Taken a step down since his transfer from Manchester United?

Real Madrid attacker Cristiano Ronaldo

You can understand the thinking that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken a step down in his football career by moving to Real Madrid, even though it’s not a thought I would have conjured up. Paul Hayward has gone down the path which suggested that no Ballon d’Ors, Champions League medals or God-like statuses at the Bernabeu means Ronaldo’s time at Manchester United has proved to be the pinnacle of his career thus far. It’s understandable where that kind of thinking can emerge, but it’s totally flawed.

It was said that Ronaldo was a “free spirit” at United, given license to play centre-forward even ahead of natural strikers. The Portuguese scored 42 times in a season which culminated with triumph in the Champions League Final in 2008. But all of that kind of implies that Ronaldo was shackled since arriving in Spain, unable to reach the heights of his days in England. Despite Hayward expressly stating that he didn’t view the ‘Mourinho Years’ at Madrid as a time which “shackled” the player, that’s exactly the impression that’s created from all this.

Mourinho and his tactical way of thinking made Ronaldo more of a team player, as if that’s a negative aspect of anyone’s game. If the very, very best in world football are able to chase down, harass and press in the ways David Villa, Andres Iniesta and others at Barcelona have done, why is it lost on anyone else? Real Madrid needed and continue to need Ronaldo in their war against Barcelona, stretching beyond domestic borders and into Europe. But that’s not to say the team’s game runs through the Portuguese forward.

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In fact, there have often been acknowledgements made towards both Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil as Madrid’s most important players, sort of along the same lines that would suggest the Barcelona machine would grind to a halt if Xavi were taken out of the engine room. Of course, you can’t take anything away from either Lionel Messi or Ronaldo, but the emphasis is far more on the team for those who are willing to look past the astronomical scoring numbers of those two players.

The reason why Hayward’s article is flawed is because it tries to imply that Ronaldo would have continued to be a success, even more than he was in Spain, if he had remained at United and under the tutelage of Alex Ferguson. It’s the game we’ve seen so often over the past 12 months: place all the blame squarely at the feet of Mourinho. But the premise completely ignores Barcelona and Messi. It assumes that the Ronaldo and Ferguson combo would have been able to topple Barcelona on the European stage. It assumes that a change of scenery from Madrid would have allowed Ronaldo to overtake Messi as officially the best player in the world. It’s as if there is a parallel world that would have been created, one without Pep’s Barcelona – if, of course, Ronaldo had remained at United. Those trophies would have stopped regardless – at least in Europe. Had Ronaldo stayed at United, there’s no doubt he’d still be the best player in the Premier League, but it wouldn’t have stopped Manchester City from spending, or Chelsea for that matter.

Part of the argument is that the ‘step down’ is compounded by a lesser manager in Mourinho. Of course that’s a step down, because who in world football is equal to Sir Alex Ferguson? What about stability? Madrid is what it is, but for all their flaws it doesn’t take away from the prestige, the history and the notion that they are the world’s biggest football club. It’s unbelievably difficult to become a deity at the Bernabeu, no matter how good you are or how many goals you score. Ronaldo’s “unhappiness” at the start of last season was owed to that in part, with the club as well as the fans failing to back him 100 per cent.

But football is what it is and sometimes the very best or most deserving aren’t rewarded or vindicated for their efforts over a season. There’s always going to be someone better, no matter if you’re Ronaldo or Mourinho. The buck stops with Messi, however. Ronaldo would still be second best to Messi even if he stayed at United. Yet the whole argument from Hayward’s point of view fails to look to the development of the player. At Madrid he’s a better overall player than he was when he was in England. Yes he is now a team player who’s capable of supplying those around him. Don’t let anyone tell you that Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema’s goals weren’t just as vital as Ronaldo’s to landing the league title last year.

The goals and production have increased, and not because Ronaldo is playing in a two-team league with poor defences making up the other 18 teams. Isn’t there a case to be made that he could have been overtaken had things not gone accordingly, both from the player’s own perspective and the manager’s? The reality is that that has already happened. Ronaldo would still have been overshadowed in 2010, rightly losing out to Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

There has been no step down. Ronaldo’s achievements, both in trophies and personal numbers, are outstanding. It’s not Mourinho’s fault or the fans’ lack of unwavering love for the player. As has been said many times in the past, it just happens to be that Ronaldo is in the prime of his career when there is a player and team who are simply better.

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Has Cristiano Ronaldo taken a step down in his career by leaving United for Real Madrid?

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