club seeking Champions League glory when Ronaldo joined the club in 2018.
While the Portuguese was in Turin, one never thought that Juventus knew what they were doing in footballing matters. In the 2018-19 season, Max Allegri’s squad had been screaming out for a transition that is taking shape now. Maurizio Sarri, who was seen as the cornerstone of a new long-term project, was sacked in a season after he had to specifically alter his prefered formation to accommodate Ronaldo in a team that had played a completely different brand of football for many years.
Sarri’s side sometimes played robotic football, which didn’t help Ronaldo, but it was meant to be a long-term project that ended in months. The players were only learning the idea of Sarriball by that time and many of them didn’t really like the coach’s new tactics and mentality.
Andrea Pirlo’s appointment was shocking and made no sense. Bringing in an inexperienced coach like the former midfielder was seen as a desperate attempt from a club that had to change their coach but didn’t have the financial power to hire a top-level tactician. Time proved doubters right.
On the pitch, Pirlo brought his technicalities to the plate. And the system had imbalances because of the number of complications in it. Ronaldo, who for years has been playing under pragmatists like Sir Alex Ferguson, Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho, had to play under managers who bound the team by complex methods of their own. Regardless, he won the Capocannoniere last season, scoring 29 goals in 33 Serie A appearances.
There were times when the demands of the system around him came as a cultural shock to Ronaldo and the same would’ve happened if he had joined Pep Guardiola at Man City and not a pragmatist in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United.
It is fair to say that his best performance in a Juve shirt came under a pragmatist in Allegri himself – as he scored the hat-trick to knock out familiar foes Atletico Madrid in the Champions League in 2019.
Ronaldo and his team thrive under pragmatic managers who emphasise their individual abilities more than their tactical systems. Juve had two of those system managers in a couple of seasons and they had a squad that needed change. Some of them are still there because COVID has made it even more difficult to find suitors for players who massively underperformed in Turin but have high salaries that nobody else in Europe wants to pay.
In many ways, Juventus managed to stick themselves inside a broken mixer grinder throughout Ronaldo’s stay. While the rest of the club existed inside the grinder, Ronaldo was perhaps the lid, with his goalscoring unaffected by what was happening beneath him.
Throughout his stay at Juventus, Ronaldo’s non-penalty Expected Goals metric never reached the level of his last season at Real Madrid. But in the last two campaigns, he overperformed on non-penalty xG quite comprehensively, showcasing his qualities as a goalscorer. So it isn’t like he was poor in front of goal by any means, he did his job comprehensively.
So, why do so many people think he failed at Juventus?
As we said, the main reason he was brought in was to win the Champions League. Ironically, the Bianconeri came closer to lifting the Cup when Ronaldo wasn’t a Juventus player than during his three-year spell in Turin.
The trophy has been won by pragmatists coach much more often than by system managers. Thomas Tuchel is the perfect combination of pragmatism and aestheticism and Zidane won it three times in a row with Ronaldo at Real. While Jurgen Klopp, Hansi Flick and Guardiola have won the Champions League, they won it when their projects were at their peaks. They had undergone a process to nourish the squad in their own vision.
In Flick’s case, the squad already had players who had played a high-pressing brand of football for years. Ronaldo went to Juve when they had a pragmatist who had taken them to two Champions League Finals. Then came two system managers in two years and they were never allowed the time to nourish their project. Juve wanted instant success with project managers – almost like they didn’t know what they were getting.
It screams of the fact that the Bianconeri didn’t know what they were getting in Ronaldo too. His true value was never really harnessed, as the club had other issues to deal with. They became a team without an identity in a confused club that is throwing paint on the wall, hoping it turns out to be a Picasso masterpiece.
The other reason they brought in Ronaldo was to strengthen their finances, attract more fans worldwide, and become a stronger brand. They partially managed to do so, even if they lost almost 300,000 Instagram followers since their former star announced his return to United.
When Ronaldo arrived in Turin, Juventus expected a sold-out Allianz Stadium for four years, but they were incredibly unlucky as the COVID pandemic forced every football club in the world to play behind closed doors for one year and a half, with the only difference that Juventus had the most followed person on the planet wearing their shirt.
In the end, Juventus’ €31m-a-year salary was a gamble the Serie A giants couldn’t afford anymore. A new era now starts for the player and the club, but the feeling is that Juventus possessed a Lamborghini for three years but used it just to go shopping.