Years Scouted: 1994–95 through 2004–05
Truth be told, for the majority of this series I was rather dismissive on the idea of doing a profile on Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. Once this became an official project that I would spend ample time on (after the Zidane writeup), my preference was to examine players who were household names in their own right, and in some cases became club icons, but who weren’t necessarily at the absolute pinnacle of the sport in terms of both celebrity and performance. Those talents who reached that vaunted level didn’t carry enough interest for myself because so much has been written about them both during and after their career, it’d be next to impossible to find any new territory to cover that would be worthwhile.
As the project drew closer and closer to its conclusion, I did begin to soften on that initial stance in relation to Ronaldo. For a player who achieved the level of celebrity that he did, there aren’t a lot of satisfying in-depth pieces about his on-field contributions. That could be due to his peak being over a decade before European football became considerably more accessible to the average fan. The best one that I came across was this delightful writeup from Spielverlagerung in German. As well, these profiles are free because I want people to have the ability to access them in the future, especially for those who feel as if their historical knowledge of football is spotty (I would still classify myself as one of those individuals). With Ronaldo specifically, there are many people in their twenties or younger who only know him through compilations on social media. Given those factors, it made the prospect of closing this project out with him as the finale more palatable.
So here we are with the 10th and final profile of this series dedicated to one of the absolute icons of the sport, an individual who has been referenced endlessly by some of the greats as a major influence on their game. For fans and media of a certain age group, Ronaldo is held in such high regard that conversations about the GOAT in football have to include him. Blessed with having one of the game’s great nicknames (O Fenômeno), Ronaldo was among a group of players alongside the likes of Romario and George Weah, who helped stretch the imagination of what a forward could do.
Unlike the previous nine profiles that have been done to this point, this one will be different. In the past, I would focus on a 4–5 year stretch of a player’s peak because it would make for an interesting thought exercise on judging their on-pitch value towards winning at the highest level. This approach came with its drawbacks, but it was one that I thought worked the best. With the nature of Ronaldo’s career arc, it was only appropriate to deviate from the previous structure. As such, Ronaldo’s profile will look at two time periods instead of one; the 1994–95 season through 1998–99, and his triumphant return in the 2002 World Cup along with the 2002–03 through 2004–05 seasons.
The first thing to note about Ronaldo during his athletic peak is what most people still remember him for, which was his ability to consistently beat opponents off the dribble. His athleticism was at the level that you see once in a generation, and he utilized that to great effect in combination with a vast amount of tricks in his arsenal (elástico’s, Zidane roulette, stepovers). Those tricks weren’t just for show, but as a real means of creating separation in isolation. This made him a threat in 1v1’s no matter where he was situated on the pitch, particularly in the halfspaces where he could use his ballet-like balance to absorb contact and still maintain solo runs into dangerous areas. Even in crowded areas where the defender was able to get a touch on the ball, more times than not he would still somehow come out of it with possession. When you also account for his absurd change of pace dribble, Ronaldo is on the shortlist of the most dynamic on-ball initiators in the modern era.
That superhuman level of athleticism on-ball that Ronaldo possessed also made him one of the great one man counter attacking threats that football has seen. If he was receiving with his back to goal, he could quickly turn from his marker and leave him in his dust, similar to what Kaká was able to do during his peak. Like Kaká, Ronaldo was able to consistently draw fouls in advantageous areas during transitions. Whenever he had possession of the ball and was facing an opponent who was quickly trying to dispossess him, his ability to quickly shift the ball between his feet made it so tackle attempts by the opponent often missed which allowed him to get to his top gear extremely quickly. While a frequent ball carrier at PSV and Barcelona, his usage as a ball-carrier peaked during his first season at the San Siro.
Ronaldo wasn’t just a spellbinding on-ball threat, but he was well rounded with his off-ball movement as well. His elite burst made him an obvious threat to make straight line runs into open space, but his unique physical features also made him equally adept at quickly changing directions after executing 1–2 combinations and spinning away from his marker. He could make curling runs from the either halfspace into the middle at top speed, or from one halfspace to the opposite. It was not uncommon to see him shift multiple directions on a defender’s blindside if the defender turned his back before receiving the final ball in the box. It even got to the point where Ronaldo carried so much gravity that his movement could create space for his teammates to exploit, similar to what Stephen Curry does regularly in the NBA.
