A free role and no defensive duties? How Maurizio Sarri plans to get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus…
Sarri says Ronaldo is the only player in his side with the license to “be free on the pitch”.
Following their 3-2 defeat to Tottenham in the International Champions Cup, the new Juventus boss praised the Portugal captain, claiming that as one of the world’s best players he should be given the freedom to be as creative as he can.
“Cristiano is the best player in our team, of course,” Sarri said. “So I think that we have to organise very well the other 10 for the defensive phase. But Cristiano can go everywhere on the pitch. He is the best player and I think that for him it’s very important to be free on the pitch.
“Cristiano won everything individually and collectively by shifting slightly to the left wing and then cutting inside. My first attempt will be to start him in that position, but with his qualities, playing him 10 metres further in would not make a difference.”
Forget rigid tactics, systems and instructions. Sarri is empowering Ronaldo to go and be the match-winner for Juventus this season. The rest of the team will work around him.
“You have to have clear ideas on two or three players who can really make a difference for the team, and then give them an environment to truly express themselves, then the formation is dictated by that,” he said at his unveiling press conference as Juventus boss in June. “Cristiano can play in any role – what can change is only the interpretation of the role.”
But Ronaldo’s evolution from the unmarkable, pacey winger he was at Manchester United to the lethal predator in front of goal he became at Real Madrid raises the natural question: Does Sarri want CR7 or CR9?
The Italian manager wasted no time in calling up his new superstar straight after being confirmed as Juve manager, and joined him on his yacht off the shores of the French Riviera – an idyllic setting for a personal meeting to talk about their plan to bring Juventus back on top of the European scene.
There, lulled by the Mediterranean waves, Sarri questioned Ronaldo about where he would prefer to be played and what type of game-plan he found most productive. According to Turin-based newspaper La Stampa, he mentioned the possibility of a three-man forward line or a two-man strike force supported by an attacking midfielder such as Aaron Ramsey or Federico Bernardeschi – explaining how he wants him to play closer to the goal than in Allegri’s 4-3-3.
The No 9 role is a prominent feature in Sarri’s sides. At Napoli, he plucked the right strings with Gonzalo Higuain’s attacking prowess enabling him to reach 36 goals in a single league campaign – and following the Argentine’s £81m departure to Juventus, he advanced Dries Mertens into a striking position, turning him from an attacking midfielder with flair into a prolific 25-goal-per-season centre-forward.
For his part, the Portugal captain has always been the type of player that makes himself available to the coach, and would rather play in goal than not play at all. Playing on the wing or as a No 9 won’t make much difference for him, as long as he carries on scoring goals and winning trophies. This way, both men will get exactly what they want from each other – commitment.
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“Cristiano Ronaldo always makes himself available to his coach, he always did,” says Sky in Italy’s Juventus correspondent Francesco Cosatti. “Obviously he had relationships that were more or less positive, things with Mourinho started turning sour towards the end of their time together.
“Perhaps also at the end of last year his relationship with Allegri started deteriorating although they started off on a high note. Sarri, however, is a very attacking-minded coach and so I presume from that point of view Ronaldo’s potential will be maximised.”
Sarri’s Juventus will be built around Ronaldo for him to score goals, converting him into that out-and-out striker the manager has thrived with. It’s the culmination of a natural evolution that started with his move to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2009 and could see him end up, perhaps, breaking the goalscoring record in Serie A set by Higuain in 2015.