Originally posted on Finishers Forum  |  Last updated 2/26/13
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Earlier this season, ex-Manchester United stalwart Gary Neville wrote a great piece about his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. The majority of it, as you might expect, served as a platform for praising the ruthless Portuguese winger, toasting his staggering accomplishments as a scorer and his enduring resolve as a competitor (and that’s really the sort of stuff you have to expect from an article written in mid-November, right in the thick of “Ronaldo vs. Messi” awards season)… but in addition to those recycled rounds of Ronaldo-applause, he also touched on something much more interesting: the times before the success, the period of frustration and toil before it all came together. Neville recalls the early days with Ronaldo as vexing. Not because the then teenager prospect lacked sufficient talent or ability (that’s obviously never been a problem for him), but simply because the newly acquired talent from Sporting Lisbon refused to play the game the Manchester United way.  With United legends David Beckham (just sent to Real Madrid) and Ryan Giggs as readily available comparisons, Gary Neville couldn’t fathom why Cristiano Ronaldo insisted on dribbling right at double teams with those famously over-complicated stepovers when there was often a simpler pass to be made, or why he insisted on pushing further and further up field when it often left Neville extremely exposed on the counter attack. Beckham and Giggs, first and foremost, had always made sure to fulfill every function of a “total” outside midfielder, which meant being an up-and-down player, unleashing accurate crosses more often than cutting in to create for yourself, and generally remaining on the flanks to give the team constant width. Without question, Ronaldo had the facility to be a player like that… but he never really fit that traditional mold creatively or stylistically. Alex Ferguson understood that, and with a whole-hearted belief that Ronaldo could eventually be something very special in the EPL, he went about discovering his prodigy’s potential by going outside the (English) box. More specifically, Ferguson started adjusting United’s tactics and shifted the formation from a more traditional 4-4-2, to a more fluid 3 attacking midfielders with a single striker on top approach. The new structure encouraged those attacking midfielders to remain flexible in their positioning, and gave the team as a whole a more offensive/creative attacking mindset. This meant Cristiano wasn’t just threatening down the wing and facing off with a team’s outside back, but often times cutting in and dueling with the less mobile central defenders, or even setting up inside as a forward and getting on the end of crosses from teammates. That’s a lot of threats from one player for a team to worry about, and since Ronaldo could do all those tasks at such a high level, Gary Neville quickly realized the value of keeping Ron on the offensive end… even if it left him (poor Neville) in some harrowing defensive situations. Neville still maintains that Cristiano Ronaldo was the one player that forever changed his most fundamental opinions on how the game of football should be played, which on the one hand, is yet another offering of soaring praise for the winger’s “my awesome career” scrap book, but on the other, a tremendous example of the mental shift that had to take place before players like Ronaldo (and now Gareth Bale) could truly reach their full influence as playmakers. Andres Villas Boas, much like Ferguson in the past, made the Tottenham Hotspur formation more compact and fluid in the attacking midfield this season, giving Gareth Bale more opportunities to drift towards the middle and link up/create with teammates, instead of just launching crosses and shots from a wide position. The positive result has been more attempts on goal for Gareth Bale, and more importantly, more attempts on goal from a straight on, goal-scoring position. Better opportunities for your most dangerous player? That’s obviously a good recipe for Tottenham. All in all, AVB has given Bale an ideal environment to thrive in, and to Bale’s credit, he’s proved his elite quality and taken full advantage. He’s currently developing the same sort of unstoppable momentum Ronaldo gathered in 2007 and eventually used to permanently launch himself to superstar status. Now all Tottenham and Villas Boas really have to worry about is a possible Ronaldo-esque exit from the club. A move to Real Madrid would be all too familiar…
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