Even after adding size to his frame to adjust to European football, Ronaldo still wasn’t someone who had an overpowering physique. Rather, he would rely on the functional strength that he had to operate in more congested spaces. Like Adriano, he was adept at using his hands to initiate just enough contact to gain an edge without being whistled for fouls. He would use a swim move to split gaps between opponents whenever possible, with his hat-trick goal vs Valencia being a good example of this. Combine that alongside his vaunted athleticism and his equity as a two-footed shooter, and the end result was an extremely high volume shooter that wouldn’t have looked out of place in today’s era. Further more, I’d venture to guess that if event data was available during his career, he would’ve consistently been an above average finisher because of his penchant for angling his shots into the low corners.
For as captivating as Ronaldo was during this period, he did have one weakness (relatively speaking) in his skillset which was his passing, and that seems to get overlooked when talking about his historical impact. He wasn’t great at taking advantage of passing windows when available to him, in part because he did suffer from tunnel vision, and his touch as a passer overall would wax and wane. He could quickly work 1–2 combinations with teammates, but that was geared more towards helping him generate shots rather than bending the defense to create for others. Perhaps part of the reason why this aspect of his game was lacking was because he was immediately a finished product once he got to Europe. This isn’t to say that he was devoid of any moments of quality passing, as Ronaldo peaked as a functional passer during the 1998 World Cup which included brief moments of high level playmaking.
The version of Ronaldo that we saw in the 1998–99 season was not quite at the same level due to injuries issues, so that season provided us with a window into what the next stage of his career would be like following his return in 2002. His athleticism on-ball wasn’t quite as awe inspiring as it had been in previous years (though still close to great), and as such he had to rely more on combinations and utilizing his teammates overall to get into the spaces that he previously could get on his own. That did mean that his passing became more consistent and rivaled his work from France 1998. It could be credibly argued that Ronaldo’s apex ended after the conclusion of the 1998 World Cup.
Other long-form pieces on Ronaldo have remarked on his noticeable decrease in acceleration upon his return in 2002 and during the remaining relevance of his career, which is a valid observation. Whereas in his prime he had an electric first step that he could use on near command to freeze his opponents, that athletic advantage was cut into considerably. It should also be noted that his battle with hyperthyroidism didn’t help things either. This isn’t to say Ronaldo became a statuesque player who had lost all of his burst as he would occasionally be able to turn back the clock, but for lack of a better description, he became considerably more mortal during this act of his career.
Ronaldo at his athletic peak would constantly put pressure on the opponent by either attempting to self-generate his own offense or make different kinds of runs off the ball at freakish levels of speed. In comparison, this version of Ronaldo was much more of an opportunist who conserved his energy for when he absolutely needed it and picked his spots. Even his off-ball work didn’t have the same level of zip to it which meant even greater emphasis on the timing of them. In a slightly similar manner, you could compare this to what’s happened with Lionel Messi during the later stages of his career, though Ronaldo never carried the level of gravity as a playmaker during his post-peak that Messi currently does.
Fortunately for Ronaldo, while his margin for error had noticeably shrunk, his ability to place shots into the corners largely stayed the same which helped him stave off even further decline. In that sense, he went from being a striker who could create his own shot off the dribble (shot-maker) and use his teammates to create shots for him (shot-taker) at generational levels, to just merely being an excellent shot-taker. His two-footedness as a shooter also helped him still have the ability to get shots off despite defenders now having a greater chance of being able to disrupt his rhythm.
If there was one area that did improve with Ronaldo at this stage of his career, it was his passing. Partly born out of necessity, and also the result of having more reps under his belt by this point of his career, his reading of the game was more decisive. His touch on layoffs were mostly quite good, and he became more active in attempting to slip in teammates into the box from slightly more withdrawn spaces, all the while showing greater consistency with his touch. This isn’t to say that he was now a flawless playmaker, nor did his previous issues with tunnel vision went away, but he made the jump from being a slight net-negative passer to perhaps being a slight net-positive.
