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Could Real Madrid Be Even Better Without Ronaldo?

It’s hard to do better than back-to-back-to-back Champions League trophies, until you look deeper. Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus means less starpower in the Spanish capital, but in his absence, Real Madrid could develop a more balanced and multi-faceted attack.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What is Cristiano Ronaldo really worth?

In cold, economic terms we already kind of know the answer: somewhere in the hundreds of millions. A week before the €100 million signing was even confirmed, Juventus’s market cap shot up by €200 million and Ronaldo’s mere presence could bring enough revenue to push Juve’s income beyond some of their closest competitors at the top of the European financial ladder. As of last year, per the annual list published by Forbes, Ronaldo made €95 million combined through salary and endorsements. With even bigger paychecks coming from Turin, that number might be on the rise.

But what kind of impact does he have on the field? It’s perhaps a silly question. He’s one of the five or 10 best to ever play this game; his impact can be measured with a seismograph. But both the Ronaldo and the Real Madrid we know today have never existed without each other. With Manchester United, Ronaldo never reached three shots on target per 90 minutes. With Madrid, he got there in eight out of nine seasons. Meanwhile, from 2000 until Ronaldo’s arrival in 2009, Madrid never won more than 85 points or posted a goal differential higher than plus-48. In all but one of Ronaldo’s seasons with the club, they accrued at least 85 points and outscored their opponents by more than 60 goals. The one exception was last season’s 76 points and plus-50 goal differential, but they managed to make up for that by winning their third Champions League title in a row and the fourth in five years. Before that run began, the club had gone 12 years without a European Cup.

This last decade of Ronaldo at Madrid was the story of two supernovae, exploding at once. But what happens when they’re in a separate universe?

Building a team around a superstar is based on the idea that creating conditions to get the most out of one specific player doubles as the way to get the most out of the team as a whole. For a club as wealthy and as talented as Madrid, it’s rare that there’s ever a player worth that sacrifice—this is a team built around Galácticos, plural, not a single sun—but for much of his career in the Spanish capital, Ronaldo deserved to be revolved around. But gone are the days of him scoring 48 goals and assisting on 16 more. Last year, he just—”just”; these are still 99th-percentile numbers—scored 26 goals and assisted on five.

One source, who works with European clubs, told me he wouldn’t be shocked if Ronaldo’s departure actually makes Madrid more efficient. Last season, Madrid took more than 18 shots per game—more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues, and three more than Barcelona, who won La Liga. However, despite trailing their rivals in the capital by more than 100 shots across the full season, Barcelona ended up with roughly the same number of expected goals (per Understat.com) as Madrid last year. In other words, Barca just took better shots.

Although it was his age-32 season, Ronaldo still led all of Europe with, incredibly, seven shots per 90. To fire off that many shots, though, you have to take some bad ones. Among the 16 players in Europe who scored 20 domestic goals last year, Ronaldo took the third-worst shots—an xG per shot of 0.14, nearly 50 percent worse than the leader, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

That’s a lot of shots to lose. The numbers don’t stretch back this far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the most shots per 90 a European club team has ever lost from just one player. However, it’s not like Ronaldo’s replacement will be a league-average player; this is Real Madrid, so “next man up” means Gareth Friggin’ Bale.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale

Name Shots per 90 Goals per 90 xG per 90
Name Shots per 90 Goals per 90 xG per 90
Cristiano Ronaldo 6.95 1.02 1.05
Gareth Bale 3.79 0.80 0.61

Bale took closer to five shots per game when he was with Tottenham, so, in Madrid’s absolute best-case scenario, he stays healthy and ratchets up the attacking pressure, while players like Karim Benzema, Isco, and Marco Asensio add in a couple more attempts of higher quality than what Ronaldo would’ve gotten, and they maintain the crazy-high volume while upping the efficiency. A more realistic—and still-palatable scenario—sees Madrid’s shot numbers drop off, but the efficiency goes up and the output allows them to put up the same overall attacking performance as last year. As another source who works for clubs in Europe suggested, there’s an added benefit of spreading the wealth around, as it makes a club less vulnerable if the key player has an off day or an injury, and it gives players on the upside of an age curve more opportunities to improve.

The realistic worst-case scenario is that the team loses Ronaldo’s gravity, all of the other attackers perform slightly worse without opposing defenders worried about CR7 potentially breaking the game in half, and Madrid’s shot numbers decline without an improvement in shot quality. They haven’t signed anyone resembling a Ronaldo replacement—the only notable incomings this window have been Thibaut Courtois, a keeper, and Alvaro Odriozola, a fullback—and Bale hasn’t played 2,000 minutes in La Liga since 2014-15. Plus, maybe the team can’t even function cohesively without force-feeding the ball to a single target. Good luck figuring that out in Year 1, Julen Lopetegui! (No, we’re not worrying about the 4-2 Super Cup loss to Atlético Madrid just yet. If losing Ronaldo somehow caused Madrid’s defense to concede four goals on just eight shots, then yes, they’re screwed.)

Now, there’s no real road map for Ronaldo’s move because the only other comparable super-usage, super-production superstar is Lionel Messi, who’s played for Barcelona since he was a teen. The closest comparison, ironically enough, comes from the last player other than Ronaldo to lead Madrid in goals: Gonzalo Higuaín. In 2015-16, Higuaín broke the Serie A scoring record by notching 36 goals with a rate of around five shots per 90 minutes. The next season, Napoli scored 94 goals (14 more than the previous season), while their xG total increased by eight. The rest of the team picked up some of the slack, but then coach (and current Chelsea boss) Maurizio Sarri put a winger, Dries Mertens, into Higuaín’s role, and Mertens scored 28 goals and took five shots per game. Meanwhile, Higuaín improved Juventus’s goal tally by only two goals from their prior season—although their xG jumped by around six.

And so, Juventus have now essentially replaced Higuaín, who they bought for €90 million when he was 28 years old, by doubling down on the same bet they made to acquire him. They’ve brought in a striker who’s even older and even better and even more expensive. Whether or not they added Ronaldo, Massimiliano Allegri’s side were likely to win Serie A for the eighth consecutive season. With him in tow, FiveThirtyEight gives the Turin titans a 49 percent chance of taking the title home. Last season, Juventus took just south of 15 shots per game—only seventh in Serie A—so it seems like that number should increase, but will the trade-off be worth it given the potential decrease in shot quality Ronaldo may bring?

The answer doesn’t really matter because Juve didn’t buy Ronaldo to win Serie A; they did it to finally get over the hump in Europe. Per Oddschecker, they’re second favorites (6-1) behind Manchester City (11-2) to win it all. But despite Madrid’s dominance, the Champions League is still a crapshoot to a large degree. Adding Ronaldo basically just gives you a couple extra throws of the dice. He tends to come up big when it matters most, but the margins in knockout competitions are so thin. He didn’t score in the semis or the final last time around; what happens if he doesn’t find the net in the quarters this time? From Juventus’s perspective, the move is likely to be a financial success over the long term, if it isn’t already, but the team has already reached two of the past four Champions League finals. Unless they lift one European Cup with Ronaldo leading the line, the soccer part of the deal will be a failure.

“If you want to use selective cutoffs and simplistic correlations,” Mark Taylor, an analyst who works with Premier League clubs, told me, “the last five UCL winners have Messi or Ronaldo as a constant.”

Juve are betting on the efficacy of that rule, while Madrid hope that their name belongs in that equation. Whatever the answer, with both teams kicking off this weekend, we’re about to enter into a new era of European soccer. After all, every supernova has to eventually fade away.