Take one look at Manchester United’s Twitter account these days and supporters could be forgiven for thinking Cristiano Ronaldo’s PR team had staged a permanent takeover.
United’s social media team are capitalising on the return of the most followed footballer on earth, with Ronaldo bringing goals and 600million loyal followers with him back to Old Trafford.
On the field – where it matters – things are running less smoothly. While Ronaldo’s netted five times in six appearances since his return from Juventus, United’s results have been mixed at best and they’ve accumulated just 14 points from their opening seven matches, having been handed a favourable-looking fixture list.
Beyond the results, the most worrying aspect of United’s early season form is the collapse of the side’s style of play. Though there’s been a long-standing criticism of Solskjaer’s failure to implement a consistent pattern, there’s no doubt Ronaldo’s arrival has exacerbated that problem.
Since replacing Mourinho in December 2018, Solskjaer has repeatedly stressed his desire for his side to replicate teams of the past. Solskjaer’s words can often seem romantic and lacking in detail but he’d ideally like a fast-paced starting XI that could dominate possession by boxing opponents in and press man-for-man all over the pitch to win back the ball quickly when it’s lost. He has emphasised the need on countless occasions for his team to be the ‘fittest in the league’.
Solskjaer compromised many of those beliefs with the signing of Ronaldo. United acquired Jadon Sancho for £73m at the start of the window, in a move that epitomised the club’s refined transfer strategy. But the signing of Ronaldo was not planned, and a decision was only made once United got wind that rivals Manchester City were closing in on a deal. The 36-year-old is no longer the swashbuckling winger that lit up Old Trafford during his first stint and while his scoring feats remain astonishing, he offers little outside of the 18-yard-box. No striker has completed fewer off-the-ball presses this season than Ronaldo, while the Portuguese is consistently bottom of the outfield players for distance covered over 90 minutes.
Clearly, Solskjaer feels that Ronaldo’s scoring exploits offset those issues but it’s his selections elsewhere that have worsened the problem and the Norwegian could learn a lot from a look at how Sir Alex Ferguson accommodated his prize asset.
In basic terms, Ronaldo was moved closer and closer to the goal during his first stint at Old Trafford, finishing his final season at the club as a centre forward having played on both flanks previously. The Portugal captain had become too potent in front of goal to keep him any distance away from it and playing him alone up front meant Ferguson could select more workmanlike players around Ronaldo to compensate for his lack of running. Wayne Rooney – at the time one of the best players in world football – was played out of position on the left wing because Ferguson knew he would do the running that Ronaldo wouldn’t. The former England captain was happy to give up personal glory because he knew Ronaldo would produce for the team.
In Ronaldo’s final appearance of his first stint, Ferguson selected Rooney and Park Ji-Sung on the flanks to cover Ronaldo, leaving the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez on the bench in a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona in the European Cup final. While United lost in Rome, it’s worth remembering that they were favourites going into the final and that it took one of the finest performances in the tournament’s history to stop the Red Devils winning a second consecutive Champions League.
Ferguson was happy to make alterations to the most successful side in United’s history in order to accomodate Ronaldo, picking an extra man like Darren Fletcher in midfield against tougher opponents when his instinct would have been to remain with two in the middle of the park. United had won the league playing scintillating football in 2007 and 2008 but the 2009 team that made it three in a row was more economical and more measured. It was a result of building the side around Ronaldo and it nearly paid off, with United coming within one game of becoming the first side in the modern era to retain the Champions League.
In Ronaldo’s five starts since his return, the Portuguese has been flanked by Mason Greenwood on four occasions, Paul Pogba on three ocassions and Jadon Sancho on three occasions. Pogba’s lack of discipline but star quality is the reason he’s selected to play from the left and his lack of desire out of possession is not a good combination alongside Ronaldo. Similarly, Greenwood would prefer to be in a central position and is a reluctant presser, given his game is more about what he can do with the ball.
It’s peculiar therefore that Jesse Lingard hasn’t been given an opportunity on one of the flanks and he seems exactly the type of character that Ferguson would have favoured to play alongside Ronaldo. The England international has returned from a loan spell with West Ham with renewed confidence and determination to fight for his career at the club. Lingard’s already scored twice from the bench this term, while he provided a crucial assist for Ronaldo in the win against Villarreal. Most crucial of all is Lingard’s willingness to press his opponents and his off-the-ball work is as good as any in United’s squad.
The return of Marcus Rashford could also give Solskjaer a ready-made solution to his Ronaldo problem. The England forward is dilligent in tracking back, keen to press and a willing run-maker to create space for others. Ronaldo must be surrounded by runners in order to stretch opponents and to give him the yard of time and space he needs in the box, where he comes into his own.
In midfield, it is harder for Solskjaer to replicate Ferguson’s model due to Bruno Fernandes’ expertise as a no.10. The Norwegian has long wanted to revert to a 4-3-3 system that incorporates Fernandes and Pogba as attacking midfielders but this requires a world class defensive midfielder, something United do not currently possess. One option, though, could be to play Fernandes slightly deeper alongside Fred and Scott McTominay, to form a more consolidated midfield behind the front three. While Fernandes’ attacking impact would likely be reduced, United have been caught on the counter-attack against Aston Villa, Everton and Southampton this season. If they continue to leak goals in this fashion, Ronaldo’s exploits at the other end will count for nothing.
Clearly, leaving the likes of Pogba, Sancho and Greenwood out of every starting XI is unfeasible, particularly against weaker opposition. But the amount of chopping and changing that Solskjaer has undertaken at the start of this season has hindered his side and they need some continuity in attacking positions, particularly with the defence shipping goals.
United take on Leicester City on Saturday in what is the first encounter of a season-defining run that sees the Red Devils play Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham and Liverpool in the next six weeks.
Solskjaer cannot afford for his side’s poor form to continue as the pressure is already building on the Norwegian after he was so heavily backed in the summer. Ronaldo was bought to score goals and he’s doing precisely that. Now he needs the foundation behind him to convert those goals into wins.
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