The best way to describe Ronaldo from 1994–98 was that he was an example of a player who was ahead of his time and reaped the benefits from that. While there were other forwards during the mid-late 1990’s who utilized their athleticism to operate outside the penalty box as on-ball initiators, Ronaldo was the best of the bunch. His overall burst was at a level that would even rival some of the best in today’s game, and he coupled that with catlike agility and underrated physicality in congested areas. He was such a threat in transition that he brought extra value there as well. If one was to create a footballer from scratch who combined the change of pace and turning ability of Kaká, along with the hand jostling tricks and 60–70% of the strength that Adriano had, you would end up with someone line Ronaldo. Alongside that were his capabilities as a two-footed shooter who could also create ample chaos with his off-ball movement, which made him spectacular in generating shots for himself. The only nit-pick that could be had was with his passing, which is a fair critique and drops him from being the undisputed greatest young attacker of the modern era, to being part of a select group of players who could each be credibly argued as the best (more on this in a bit).
In comparison, Ronaldo during his second act was no longer the force of nature that he once was. While he could turn back the clock every now and then while on the ball, at this stage he was much more cerebral and efficient. He was still great when operating off the ball, though he couldn’t get behind the opposition backline as quickly as he once did so timing became even more important to help counteract athletic decline. His passing became more well-rounded and made a notable jump, but even with a more favorable look at it, it would be hard to bump him up considerably higher than a slight net-positive. As a shooter, he remained prolific which was crucial in him retaining his abilities to get shots off.
Over the past 10–12 seasons, it’s become common to see forwards put up ludicrous individual seasons as more and more of the best talents are hoovered up by the biggest clubs. In the 1990’s however, that wasn’t the norm for even the best which makes Ronaldo’s individual production even more outstanding. His debut season in 1994–95 with PSV amounted to 1.02 non-penalty goals + assists per 90 minutes in 57 games in all competitions. His next healthy season saw that number spike to a ludicrous 1.12 NPG+A per 90 with Barcelona in 49 games in 1996–97, and in what was arguably the strongest league in the world in Serie A, Ronaldo still put up a great rate of 0.72 NPG+A in 1997–98 with Inter.
That level of individual dominance did translate on a team level. The idea of floor/ceiling-raising has been brought up frequently during the series, and they’re basketball concepts I do believe in, but there are real limitations with them if only because footballers on average don’t singlehandedly impact results like NBA players can given the different nature of the two sports. With that said, I would like to make the case that Ronaldo from 1996–98 was among the best floor-raisers that football has seen in the modern era. His sole season at Barca saw their attack jump from 72 goals in La Liga in 1995–96 to 102 in 1996–97, along with a 10 point increase (80 -> 90) in a 42 game season. If it wasn’t for international commitments with Brazil conflicting with La Liga’s scheduling which forced Ronaldo to miss the final three league games, Barcelona might’ve finished ahead of Real Madrid to claim the league title. His first season at Inter followed a similar script, with an 11 goal jump from 51 goals in 1996–97 to 62 in 1997–98 alongside a 10 point increase in a 34 game season in Serie A (59 -> 69).
A similar impact also occurred in cup competitions, which is not surprising given Ronaldo’s singular force made him inelastic against potentially stiffer competition like it was the case with Kaká and Adriano. He was a key performer in Barcelona’s cup victories in the Copa Del Rey and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. He was great in the 1997–98 UEFA Cup, including a fantastic performance in the final against Lazio. He combined for 12 goals in the 1997 and 1999 Copa América, as Brazil won both of those tournaments. Until the final, The 1998 World Cup was shaping up to be his tournament in a manner that few have ever accomplished in a major international tournament. Simply put, it’s likely that Ronaldo was one of the rare talents who could meaningfully drive winning on his own as long as he had a decent supporting cast around him.
By the time Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid for the 2002–03 season, his days as football’s preeminent floor-raiser were over but that wasn’t necessarily an issue given the club he was going to. Individually, his production remained outstanding and would largely continue until the wheels fell off entirely for him. Madrid’s increase in their La Liga goal tally (69 -> 86), shots on target (239 -> 244) and points accumulated (66 -> 78) in 02–03 does potentially hint at a bit of ceiling-raising from him. I’m not entirely convinced of that as this looks to be more down to finishing variance, and it’s very hard to make a convincing argument that one player by himself could impact team finishing. Madrid’s SoT for were considerably higher in the following two seasons, but they didn’t get the same level of variance so they only registered 71 and 72 goals in 2003–04 and 2004–05. All together, Ronaldo was probably a bit of a ceiling-raiser during these three seasons but the case is much less clear compared to his floor-raising during his prime.
Perhaps the one thing that could be thrown at Ronaldo’s direction as a demerit is that for all his talents, he never played on a dominant domestic side. His floor-raising efforts during his apex from 1996–98 definitely helped improve the clubs he was at, and raised them to the level of being quality sides, but not great one. Arguably the best domestic side he played on was during his post-peak with Real Madrid in the 2002–03 season, and they were undoubtedly one of the best clubs in Europe that season as they won La Liga and lost a tough Champions League semifinals tie against Juventus. Again though, it would be difficult to classify them as more than very good. Though by season’s end they had the highest Elo rating in Europe, their own rating does pale in comparison to what the best sides have been able to produce during the 2010’s.
With that said, I do cut Ronaldo slack in this regard because his game during his peak was malleable enough with his dynamic off-ball movement that he should’ve been able to scale relatively well onto more dominant sides during his era. Despite his issues as a passer, his gravity off the ball could create space in ways that a high level playmaker could with their playmaking. If he was surrounded by better talent during his healthy seasons, decreasing his on-ball usage and shifting more off-ball could’ve netted great results for the collective while his own individual production would’ve still been among the best in Europe.
In terms of influence, none of the previous nine players in this series can compare to Ronaldo. His skillset was so groundbreaking that even some of the best defenders from that era would openly talk about how much of a nightmare he was to go up against. Despite the lack of access to watch European football at the time, his legend had grown so large that by France 1998, it was generally agreed upon that he was the best player in the world at age 21. All of that made him a marketer’s dream, with boots and commercials that are still looked upon fondly today. The level of innovation he had during his peak forced many who watched him and played with/against him to marvel at his work, inspired the next generation of forwards, and prompted the media to look for the next Ronaldo.
In a discussion I had with Carl Anka, we talked a bit towards the end on a handful of the best 21 and under attacking talents of the modern era (link is at the bottom). As a fun little exercise, I decided to expand on that discussion by doing a pyramid ranking. Two things to note; this shouldn’t be seen as a complete list so don’t feel aggrieved if certain players are missing from it. Also, the positioning of the players within the level they’re placed in doesn’t matter because that’s merely just formatting and it wasn’t the purpose overall. Rather, the thing to focus on is if Player X should be pushed up/down a level.
In some ways, it’s not hard to see how Kylian Mbappe bears resemblance to Ronaldo. There’s the incredible individual production that both achieved over multiple seasons by the time they reached their early twenties. Both Mbappe and Ronaldo were blessed with athleticism on and off the ball that you only see once every 10–15 years. If anything, Mbappe is a better passer than Ronaldo was at the same age. Where Ronaldo differs is that a lot of his possessions tended to originate from the interior, while Mbappe likes to float out wide. As well, Ronaldo was just considerably more physical and rugged which helped him maneuver out of tight spaces centrally. Perhaps the comparison that better suits Mbappe is of him being Thierry Henry 2.0, which is very high praise seeing as Henry was one of the best players of his generation.
At his peak, was Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima the best player ever? I would have to say no. As much of a singular force as he was, his passing was enough of a weakness that it chips away at too much of his overall value to place him as the GOAT. There’s a much stronger case to be made for him being the best 21 and under attacking talent of the modern era, though if forced to choose, I would lean ever so slightly towards Lionel Messi. Despite that, the legend of Ronaldo holds up very well upon closer inspection. He was a transcendent striker with a style of play that influenced many who came after him. That style contributed to him being an outlier in terms of his ability to raise the floor of any side he was in, stemming from his remarkable capacity to produce scoring chances. Though he wasn’t the same caliber of player from 2002–2005 and that cut into his ability to impact winning, he remained a great goalscorer due to the reliance of what was once the secondary skills that made him unstoppable during his prime. If not for the knee injuries that ended his prime prematurely, there is a decent chance that he would have been by consensus the best ever towards the end of the 2000s. As it stands, Ronaldo will have to settle for the nickname that appropriately fits how brightly his star shone at his peak, O Fenômeno.
Podcast with Carl Anka:
#1: Zinedine Zidane
#2: Roy Keane
#3: Claude Makélélé
#4: Steven Gerrard
#6: Patrick Vieira
#8: Roberto Carlos
#9: Lilian Thuram