Tuesday 23 July 2019

Stephen Hunt: Ronaldo no longer sees the bigger picture, all he sees are goals and history and his personal desire

‘Portugal have mostly been rigid but disciplined, with Ronaldo getting them to where they are’. Photo: PA
‘Portugal have mostly been rigid but disciplined, with Ronaldo getting them to where they are’. Photo: PA

Stephen Hunt

A few years ago, I found myself in exactly the situation a few of the French players are going to be in tonight, even if it wasn't on the same grand stage. Cristiano Ronaldo was running to get the ball in open play, and couldn't see me coming.

I was always someone who would fire into players no problem, no matter who they were. I'd tackle, hit, abuse, whatever I could to put a player off. That was one of my strengths. This, really, was my dream ticket - to make a statement against a star, to smash him.

Yet, for whatever reason, my brain just went "that's Ronaldo" and I bottled it. I wasn't into hurting him. He just had that aura.

Read more: Anatomy of Cristiano Ronaldo: How he became the perfect footballing specimen

I wonder, however, whether that aura is still quite the same. He certainly isn't the same player as back then. Actually, I'd say he's not half the player he was five to eight years ago.

He is of course right where he wants to be - the final again, the main man - but you can sense he's frustrated that he can no longer do what he used to do. It especially comes across when things aren't going his way. He spends a lot of time waving his hands in despair.

He used to be a much better team player in that way. Even when young, he had that confidence and arrogance about him, but I wouldn't be bothered by that. I think a player of his talent should have that. Back then, though, he wouldn't be in a strop as much. He would get the head down, but he was also able to do more.

The movement and power over a stretch are no longer there now. He is no longer getting into positions to run with the ball from deep, and doesn't take it up the pitch with pace any more, to scorch past four or five players like he used to. When was the last time you saw him score with a gut-busting run?

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It's as if his game has been reduced to a five-yard space of jumping, making a movement to receive the ball and shooting. He'll still do a step-over for fun, but not with the purpose and effect of actually moving an attack on like he used to. His goals in this tournament sum that up. They've all been from the middle of the area, one flick and two bullet headers.

I think that narrowing of his game reflects his narrowing view of the game too. It's like he no longer sees the bigger picture. All he sees is goals and history. He obviously wants to win but it's hard not to suspect that so much of this is about his personal desire and what it means for him, rather than what it means for his club or country. Now it's just: 'set me up for goals'.

Of course, the flip side of that is it's some quality to bring to the table. If you set him up, he will score. He's still phenomenal that way.

And it's made Portugal work well, even though they are quite basic. I've never seen a quality team look to just cross it so much. They do it even more than a British team. The stats prove it. They have had 30 crosses a game, more than any other team at Euro 2016. You'd expect them to be more fluid, but they have no interest in that. Even Nani has turned into a Gary Lineker-type to a certain degree.

Read more: Euro 2016 semi-final as it happened: Ronaldo and Nani break Welsh hearts in Lyon

While I haven't been that impressed with them in that regard, they have a different mentality. They play to their strengths in other ways. They're rigid and more structured, and have got much better defensively as the tournament has gone on. Renato Sanches gives them a bit of spark in the middle, but they've mostly been disciplined, with Ronaldo then getting them to where they are.

I don't think they'll take it much further, though. I think, with a home crowd and momentum behind them, France will win 2-0 or even 3-0. They have had their own team issues, but Didier Deschamps has been proactive in reacting to situations. We rattled them but maybe they needed that scare.

It also led to Antoine Griezmann going to the middle of the pitch, and playing as a 10. That has been key. He has certainly been reacting to things quicker than everyone else. That's actually by far his best quality: his vision and his enthusiasm to act on it. I don't think Griezmann is blessed with anything truly exceptional in terms of technical ability or even pace, but what elevates him is his ability to see things first. He reads situations better than everyone else, and is always on the look-out for second balls. That is why he wins so much in the air, and means his movement looks so good. That is what has got him the goals, as well as the focused state of mind he's in. Having Diego Simeone as a club manager obviously helps, and you can tell he is in the zone. He has come good.

Read more: French flair can provide happy ending

I would still have Ronaldo ahead of him in my team, though, no question - but I think the Portuguese will be disappointed tonight. France have more quality and, after the win over Germany - a class display - they're also the team with the aura about them.

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