Monday, 8 April 2019

Football's Michael Jordan: Is Cristiano Ronaldo the greatest header of a ball ever?

The forward's average leap is 78 centimetres, which is 7cm higher than the average basketball player, while he can hang in the air for 0.7 seconds

In the fifth and final game of the Chicago Bulls' epic series against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989, Michael Jordan hit a buzzer-beating two-pointer that quickly became known as 'The Shot'.

It was a fittingly simple but effective description of what Bulls coach Doug Collins conceded afterwards was a simple but effective strategy:

"[It] was get the ball to Michael and everybody else [on the team] get the f*ck out of the way!"

Barcelona have a similar approach with Lionel Messi.

"They can't afford to spend even 10 minutes of the match with him not getting possession of the ball," Xavi told Mundo Leo in 2017.

"He has to be wherever it goes and if he's not there, bring it to him. [Otherwise] he's going to get p****d off.

"Messi is the one that will make things happen for the team."

Consequently, Barca's players are instructed to get the ball to Messi's feet as quickly and as often as possible.

Juve, though, have adopted an ever so slightly more varied approach since stunning the football world by signing Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid last summer.

Their objective is not just to find the forward's feet – but also his head.

Last season, Juve were almost exclusively concerned with keeping the ball on the deck. Now, though, they also look to get wide at every opportunity and swing it into the box.

Indeed, Juve didn't even rank among the top 20 for open crosses in all competitions in 2017-18. This season, prior to last weekend's matches, they sat fifth in the standings, with 692 – 10 more than they managed in total last term.

Juve are now averaging 16.9 crosses per game; up from 12.6 in 2017-18 – and that's all down to Ronaldo.

The Portuguese's arrival has had several knock-on effects in Turin.

Firstly, Mario Mandzukic is now more important than ever before because he provides Ronaldo with a reference point up front, a player to play off, and another excellent aerial target.

Secondly, Paulo Dybala is no longer a certain starter and, even when he does play, he is deployed deeper, serving as a link-man between the midfield and Ronaldo in attack.

Both forwards are essentially there to serve CR7, as are the full-backs, who are asked to provide width, and crosses.

The stark contrast between Juve's differing strategies – of this season and last – was best illustrated in Juve's Champions League last-16 tie with Atletico.

In the first leg, Massimiliano Allegri reverted to type and adopted a conservative approach, making the mistake of leaving the dynamic right-back Joao Cancelo out of his starting line-up, as well as persisting with an uncomfortable Dybala in between the lines.

Neither selection paid off. Juve were far too passive against an aggressive Atletico side and paid the price, losing 2-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano.

The Bianconeri enjoyed plenty of possession (63.1 per cent) but without any penetration; Atletico were far more direct and, thus, proved the far more dangerous side, with five shots on target to just two from the visitors.

In the second leg, Juve saw roughly the same amount of the ball (62.1%) but this time they did something with it.

They didn't just return to their tactic of looking for Ronaldo in the air; they doubled down on it. Juve swung in 30 open crosses in total, almost twice their usual tally.

Of course, in Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, Atleti have two of the best defensive headers of a ball in the world. But even they had no answer to what was an all-out aerial assault.

The final outcome? Ronaldo reigned supreme, scoring two headers – and a penalty – as Juve pulled off one of the great European comebacks, triumphing 3-0 on the night, and 3-2 on aggregate, to progress to the quarter-finals.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner is adept at scoring every type of goal – he is the ultimate goalscoring machine, after all – but his aerial prowess is arguably the most remarkable facet of his game.

Some of his most iconic goals have been headers.

There were the towering efforts against Roma and Chelsea during Manchester United's 2007-08 Champions League triumph, with Sir Alex Ferguson describing the former as "the perfect header".

The iconic Scottish manager was on the receiving end in 2013 when Ronaldo powered home a header for Real Madrid in a Champions League clash with the forward's former club in 2013.

"Ronaldo's kneecap was at the height of [Patrice] Evra's head; even Lionel Messi can't do that!" said a flabbergasted Ferguson.

Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown has compared Ronaldo's leaps to "watching a basketball player going up for a slam dunk".

It's no exaggeration either.

At 1.86 metres (6 foot 1 inch), Ronaldo may not be as tall as most basketball players but, according to a 2011 study carried out by Neil Smith, a biomechanics expert from Chichester University, the forward's average leap is 78 centimetres (2ft 5in) – which is 7cm (3in) higher than the average NBA player.

So, Ronaldo isn't only a clutch player, he also glides through the air, meaning he is essentially the Michael Jordan of football.

And, just like Jordan back in his heyday, there's very little one can do to stop him when provided with quality service.

While it is always extremely difficult comparing players from different eras - given how football has changed over the decades - there is no doubt that Ronaldo is up there historically with the very best strikers in the air; the likes of Carlos Santillana, Oliver Bierhoff and Horst Hrubesch.

Indeed, since 2008, he has scored 82 headers in all club competitions. Incredibly, that is 20 more than anyone else has managed in Europe's five major leagues, with Fernando Llorente next best on 62 headed goals.

As former Wales manager Chris Coleman said after watching Ronaldo leap to a height of 2.65m (8ft 7in) – he was 80cm (2ft 6in) off the ground, with 0.7 second hang time – to open the scoring in their Euro 2016 semi-final loss to Portugal, "You cannot defend against a jump of that height."

And that will be Ajax's primary concern ahead of Wednesday's quarter-final first leg against Juve in Amsterdam.

The Bianconeri's main objective will be once again to get the ball to Ronaldo.

Ajax's task will be to stop the cross. Because there is simply no stopping Ronaldo in the air.

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