It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just Cristiano Ronaldo soaring through the air for another majestic header, like his reported 71cm leap off one leg vs Sampdoria in December 2019.
You may be surprised to hear, but heading wasn’t always Ronaldo’s strong suit according to Portugal teammate and former opposing centre-back Jose Fonte. Instead it was something he perfected over time, testament to the work he does on the training ground.
“He wasn’t (good at heading) when he arrived at Man Utd,” Fonte told Squawka’s Jake Entwhistle.
“He worked very hard for that because he wasn’t good with his head…all of that came from his hard work, and perseverance, and professionalism.”
But to get a better understanding of what exactly Ronaldo worked on to achieve his aerial dominance, I reviewed the player’s film and came away with five key pillars.
What immediately stands out is Ronaldo’s jump technique, specifically how many different jump variations he uses and is comfortable with.
When he wants to really rise up and get vertical, he uses a single-leg power technique where he goes deep into knee flexion (bend) on one leg and generates massive power to convert horizontal force into vertical force. On the aforementioned header vs Sampdoria, he was nearly 2.56m (8.4 feet) off the when he made contact with the ball.
If the aim is to quickly rise up and drive the ball with power, Ronaldo uses what a I call a “two-leg drop jump” in which he does a little mini-hop into a two-footed jump.
When Ronaldo needs to quickly cover horizontal air space to meet the ball, he’ll frequently utilise a single-legged speed jump where he quickly plants one leg into the ground and swings the other leg through, nearly scraping his toes on the grass and creating almost a pendulum effect to reinforce horizontal momentum.
If Ronaldo’s looking for a balance of both vertical and horizontal, he’ll use a right-left leg patterned two-leg jump in which he takes an elongated, accelerated step with his right leg (the “penultimate step”) and then plants his left leg into the ground (the “block step”) which “blocks” the horizontal force and turns the acceleration energy into vertical displacement.
Lastly, when Ronaldo aims to generate a quick thrust of power but doesn’t need to generate lift, he uses a balanced, leaning two-legged technique. It’s like his body is shot out of a cannon and then makes contact with the ball.
The vast majority of players typically use one or two jumping techniques, Ronaldo uses five (!) extremely effectively, part of why Fonte refers to Ronaldo as the “complete package”.
Timing and anticipation
Adding to that difficulty is Ronaldo’s impeccable anticipation, movement, and timing in the box. As Fonte put it: “In the 18-yard box when crosses come in the box he is the best, or one of the best, attacking the ball. His timing, he must be the guy with the best timing inside the box, he knows where the ball is going to fall. Always.
“And sometimes you really think, he’s so lucky you know the ball goes to him, that is not lucky that’s something that he has. It’s a feeling, it’s understanding, he has something, he knows where the ball is going to fall and he is always in the right position.”
Football has seen numerous massive or versatile leapers over the years but rarely do you see those abilities combined with Ronaldo’s level of positional understanding and anticipation.
A key factor of Ronaldo’s aerial dominance – and his longevity – is his landing ability. Everything that goes up must come down and the higher up you are, the more ground reaction force (grf) there is upon landing .
Ronaldo’s landing technique is just as impeccable as his leaping techniques. Whether he’s coming down off a balanced jump or a seemingly awkward one, he typically lands with his toes touching down first, knees and hips bent – each critical for reducing the amount of grf shockwave through his lower body.
Strength and conditioning
Ronaldo’s commitment to strength and conditioning is famously second to none so it’s no surprise he’s able to generate and reduce the massive forces required by his jumping and landing.
His training methods are not only to increase his jumping performance but also handle the strength, mobility, and neuromuscular demands placed on his mind and body.
Last but not least, Fonte specifically mentioned that when Ronaldo first arrived at Manchester United, he was “scared of the ball in the air”.
That hesitance and fear clearly changed quickly as during his tenure at Man Utd to present day, Ronaldo displays a brazen fearlessness where he consistently puts himself into seemingly high risk situations and vulnerable positions in the air without a second thought, getting to balls in the air that you would never expect someone to jump for. When you absolutely trust in your movement skill and preparation, fear doesn’t enter the equation – you just act and the rest takes care of itself.
When I watch Ronaldo throughout this career, I see a player who increasingly trusts in his preparation, his mechanics, and the hard work he’s put into becoming such a force in the air. Fonte summed up Ronaldo’s worth ethic with this:
“All of that came from his hard work, and perseverance and professionalism and credit to him. He’s an unbelievable force of nature, he’s a machine, he never stops.”
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.