Cristiano Ronaldo evolving into an effective striker for Real Madrid
It's one of the hardest things to do in any sport: age gracefully in the spotlight. If you stay a season too long, you can wind up tarnishing your legacy, but if you leave a season too early, you will always be left wondering what might have been. What seems to be even more difficult is the adjustment period in the winter of a career that helps a player fill a team need while also protecting himself from becoming obsolete.
Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, but what he does as the light starts to fade on his physical prowess might go a long way to shape how we look back on his career when he has hung up his boots.
At every turn in his career, Ronaldo has made good decisions and at 33, it seems he is not only aware of his limitations as he ages but is adapting accordingly to make sure he maximises his efficiency.
Real Madrid are reportedly in the market for a new striker this summer and have been linked with Robert Lewandowski. Former Bayern Munich striker Giovane Elber says "Cristiano Ronaldo isn't stupid," when asked about reports suggesting that Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos want the Polish striker at the Bernabeu.
A player like Lewandowski would certainly help Ronaldo continue to excel in the penalty area like he has this season. While Los Blancos' talisman rejects the idea that he has evolved into a striker, that might be simply to ensure that he doesn't get labelled as an out-and-out No. 9. He still needs a striker to facilitate him, but his increasing activity in the penalty area is telling of his changing attitude towards scrappier goals.
One early sign of Ronaldo's awareness was back when he played with Manchester United and wanted to become the best player in the world. Rene Muelensteen explains how he improved the player's attitude towards scoring goals whatever way they fell to him.
"Cristiano, I've looked at your goals last season, and you only scored 23 because you want to score the perfect goal all the time," the former United coach explained. "The most important individuals are the ones who elevate the team, not themselves. You think it's the other way round. No, no, no. Elevate the team and the team will then elevate you."
We have seen signs of him changing this season, like giving Karim Bemzema a penalty when he was on a hat trick against Alaves in order to "elevate the team."
Another testament to Ronaldo knowing exactly what the team needs is that 17 of his 25 goals in the penalty area this season have come with his first touch. His goal against Eibar to give Real Madrid all three points this weekend was an example and a real poacher's finish -- a first-time header from point-blank range. Ronaldo still has a long way to go before he beats Hugo Sanchez's record of 38 goals scored during the 1988-89 season with his first touch, but it's a significant number.
Zinedine Zidane continues to be criticised for sticking with Benzema, but while the France international flounders on the stats sheet, his movement is allowing Ronaldo to become the fox in the box he always swore he wasn't. Apart from being his very own attacking system and forcing teams to adjust to what he does, Ronaldo needs a main striker beside him to help him orientate himself in the box. It's why Benzema has been coddled for so long and kept in the starting lineup -- but Lewandowski can fill that role and score goals by the bucketload, too.
Ronaldo has taken just 30 shots this season from outside the box in La Liga, a number that has been decreasing every year for the last four years according to Understat. In 2014-15, for example, he took 91 shots from outside the box. He has also had more shots inside the penalty area -- 102 -- than he did during all of last year as his role continues to change.
Ronaldo also looks set to beat his record of 13 shots inside the six-yard box -- a figure he managed in each of the last three years. He already has 10 from that zone this season with 10 games to play and plenty more opportunities to take.
The CR7 brand might be expanding, but Ronaldo is far from the winger he started out as. Whether it be a false nine, second striker, or a true nine, Ronaldo's spending more time in the penalty area -- and both he and Real Madrid are reaping the rewards.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne