When he landed in Madrid to sign for Real, back in the summer of 2009, it was not just the color of Cristiano Ronaldo’s jersey that changed. The Portuguese also changed his game style profoundly: he switched diabolical feints for strong shots, left the line to appear more frequently in the area and turned his magic into effectiveness. Cristiano, the flamboyant, became Ronaldo, the machine. Cristiano Ronaldo changed, and the United-era step-overs, documented below, became less and less frequent.

Some critics said that Ronaldo was aging and accused him of getting older, but the truth is that year after year the Portuguese beat records, becoming Real Madrid’s best scorer ever and proving that age is just a number . The biggest proof? The season of 2014-2015: with 30 years, the “critical age” for most players, the Portuguese star scored no less than 48 goals in the league, 10 goals in the Champions League and three in other competitions. It was Ronaldo’s best ever season, averaging 1.13 goals per game.

Today, Ronaldo is different. The Portuguese continues to be the Real’s best scorer and is third in the La Liga overall score with a total of 20 goals. But statistics are far from the numbers of previous years: even after having demolished Bayern Munich with five goals in two games, and practically have stamped the passage to the Champions League final with a remarkable performance against Atletico Madrid, CR7 has “only” 0.83 goals per game – its worst average since coming to Madrid. Is Ronaldo finally getting old?

Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo: the eternal comparison

Let’s start by putting these numbers in perspective, contrasting them with an appropriate comparison term. Being one of the best players ever, it’s worth putting it side by side with the only player Ronaldo would have liked to be compared to: the eternal rival Lionel Messi.

Unlike Ronaldo, who is having his worst season since arriving at Real, the Argentine star has managed to recover some of his lost glory. In fact, they seem to go the opposite way, since this is the first season, in four seasons, in which the Barcelona player manages to have a better statistical record than Ronaldo. The evolution of the average number of goals per game of each is documented in the following chart.

Messi’s golden seasons were 2011/12 and 2012/13, when he was 25 and 26 respectively. At the time, the Barcelona number 10 scored an outstanding number of goals: 133 goals in just two years (!), reaching an average of 1.2 goals per game and definitely entering the parchments of international football.

Before, Messi had already proven his quality in a celebrated match against Arsenal (2010). After being smashed by La pulga (4-1 at Camp Nou), Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said that Messi was “a Playstation player” – able to score goals and make dribbles that only in the virtual world should be possible to perform.

The perfectionist Ronaldo, however, did not lose heart. He continued to run and score, until in 2014/2015 he was able – finally – to overtake the Argentine again. With a whopping 61 goals and an average of 1.13 goals per game, Real’s number 7 returned to the top of the La Liga scorers. In the following season he was again ahead of Messi, this time taking advantage of the fact that the arrival of Suaréz to the Camp Nout has ‘pushed’ the number 10 to the wing, away from the opposing networks.

What is the problem? In fact, is there a problem at all?

Why is Ronaldo losing gas? One possible explanation is the one we advanced in the beginning of the article: the Portuguese player is feeling the weight of age to affect his ability to score, after having already seen it affect his style of play.

In fact, there are several studies confirming that athletes tend to reach their ‘physical peak’ sometime before 30’s, and that from then on the decline is (almost) inevitable. It is normal – and, indeed, inevitable – that Ronaldo should follow the same path, now that it is 32 years old.

But this time was also special. Ronado started late due to a difficult injury in the final of the European 2016, and when he returned he did it at cost, playing several games without scoring. The beginning of this difficult season may have contributed to the current ‘low’ average of 0.83 goals per game, – and maybe, who knows, Ronaldo will return next season to the usual average.

Moreover, all rules has its exception, and there are plenty of players reach their best goal average after 32 years. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of those cases: only after he turned 30 did he started beating the mark of the three dozen goals per season, and only at 34 came the average of one goal per season. We will have to wait for 2017/2018 to take the nine tests and evaluate the evolution of CR7.

In any case, Ronaldo scored 35 goals this season, which gives an average of 0.83 goals per game. These statistics would not be a problem for any advanced in the world, they are only problem for Ronaldo because Ronaldo is … Ronaldo. A player who has accustomed us to the average of one game per game, and that together with Messi has monopolized the Golden Ball and Gold Boot of the last decade. And, in fact, it is appropriate to put these figures in perspective, in comparison with other great stars of the last three decades.

The table above relativizes Ronaldo’s numbers (or maybe it aggrandizes them – it depends on how you look at it). Ronaldo’s current average goal/game is still better than the average rate hit by more than two-thirds of the world’s best strikers in their best season. Among the 20 players for whom Finance Football has compiled numbers, only five have managed to do better at some point in their careers: Brazilians Ronaldo and Romário, Sweden’s Ibrahimovic, Dutchman Ruud Van Nistelrooy and of course Messi. The columns on the right make this comparison.

But if we compare the major trends, the difference is even greater. Ronaldo has an average career goal of 0.85, which is only behind Messi. Romário gets there close, but for the other forward the gap is huge. In fact, there are very few cases that manage to have a goal average much higher than 0.55 (little more than one goal every two games). Again, only the two Brazilians and Nistelrooy can stay above this bar.

Is Ronaldo getting old? Perhaps. But the ‘old’ Ronaldo is still better than many of the great spearheads of the past – even when they were at their best.

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