Cross the ball, head the ball, score a goal. It is the simplest tactic in soccer. It is what practically all teams resort to when the need for a goal is at its most dire. It is a strategy without frills or subtlety. When it works, it is nearly unstoppable. However, it very rarely works—rarely in a sustained way, at least, rarely when you most need it to. But it does work for teams that have Cristiano Ronaldo. Because Ronaldo is like clockwork.
Juventus played Ajax in the Champions League yesterday. The Italian club did not perform particularly well. Ajax had 60 percent possession of the ball and took 19 shots to Juve’s 7. But neither of those stats are the one the matters. The only stat that matters is the scoreline. It read 1-1 at the final whistle and it announced a substantial advantage in this tie in favor of Juventus. Juventus won this draw because they have Ronaldo, because they took advantage of the thing that, with Ronaldo, is almost automatic.
Ronaldo scored the first goal of the game just before halftime. João Cancelo set up Ronaldo’s goal with a cross/chip. He aimed his pass right at the penalty spot, right where Ronaldo, with foot or forehead, is the most deadly force in the world:
Ronaldo, especially in the Champions League, is something like a cheat code because his dominance in the air is unrivaled. A reliance on crossing is not typically a winning strategy. It is hard to be very accurate when crossing. Against crossers, you pack the box with tall guys and bet on them and the keeper to clog the space and thump away the majority of crosses that cannot find a teammate or cannot find a teammate who can do anything with it.
But Ronaldo is just that great in the air. With him in the box, crossing becomes lethal. Real Madrid used a cross-heavy style to accomplish the greatest Champions League run of the modern era. Only two teams in the Champions League cross more than Juventus. Neither of them are still in the tournament. Only one team in Serie A crosses more than Juventus. Last season, 14 teams crossed as much or more than Juventus. (All stats via Who Scored.)
When you cross to Ronaldo, you usually win. Real Madrid proved it with four European Cups in five years. Juventus are proving it today. This aerial control makes Ronaldo’s teams particularly dangerous in the Champions League. Knowing you can consistently score goals via crosses is a tremendous boon. It lets you sit deep, play conservatively. It lets you save more bodies for defending. You are confident that if one player aims one good cross near Ronaldo, then he will get to it, he will head or kick it in, or he will knock it down and wait for help so someone else can kick it in. You are always serene. You know that no matter how dire things look, as long as you are just a goal away from salvation, you can start whipping in the crosses. More often than not, Ronaldo will make good use of them.
Cross the ball, head the ball, score a goal. It is the simplest tactic in soccer. For teams that have Ronaldo, it is also the best.