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Cristiano Ronaldo Is Human After All

He has only four goals halfway through the season, and his team is closer to the relegation zone than first place. Is this the beginning of the end of Ronaldo and Real Madrid?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re doing this again, huh?

Last summer, Cristiano Ronaldo began to walk toward the exit of the Santiago Bernabéu. He even turned the door handle—only to, and I’m guessing here, realize that, along with the value of the British pound, his scoring rate was about to plummet. Brexit has consequences, and so does trading Marcelo for Ashley Young. Although Spanish authorities dogged him for the (reported) €14.8 million he hid in a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, he eventually came back to Spain after a summer vacation ready to … uh, oh boy.

Halfway through the La Liga season, Real Madrid have already dropped more points than they did in the entirety of the previous campaign. They’re currently in fourth place, closer to the relegation zone (16 points) than to first-place Barcelona (19 points). As for the Champions League, where they’re back-to-back defending champs, a second-place group-stage finish dropped them into a coinflip Round of 16 matchup with Paris Saint-Germain. One or two bad results and the season will be over before St. Patrick’s Day.

Sure enough, a handful of anonymous sources are now saying that Ronaldo wants out of Madrid again. According to a report from ESPN’s Dermot Corrigan, Ronaldo feels betrayed that he still hasn’t been offered a new contract while Lionel Messi just signed a new deal that, reportedly, will pay him at least €100 million per season. Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Ronaldo currently makes around €21 million per year on a deal that expires in 2021.

Within the accepted constraints of aging and its deleterious effects on the functioning of the human body, a club handing such a lucrative contract to a player who will be 36 years old by the end of it is absurd. To then extend and inflate that deal would be naked self-sabotage.

Of course, applying preconceived notions of human fallibility to Ronaldo has long been a futile exercise. His game has changed, and his age hasn’t mattered: He won the Ballon d’Or last year and the year before. But then this season happened.

Through 19 games, Ronaldo has taken the most shots per 90 minutes (6.8) of any player in Europe’s top five leagues. That’s 94 attempts in 14 appearances … and four of them have gone in.

“He looks like he’s trying too hard to be the main scorer,” said Stevie Grieve, a coach, analyst, and commentator living in Canada.

Up until this year, Ronaldo’s career has been characterized by unceasing inevitability. The most incredible thing about Messi is perhaps that he’s still surprising us 14 years in. But in contrast to Messi’s kid-size dominance, Ronaldo’s success has always felt like the established natural order reclaiming itself: Stop him once, stop him twice, stop him for 90 minutes, but the respite won’t last forever. Anyone who looks like that and can move like that and can fire off that many attempts on goal will always come out on top in the end.

Not this season, though. Just take this past weekend’s loss to Villarreal. Please excuse the Xavi fan account, but an off-key, broken melody played on an untuned recorder was the perfect soundtrack for Ronaldo’s collection of scuffed shots, haphazard swings, and fruitless complaints:

Better yet, here’s every shot Ronaldo’s taken this season, spliced together:

There aren’t many tap-ins-turned-toe-pokes-over-the-bar, and it’s not like opposing keepers have all turned into David de Gea, either. If anything, the compilation speaks to how frequently and how easily Ronaldo has turned half-chances into sure things over the past few years:

Ronaldo has missed 90 shots this season. Bobby Gardiner wrote for The Ringer last week about how shooting matters more than finishing. Consistently getting a high volume of shots is the way to consistently score a high volume of goals. And guess what? Ronaldo is shooting more often than he ever has.

Expected goals, which takes into account a number of factors and then puts a probability on every shot a player takes, suggests that Ronaldo’s process is just fine, too.

“[Ronaldo] has slumped in 2017-18, scoring two [open-play goals] against an xG of around 7.7,” said Mark Taylor, an analyst for a number of British clubs. “That’s about a 1-in-100 chance of an average player scoring two or fewer if you simulated the xG’s of all Ronaldo’s attempts.”

Among all players in La Liga, per Understat, Ronaldo is third among regular starters in total expected goals and expected goals per 90 minutes. (Messi and his teammate Luis Suárez lead the way.) So, is it all just noise, and will the onrushing tide of Ronaldo’s shots eventually break through whatever randomness has created the dam?

“If xG is the same and he’s scoring less,” Grieve said, “it’ll inevitably go back to normal by scoring four in a meaningless 7-0 win.”

While there’s a chance—albeit a much longer than 1-in-100 chance—that Ronaldo continues along at this microscopic conversion rate, history suggests that his goal-scoring will eventually catch up with the underlying numbers. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll return to his glory days.

“I think the way Madrid have been playing since [Zinedine] Zidane took over hasn’t evolved much, so now teams understand how to set up to prevent Ronaldo having space in the final third,” said Grieve. “The type of chances he’s getting may not be exactly what he wants.”

In other words, the quality of Ronaldo’s shots has declined.

“Ronaldo has been gradually taking poorer open-play choices,” Taylor said. “From 2014-15 in La Liga, his open play xG per attempt has fallen steadily from 0.14 to 0.11 by 2017-18.”

Maybe it’s in Ronaldo’s head. Or off of it. The change in shot quality is mostly down to headers. Last year, Ronaldo averaged an xG of 0.16 per shot with his head; this year, that number has halved, down to 0.08. After scoring 12 headers in 2014-15 and then six in each of the previous two season, he’s yet to score a goal with his head in 2017-18.

Ronaldo has been supremely unlucky—so yes, Barca fans, dance on his temporary grave while you still can, as the goals will eventually come. But something has changed. Maybe opponents are adjusting, maybe age is finally taking its toll, and maybe a loss of pace has prevented Ronaldo from getting on the end of high-quality crosses and firing off shots from closer to goal. The slight shift in his game—more shots, but worse shots—has certainly made it more likely that he goes through an extended slump.

“Overall, it’s likely to be a combination of factors: age, poorer shooting choices, poorer accuracy, and variance,” Taylor said. “But he’s still contributing hugely to Real Madrid’s overall xG per game.”

With shots and chances created, Ronaldo accounts for around 35 percent of Real Madrid’s xG output. So, maybe he’ll eventually decide to leave Spain for Manchester, Paris, or wherever else a team exists that’s willing to pay him something close to Messi’s salary. Or maybe the club will figure that it’s time to move on and just sign Tottenham’s Harry Kane. But whenever the After-Ronaldo era begins, Madrid will have to replace a lot more than just four goals.