Euro 2016: What's wrong with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo?

By Andy BrassellEuropean football writer
Cristiano Ronaldo shows his frustration against Austria
It has been a frustrating tournament so far for Ronaldo in France
Euro 2016: Hungary v Portugal
Venue: Parc OL, Lyon Date: 22 June Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC One, Radio 5 live, plus live text commentary on BBC Sport website and app

Goalless, frustrated, angry - the mood of Cristiano Ronaldo has matched the weather so far here in Paris; the odd sliver of sunshine, but lots of rain.

On Saturday, the night of his record 128th appearance for his country - passing the tally of Luis Figo - the Real Madrid forward failed to break down Austria, with a missed second-half penalty capping his misery.

The captain had 10 shots at goal in all against the Austrians, with only three of them on target. That brought Ronaldo up to 20 goal attempts so far this tournament - which is more than either of their group rivals Hungary (18) or Iceland (12) have managed in their two games to date.

Portugal are third in Group F and in danger of exiting the tournament before facing Hungary in Lyon on Wednesday - but will they be able to rely on Ronaldo to get them through?

Ronaldo's frustrating Euros
Says Iceland have "small mentality" after their 1-1 draw in their opening group game.
Misses a penalty against Austria - the night he breaks his country's caps record

Has he changed his game?

Given the number of occasions on which Ronaldo has simply taken Portugal matches by the scruff of the neck - such as when he hit a brilliant hat-trick in the second leg of the World Cup qualifying play-off in Sweden in November 2013 - it's understandable that some wonder if he's on the decline.

That seems an enormous stretch of the imagination. Despite having turned 31 in February, Ronaldo was as potent as ever last season, hitting 51 goals for Madrid in La Liga and Champions League combined.

"There's a lot of people criticising," said Portugal midfielder Adrien Silva, a fellow Sporting Lisbon youth product, at a pre-match news conference in their training base in Marcoussis on Monday. "I don't think it's going to hurt him. He's more than used to it. He does everything he can to get us the best result."

What we are seeing, however, is a clear evolution of his game.

"As the years go by and age gets to him, besides the incredible amount of matches he plays, Cristiano Ronaldo is converting himself to a pure finisher," Vitor Hugo Alvarenga, a journalist for respected Portuguese website Mais Futebol, tells BBC Sport. "But he does not want to play as a traditional striker."

It's something Ronaldo himself backed up after the opening game against Iceland. "I like playing as a winger more," he told Portuguese journalists, "but it depends on the characteristics of my team-mates, and sometimes I have to adapt."

But the numbers chart his move into more of a predator in the past few years; increasingly since the knee problem that so badly restricted him at the 2014 World Cup.

In the two seasons since, Ronaldo has scored fewer goals from outside the box than in three of the four campaigns previous to that.

He hit five La Liga goals from outside the area in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, but scored six from outside the area in 2013-14 despite playing fewer games than in either of the two subsequent seasons.

Ronaldo's declining dribbles (in La Liga)
YearDribbles attempted Dribbles attempted per game

Perhaps most tellingly in terms of the change to his game, Ronaldo is also making fewer dribbles.

He attempted 110 dribbles in La Liga last season - his lowest total since he arrived at the Bernabeu in 2009.

His heading, on the other hand, has become a much bigger part of his game. He has scored 25 headed goals in the past two campaigns (La Liga and Champions League combined), only one fewer than his combined total of headed goals across the previous five seasons.

That metamorphosis is something he concedes himself, even if he's not totally ready to become an out-and-out centre forward.

Cristiano Ronaldo takes a penalty against Austria
Ronaldo has missed four of his last five penalties for club and country

"I'm more of a penalty box player now," he told World Soccer in November.

It also changes the attention he gets from defenders - he's more of a static target, and Hungary are sure to seek to frustrate him in a similar way to which Iceland and (sporadically) Austria did.

Whether he would get more space in a potential last-16 clash with England is another question. The knockout rounds, against more ambitious teams, might work in his favour.

Ronaldo seems to believe his patience will be rewarded.

"It's not the ideal way in which I wanted to do it," he said after beating Figo's Portugal appearance record against Austria. "Someone who tries always achieves. The bad times never last for long."

Does Portugal's system suit him?

This change in Ronaldo's game has been reflected in the tactical evolution of Fernando Santos' Portugal. The former Greece coach has switched the team from the traditional 4-3-3 (which, of course, echoes the shape of Real Madrid) to a 4-4-2.

"It's to give more freedom to Ronaldo," Alvarenga says. "It allows him not to have to defend in the left side, but without making him a lone striker who plays without close support."

The problem up front is a perpetual one for Portugal. It is a nation that produces wingers, not strikers.

So Eder, who endured a difficult time in the Premier League with Swansea before being shipped off to Lille, is the squad's only genuine centre forward - and he's only played for a combined 13 minutes as a substitute in the first two matches.

This all means there's added pressure on Ronaldo to make the decisive contributions, while his partner in the 4-4-2, be it Nani or Ricardo Quaresma, is not a specialist striker, and learning on the job to an extent.

Having said that, a chart of player average positions from the first two games tells us that Nani has successfully stayed close to Ronaldo, which is the system's aim.

The average position of Portugal against Iceland (left) and Austria (right)
The average position of Portugal's players against Iceland (left) and Austria (right) shows Ronaldo (No 7) and Nani (No 17) played high and central

Is the supporting cast good enough?

Ronaldo's 2013 heroics in Stockholm are worth remembering for another reason.

It represented an apex in the idea of Portugal having become a one-man team, carried by a superhuman. When their stricken captain needed his team-mates to return the favour and carry him in Brazil, they were unable to do so and eliminated at the group stage.

Santos has made significant changes to the squad since taking the job in September 2014. As well as bringing back a few veterans, including 38-year-old defender Ricardo Carvalho, the coach has blooded a series of promising youngsters.

The blend worked in qualifying, in which Portugal won all seven qualifiers after Santos took charge - although tellingly all by a one-goal margin.

Ronaldo's Euros: From bad to worse

Playing in a major finals tournament is something entirely different.

"The truth is that Portugal is going through a renovation process and doesn't have players like Figo, Rui Costa or Deco that were on top (of their games) when Ronaldo started out in the national team," added Alvarenga.

Danilo, Bayern Munich-bound Renato Sanches and Joao Mario are all still learning how to control matches.

There has been the sense so far that Santos is really struggling for the right mix in midfield, though the fact that Ronaldo is getting the chances without dropping deep to collect the ball suggests that they are doing something right.

No need to panic - yet

The match against Austria was strikingly similar to the second game in the last Euros, against Denmark.

Back in 2012, Ronaldo spurned a string of chances in Lviv and was almost universally criticised.

He came back with a brace against the Netherlands in the final group game, which was the signal for Portugal to really grow into the tournament. They were only vanquished on penalties in the semi-finals by eventual champions Spain.

As Ronaldo pointed out after the Iceland game, he only played once between the Champions League final and the start of the Euros - a 45-minute cameo in a friendly with Estonia when he scored twice. A bit of ring-rust is to be expected, in the circumstances.

It's clear that he is in much better condition than in the last World Cup. The fears in Portugal of a repeat of that, as he struggled with fitness at the end of the club season, have not been realised. You could say he's short of peak sharpness, but he's not injured.

If a repeat of that scenario of four years ago is to be fulfilled, the click into gear could be just around the corner.

"He's going to score in the next game," said Santos in Tuesday's press conference. "I'm absolutely convinced of it."

He needs to, with victory imperative for Portugal against Hungary if they want to continue at the tournament.

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